On Monday morning, the Village Voice published a discussion between Jessica Hopper and Jim DeRogatis, the reporter who first broke the R. Kelly sexual abuse story nearly 15 years ago. There’s been an outpouring of discussion since, and the internet has been teeming with reflective think pieces that try to put something as horrifying as what he is accused of into a narrative we can wrap our heads around. We need reassurance that our love for him as a musician was somehow justified or forgivable in the face of his abusive past, especially when we’ve been joking about his indiscretions for nearly a decade, and when his marriage to then-15-year-old Aaliyah was a matter of public knowledge. Anyone who ever joyfully danced to “Ignition (Remix)” in a bar is now having to ask themselves some serious questions about what they do and don’t forget in the name of good music.
There is a catharsis to it all, of course. Turning around and taking a hard stance after years of fandom, saying “I no longer love R. Kelly, because the things he’s done are too horrible to ignore,” is a good way to feel better about yourself. So many of us grew up with his music (even sang his inspirational ballads at our sixth-grade graduation), that putting his well-documented behavior to the back of the mind only felt natural. Hell, I have been a vocal Kelly fan for years, and only recently have I drawn the line in the sand as to where I could no longer support him. It’s a mostly impotent gesture, but I don’t feel qualified to do much else. No one does, really.
Things only become more complicated when you force yourself to think about how proportionally insignificant R. Kelly’s individual actions are in the scope of the music industry. Nearly every time I do myself the disservice of googling a male artist whose work I enjoy, I am confronted with their deeply problematic and abusive pasts, littered with accusations, indictments, and public arrests. From living legends to artists with their own reality TV franchises — John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, Phil Spector, Ike Turner, Flavor Flav, Vanilla Ice, Rick James, Claude François, Eminem, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jackson Browne, Rick Springfield, Serge Gainsbourg, James Brown — the list seems never to end. The Oscar-winning, crowd pleasing biopics Walk the Line and Ray, despite vividly demonstrating their artists’ poor treatment of the women in their lives, did little to temper anyone’s affections for their music. The great male musicians who suffered drug addiction, who abused their partners while abusing hard drugs, seem to have their entire past expunged when they finally get clean. The suffering women who stood by their side, time and time again, became invisible martyrs to the cause of getting their man on stage and behind his guitar again.
While there are distinct aspects of R. Kelly and Chris Brown’s story that make them more socially unacceptable — the visibilty of Brown’s target, the ages and sheer quantity of Kelly’s victims — there have been equally grotesque stories in pop culture that have done very little to tarnish a reputation. The prevailing wisdom of “separating an artist’s works from his life,” while sounding logical and fair in theory, is deeply inconsistent in application. Roman Polanski might be relegated to evading the law in Europe for raping a child, but celebrities still fill his films and flock to his premieres. Woody Allen, despite being scorned by his own family in light of marrying the adoptive daughter he helped raise, and being accused of molestation by another adoptive daughter, remains a beloved character of American cinema. It’s not unreasonable to think that, as in Polanski and Allen’s cases, Kelly and Brown’s atrocities will become less and less morally implicating over time. For now, the proper thing to do is to denounce these artists and apologize for taking your part in supporting them, but the limits to what a celebrity cannot come back from have proven to be extremely high.
That is, of course, unless you are a woman recovering from a sex scandal. The celebrity sex tapes — Pamela Anderson, Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, etc — while prominently featuring male counterparts, will always be remembered as their tapes. While a woman may continue to make money and exist in the public eye after her sexual coming out, it is unlikely that it will be forgotten, and will have to be integrated into her no-longer “family friendly” persona. While men often have no trouble moving on from violent abuse accusations, sex tapes stay a part of a woman’s brand forever. Just this weekend, former Disney star Dylan Sprouse had nude photos leaked, and transformed the story from an embarrassing scandal into a source of self-referential humor with Tweets, blog posts, and even a commemorative t-shirt. While this is certainly the most intelligent and productive way to respond to a scandal, it’s hard to imagine that a female Disney star would have the same capacity to laugh it off in the face of how we tend to treat young women’s sexual mishaps.
It’s easy to draw parallels between the invisibility of the women who male pop stars abused and the severity with which female pop sexuality is reproached. Much of women’s role in music is typically a supporting one — a source of sexual inspiration for the genius men who choose them. The power of their sexuality has driven men to write legendary ballads about them, but has also served as passive justification for their “stomach-churning” abuse. We like a woman who is long-suffering by the side of her artist, not a woman who is taking the erotic into her own hands. Rashida Jones will write a screed against the “whores” of the music industry, but takes no issue with the near-endless list of men accused of domestic or sexual violence, including many that her superstar father worked with directly. We feel overwhelmed with the ubiquity of artistic male violence, but are somehow not too busy to draw attention to the ubiquity of female sexual freedom, especially when it draws easy lines of right and wrong.
The temporary, Band Aid-on-a-bullet-wound solutions of condemning a single male artist is deeply satisfying, and a natural response. It’s a flush of moral superiority, and a confirmation that you remain pure in the face of an increasingly corrupt musical landscape. I wanted to declare my rejection of R. Kelly after years of complicit fandom, and in many ways, it was about assuaging my own feelings of guilt. It’s an important distinction to make, but nearly impossible to replicate for every artist who deserves the same treatment. We can’t all be spending our whole lives hating the people who created the songs we used to love, but there are things we can do.
We can stop funneling the moralizing that should be reserved for people who hurt others into people who hurt our sense of propriety, like Ms. Jones has repeatedly done. We can stop telling each other to “lighten up” if a singer’s violence is mentioned alongside his greatest hits. We can stop pretending as though each of these instances is an isolated thing, and not a culture created around the infallible male musician and his disposable, interchangeable female groupies. But most importantly, we can start asking ourselves when we hear the story of a battered woman or a coerced 15-year-old, “Who are these women?” Because they have a story, they have a history, and it exists far beyond them wearing a skirt short enough to make them irresistible to their idols — even if they will never win a Grammy for it.