“Look At This Tangle of Thorns”: On R. Kelly, Lena Dunham, Terry Richardson and Beyoncé

So if Beyoncé likes him, he must be ok?

“I need you, the reader, to imagine us, for we don’t really exist if you don’t.”

A few months ago, I ate dinner with a group of friends—all women—on a roof deck with views of Central Park on one side and the Hudson on the other. We drank bottle after bottle of wine and ate lobster rolls. We talked about many things, and one of the women brought up Roman Polanski. This woman had been brought by one of the other guests, and was the kind of woman who makes lots of brash, declarative statements seemingly out of nowhere, all of which cause other women to exchange glances and sometimes subtle eye-rolls and try to change the subject as quickly as possible. But this woman would not be dissuaded from talking about Roman Polanski (maybe it was our proximity to the Gothic gables and balustrades of the Dakota, who’s to say), and she soon brought out her phone, so that she could read to us everything of which the director had been accused. After she’d finished speaking about Quaaludes and anal sex and what it is to be a thirteen-year-old girl in the home of a 43-year-old man, there was silence. And then someone deadpanned, “Yeah, but Chinatown is a really, really good movie.” And we all laughed, a laugh very specific to being on a roof deck in the summer, the city stretched out like a glittering carpet, stomachs full of lobster, heads full of wine. No one wanted to talk about pedophilia. No one wanted to do anything but laugh and talk about other things, better things, our things.

“I feel shame when I think of all the times I’ve laughed when I wanted to scream,” Lena Dunham tweeted yesterday, after having read the “stomach-churning” sexual assault charges against R. Kelly that accompanies the amazing, informative, essential interview  in the Village Voice between Jessica Hopper, the music editor for Rookie, and Jim DeRogatis, now a professor at Chicago’s Columbia College and formerly the reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times who broke the Kelly story years ago. For those vaguely familiar with Kelly’s sexual history who can only identify that he maybe has a sex tape and that it maybe involved Kelly urinating on a woman, this interview and the accompanying documents will illuminate all of the things which Kelly has been accused of in court, many cases of which he settled so as not to go to trial. It will also make you feel ashamed that you ever could have thought that Kelly’s “sex tape,” in which he urinated in the mouth of a 14-year-old girl, is in any way akin to a video of two consenting adults engaged in sexual activity. It’s not. And that tape is just the tip of the iceberg. DeRogatis makes clear that Kelly had sex with dozens of underage girls, many of whom he found by visiting and staking out the high school that he once attended. Ninth- and tenth-grade girls were interviewed and confirmed that Kelly would hang out in their high school parking lot trying to pick them up. More than one of the girls he was involved with attempted suicide. DeRogatis emphasizes that it was not one girl, not one video, but that it was, “rapes plural. It is on record. Rapes in the dozen.”

And yet, despite all the information available, Kelly’s behavior has—for years now—been dismissed and joked about and ignored in favor of his musical talents. Kelly has recently had the full weight of the Pitchfork machine behind him, supporting his music and his career, and Kelly’s latest album, Black Panties, has been praised by many, including feminist website Jezebel, which called the album “a magnificent ode to pussy.” Is this just a case of society looking beyond the artist’s bad behavior and focusing only on the art? Or does it have more to do with the specific type of bad behavior at play here? There is no arguing with the idea that bad people can make good art, and while Kelly is certainly one example, there are countless other artists (including Polanski, of course, and also, as mentioned in the Voice article, James Brown and Led Zeppelin) who behaved in monstrous ways, and who have also escaped the scrutiny that people might give their next door neighbor upon finding out that he beats his wife. DeRogatis addresses this by saying, “You have to make a choice, as a listener, if music matters to you as more than mere entertainment. This is not just entertainment, this is our lifeblood. This matters.” Especially in the case of Kelly—who is promoting a new album, continues to perform, and has not disavowed any of his past activities, saying as recently as today, that anyone who has anything negative to say about him should listen to his track “Shut Up,” because haters gonna hate and “spiritually I’m a climber”—it is important to at least know to whom exactly you’re listening; listen to his music, but know that you are listening to a monster.