Most of the world is coming to grips with the ugly realization that R&B singer R. Kelly is a demonstrable, sociopathic pedophile who has preyed on young black girls for decades with little to no intervention. The Surviving R. Kelly documentary, which aired on Lifetime last week, paints a sickening, systemic portrait of abuse that erases any reasonable doubt of his guilt. It condemns every single person who either enabled or ignored his behavior in favor of his talent, myself included.
In the aftermath, attention is now being paid to R. Kelly’s collaborators. The most notable and scrutinized as of late has been Lady Gaga. In 2013, Gaga recorded “Do What U Want” with Kelly for her third studio album ARTPOP and released it as the second single. She performed the song with him on SNL and the American Music Awards, and filmed a music video with him (directed by Terry Richardson, of all people) that was eventually canceled. Soon after, the single appeared to be scrapped, with a new version featuring Christina Aguilera rush-released after they performed it on The Voice. Now, in the midst of a heavy awards campaign for her work in A Star is Born, Gaga is being asked about what she knew, when she knew it, and how she could work with the man considering her own history as a sexual assault victim.
Early Thursday morning, Gaga provided some answers. In a message posted on social media, she declared her support for R. Kelly’s victims, saying she believes them “1,000 percent”. She expressed her distress at the allegations made against him. In a moment of revealing introspection, she explains that the “extremely defiant and provocative” song was recorded during a very dark period in her life, and was inspired by “explicitly twisted thinking” about her own assault. Indeed, the song’s lyrics, “You can’t have my heart and you can’t use my mind, but do what you want with my body,” does suggest a sexual dissociation. In her retrospect, the song and her association with Kelly was an unhealthy attempt at dealing with her trauma that she now deeply regrets. She insists her explanation is not an excuse, and that she is a better space to grapple with her choices. To that end, she announced plans to remove the song from iTunes and all streaming platforms. She closes out her letter by apologizing for her work with Kelly and for not speaking out sooner.
Our collective reckoning with terrible people and terrible actions has also revealed how terrible the apologies are. The #MeToo era has been littered with rubber-stamp mea culpas that fail at offering any substantial attempt at atonement. If an apology seems honest at first, it only takes a couple of months for the guilty party to rip it to shreds through astonishingly bad acts. Then there are those that don’t even bother to apologize, or insist that they did when they didn’t. All are exhibitions of sheer arrogance, the belief that you are somehow above making amends to the people you’ve harmed and the people who’ve supported you with critical and commercial success. Hollywood is an ego-driven business; real apologies, which require checking the ego at the door, are difficult by nature.
Lady Gaga’s statement is an example of a good one. It’s good because she actually apologizes; not with condescending caveats like “if you were offended”, but simply saying she was wrong. She offers context into why she collaborated with R. Kelly on the song, and it makes sense. Gaga has explained in the past that the ARTPOP era was a serious struggle for her artistically and emotionally, and her explanation here only adds further insight to behavior that seemed truly bizarre at the time. She doesn’t use her struggles with trauma as a scapegoat, a popular method of deflection. Instead, she tackles her choices head-on. The most impactful part of her statement was her promise to remove “Do What U Want” from public consumption. She can’t go back in time and erase the song, or the performances, but by deleting the song from streaming services and music stores, she can assure that she will no longer contribute to R. Kelly’s financial success, or the continued trauma that the song may cause his victims (in a bit of despicable irony, “Do What U Want” briefly peaked in the top 10 of iTunes before it was removed Thursday afternoon). The gesture may be largely symbolic considering the song’s age and limited relevance, but it is one that shows tangible effort and risk.
Gaga didn’t address everything. There was no mention of the documentary, and why she chose not to participate (to be fair, I would’ve advised her not to). She also didn’t explain if she knew about the allegations when she signed on to work with him, and whether the allegations played a role in scrapping the “Do What U Want” music video. There is no question that she consulted with a publicist team to craft her response, and she is likely only released one because the uproar was growing. I’m sure she would’ve preferred to ignore the controversy and let it blow over. Whatever the reasons behind it, or the missing pieces, Lady Gaga’s statement is the best possible response she could’ve been expected to give. Unlike many of the apologies the public has been treated to lately, Gaga’s feels like it is from someone who knows that they were wrong and why, and wants to move forward and do better. It’s a blueprint for what reconciliation should look like.
In other words: Hollywood, take notes.
You can find the full letter below: