In a misquote attributed to Hunter S. Thompson that has become a multipurpose meme of late, a cold observation increasingly rings of the truth. “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side.”
Thompson was actually talking about the television industry when he wrote this, as collected in his 1985 compendium “Generation of Swine.” No problem. It still applies.
We are reminded of this unpleasant fact yet again with the implosion of R. Kelly’s career. If we are to judge from the dozens of women who have come forward and accused the R&B singer of physical and sexual abuse – much of it, according to participants in the new Lifetime documentary series "Surviving R. Kelly," involving underage girls – Kelly’s career should have been over long ago.
As I write this, news is breaking that SONY Music and RCA, Kelly’s label since 2012, have broken ties with him. Considering that Kelly has been dealing with accusations of physical and sexual abuse – he was a acquitted, in a 2008 trial, of charges that he had sex with, and urinated on, a 13-year-old girl, and he has paid monetary settlements to several women who sued him on the grounds of sexual misconduct in the time since – and that protesters have been gathering outside of RCA’s Manhattan offices since the Lifetime documentary began airing on Jan. 3, this is understandable. It’s also quite likely overdue.
Artists who have collaborated with Kelly in the past – during a period when accusations of predatory sexual behavior were already common knowledge in the music business – recently apologized publicly for working with him, among them Lady Gaga, Chance the Rapper and Phoenix.
“We are deeply horrified by the stories of abuse surrounding R. Kelly,” Phoenix’s Twitter account posted last week. “We regret that we were not both more informed and more discerning when we worked with him previously. We fully support all victims of sexual abuse, and it’s our hope that there will be a path to justice.”
In late 2018, when British art-rock visionary Kate Bush started releasing remasters of her catalog, the contributions of Australian musician and television personality Rolf Harris had been removed. Harris was convicted on 12 counts of indecent assault, one of which was later overturned. Rather incredibly, fan forums found more than a few Bush fans arguing that what she had done amounted to rewriting history, and that the original artworks should have been left as they were, as if Bush owed her fans the preservation of their own memories of her albums.
That’s an absurd notion. The prerogative is surely the artist’s. And more artists should be exercising that prerogative.
Pop music has always been about selling sex. The industry was built on the marketing of sexual fantasies, often to minors. But that industry has collapsed. Increasingly, that collapse appears to be wholly deserved.
The Time’s Up organization, which has been involved in pressuring RCA to cut ties with Kelly since April of 2018, makes clear its mission on the homepage of its website. “The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It's time to do something about it.”
Truth. It’s time for the music business – every aspect of it – to grow up. Collaboration is consent.
Story topics: R. Kelly