Jim DeRogatis: Consuming the Art of a Predator is Always a Moral Choice
On R. Kelly and Separating Art From the Artist
In 2014, Inga Saffron, a three-time finalist, at long last claimed the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism she richly deserved. The veteran architecture critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Saffron didn’t start out in that role. “I was a reporter long before I became a critic,” she wrote in an essay entitled “Critics don’t need to report? Think again.” Charting her origins, she noted, “My twenties were spent in the municipal trenches of New Jersey, covering small-town zoning battles and urban renewal fiascos.”
I’ve never met Saffron, but I feel a kindred spirit. I started out much the same, covering local board meetings in Jersey City, as well as revealing election fraud in Hoboken and scandalous neglect at the Hudson County Jail. Through it all, for the first six years of my career, I also wrote for free about music at night for fanzines, do-it-yourself photocopied magazines with titles such as Matter (because the music did) and my own zine, Reasons for Living (I was nothing if not an earnest young thing). I had aspired to be a pop music critic since I spent a formative day as a high school senior with one of my heroes, Lester Bangs, but it took me a decade before I got lucky enough to get paid to critique the art form I love.
“Those early columns about everyday buildings were fundamental to my development as a critic. Because I was going against the conventional wisdom, I was forced to articulate a new narrative,” Saffron continued. “Some days I felt more like an investigative reporter than a cultural critic, and I jokingly began thinking of myself as an investigative critic.”
Before I found Saffron’s essay, I thought I’d coined the term “investigative critic,” because I’d long contended that’s what I became during 19 years of writing about hometown hero R. Kelly, at first for the Chicago Sun-Times, then for BuzzFeed News and The New Yorker, and now in my new book, Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly. I have spent 19 years reporting about as well as critiquing the R&B superstar, who I believe ranks as the greatest predator in the history of popular music, which has a long and ignoble history of male stars mistreating women. And I don’t think the idea of investigative criticism is a joke.
When I began teaching Reviewing the Arts at Columbia College Chicago in 2009, I had to think deeply about what I’d been doing instinctively since I was a teenager, emulating mentors such as Bangs and Roger Ebert, another hero who became a colleague. I needed to explain to my students how they should approach criticism, or at least how I do it. I see criticism as the attempt to convey your analysis of a work of art and your emotional reaction to it; head and heart, you need both, always. There is no such thing as an “objective” critic—by definition, it’s a subjective undertaking. There’s no right or wrong, there’s only the way you see the art, how it moves you, and, most importantly, why.
The extreme examples are the easy ones; far more difficult are the subtle questions all of us as investigative critics face now that Time’s Up.
We all know what we like or dislike, but it isn’t always easy to articulate. The last of journalism’s vaunted “five W’s,” after who, what, when, and where, the why is often missing in news stories, but it’s the heart of any solid critique, and it’s the thing good critics wrestle with longest and hardest. Thankfully, we have three tools for this daunting task: insight, evidence, and context. What do you think the art is about, and how does it make you feel? Back up that analysis and emotional reaction with evidence, plenty of it. And, finally, know where the art comes from and where it fits in our culture. Give context, because nothing exists in a vacuum. Nothing is mere entertainment.
Context is key, now more than ever, in this period of cultural upheaval, with Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and the Trumpian assault on decency, democracy, and truth. Art alone can’t change the world—only Bono thinks that’s possible—but it can change us, because it can change the way we think.
Mind you, I’m not claiming special status for the critic; I think everyone should be a critic. No critic worth her salt expects to have the final word with any review, they just want to get the conversation started. Why? Because there’s nothing more important to talk about. Politics, sex, religion, morality, social justice—any issue you can name is in the art, so we’re never just writing about a play, a movie, a painting, a book, or whatnot. We are writing about the world, the way we see it, and thus our fundamental values.
Part of the appeal of popular music is the unfettered expression of what Iggy Pop called “a lust for life,” which at times involves a burning desire to flout the rules and shoot the middle finger. I get that, and I embrace it wholeheartedly, but it’s not without its thorny dilemmas. The female academics anthologized by editors Rhian Jones and Eli Davies in the 2017 collection Under My Thumb: Songs That Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them wrestle with some of these. Me, I love the Rolling Stones song referenced in the title, too, while recognizing and condemning its blatant misogyny, though Eminem’s frequent fantasizing about killing his ex-wife, I cannot abide. But I have my morals, and you have yours, just as we each have our own definitions of “good” or “bad” art. Again, there’s no right or wrong in assessing any work, there’s only what each of us embrace or reject, champion or cancel, and why. Which brings us back to context at a watershed moment when many of us are thinking more deeply about the art we consume.
For me, the dividing line is when the art chronicles an artist’s abhorrent behavior, which is, thankfully, very rare indeed.
Separating the art and the artist is a noble ideal. Certainly, no critic I admire advocates imposing a moral litmus test on every artist; as the growing opposition to what some call “cancel culture” contend, soon enough, we wouldn’t have any art. As a free-speech absolutist, I don’t believe in banning any expression, but as someone who considers music a reason for living, I feel an obligation to consider whether the stuff I champion represents the ideals I uphold. I once had a long talk with Ebert about Triumph of the Will. No critic should praise the work of groundbreaking director Leni Riefenstahl, he said, without giving equal consideration to the evils of the Nazis she depicted so gloriously.
For me, the dividing line is when the art chronicles an artist’s abhorrent behavior, which is, thankfully, very rare indeed. I certainly understand why anyone would be reluctant to mute the music of the Jackson Five or Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, but his final two albums are full of protestations about how he’s been wrongly accused of molesting young boys, and those are increasingly difficult to believe, or listen to. At the moment, Spotify is streaming quite a bit of music by Charles Manson. There is only one reason to listen to any of it—because of, not despite, the connection to the artist’s horrific deeds—and if that’s the sort of transgression you want to celebrate, well, I want nothing to do with you.
The extreme examples are the easy ones; far more difficult are the subtle questions all of us as investigative critics face now that Time’s Up. If we know Picasso’s history with women, should we spit on the sculpture in Daley Plaza in Chicago? Tuning out The Cosby Show for its star’s hypocritical portrait of the perfect family man seems like a no-brainer, but should we toss that Fat Albert LP we’ve treasured since childhood? I can never watch Manhattan again in the wake of abuse accusations by Woody Allen’s daughter Dylan Farrow, seeing as how the movie depicts a 42-year-old comedy writer dating a 17-year-old girl, but am I wrong to have seen and loved Midnight in Paris twice?
And the music of R. Kelly? Well, you’ll have your answer, and I have mine. I hear his hot ’n’ horny bedroom jams as bragging about the unfettered vision of hedonism he began pursuing without regard to the harm he causes his partners even before he wrote Age Ain’t Nothing but A Number for Aaliyah way back in 1994, when he began a sexual relationship with his then-15-year-old protégé. And the spirituals that comprise the rest of his work? Every time he sings that God is on his side, or begs the Lord for forgiveness, I can’t help but wonder about his definitions of spirituality and morality, or about exactly what those unnamed sins have been (though Soulless makes the case for plenty, dating to 1991).
Yet even here, I don’t believe anyone is wrong if they disagree with my position—if they can still play “Ignition (Remix)” at the backyard barbecue, or “I Believe I Can Fly” at a graduation ceremony—so long as they’ve taken the time to consider the context. Investigate and criticize. We owe it to the art, we owe it to the culture, and we owe it to ourselves.