bad romance: gaga, kelly, and apologies

CW: vague discussion of minor HS humiliation, brief discussion of R. Kelly & Terry Richardson and all that might bring up.

A quick recap before I give my two (thousand) cents on Lady Gaga, R. Kelly, their collaboration, and her apology:

Lady Gaga, a prolific musician and one-time collaborator with R. Kelly, has issued an apology and pulled the song they performed together. The song in question was a 2013 single called “Do What U Want (With My Body),” and the lyrics invite the listener to do whatever they want to do with Gaga’s body because they’ll never own her life.

Apparently, the video was REAL rapey. It was never officially released. Not only does it star Kelly in a variety of fucked-up sexually predatory scenarios with Gaga, but the director of the video was Terry Richardson. You may know him as “a walking bag of hot Red Lobster garbage, notorious for sexually assaulting young girls trying to make it as models.” With R. Kelly and T. Richardson co-helming the project, it’s no surprise that the whole operation smelled like a shit stew, extra shit.

A collaboration with not one but TWO notorious and well-documented sexual predators? That’s not the Gaga we’ve come to love.

Our Gaga is an outspoken advocate for survivors of sexual abuse. Her silence on this collaboration with Kelly stretched on for days after the devastating Lifetime docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly,” and I know I started to feel disappointed at her silence. Cynically, I thought she was probably laying low because she’s an awards-season favorite for her acting in A Star is Born. Privately, I was hoping there was another reason she’d worked with him, and then refused to disavow him.

She published an apology on January 9, and as apologies go, I thought it was a good one.

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Spencer Kornhaber disagreed with me in The Atlantic, two days later. It’s not a long piece and I’d be interested in your take if you have 5 or 6 minutes to read it. To be clear, my post is not a response to Kornhaber so much as it is a response to and personal interrogation of this Gaga-Kelly collaboration and apology, but Kornhaber’s piece needs addressing.

Kornhaber covers Gaga’s apology with the core thesis that the song and video for “Do What U Want (With My Body)” were an attempt by capitalist-minded artists to capitalize on the sensationalism of fucked-up sexual dynamics in order to make lots of money.

“Some muddled commentary on sexual line-crossing was clearly being made. So was an attempt at profitable controversy. Gaga’s apology now seems to acknowledge that she worked with Kelly not in spite of the allegations against him but because of them.”

I don’t disagree with the author’s conclusion that Gaga probably worked with Kelly because of who he was, but I vehemently disagree with his guess at her motives. Because, sadly, maybe even shamefully, I think I understand why she did it.

I think I understand exactly why she made that song, and I understand why she might have picked those awful scumbag guys to make it with her.

When I was in high school something really embarrassing happened. I’m not in the mood to tell you what it was. Suffice it to say, it turned out that something that was supposed to be private, between me and someone I cared about, was not at all and never had been. While I didn’t experience a physical violation, when every guy at school starts calling you a name that references your intimate body, that makes it clear he knows exactly what you look like when you’ve given consent and closed a door and wrongly believed that was enough to ensure your privacy, well gosh, folks, that’s a motherfucking violation, right there.

Do you know what I did after that?

I didn’t get shy. I didn’t cry. I didn’t write a feminist manifesto. Years later, I wrote this in a private letter to an old friend:

Shame is a dry pill to swallow- invisible, inescapable, your own fucking fault. It doesn't “take one to know one.” Shame lives under the skin, in your bones, metastatic. Shame is not a social creature.

I wore my shame on my upturned chin. My shirts got tighter. Oh, this? I wanted to say. It's nothing.

I was a plate piled high with buttery delicacies. I was a table laden with fresh, warm bread. I built myself like a candy house in the woods. Come in, come taste, come see what I've got for you, you silly boy, you little pig. I wish I could eat you alive. Like the witch, I called them to me. Like the witch, I starved.

Is it fair to vilify the boys who took me up on the offer, came through the door, tore open the curtains, feasted, messily, with their hands? I can even forgive the one who did not knock; after all, the door was ajar. After all, I'd left it that way. Like the witch, I’d called him to me. Like the boy, he ate his fill and gave me a twig when I reached for his hand. I went to bed empty, outsmarted, my walls just crumbs again.

Even though my humiliating thing pales in comparison to Gaga’s humiliating thing, I understand completely why a woman bearing metastatic shame would choose to create a “fuck off” anthem with men so like the one who violated her.

If it doesn’t make sense to you, as it doesn’t make sense to Kornhaber, that’s understandable. You might be looking at her choice through the lens of self-promotion, rather than through the lens of self-preservation. You might be questioning her judgment in the theater of human reason, when you should be seeing her in the theater of animal survival. That’s reasonable if you can’t understand, and part of me is jealous that you can’t. I would love to have the luxury of being confused by such behavior. But if you don’t understand, you need to be aware that you don’t understand. To be clear:

When your body has been violated and you’re powerless to bring justice to your violator, and you’re powerless to ensure your own safety, then the last resort is sometimes to say, “Got you, dummy! You thought you could hurt me but I don’t even care. Go ahead, fuck this body, who needs it.”

It’s natural to want to try to revisit your trauma, to regain control over the situation, to prove that you can experience what hurt you without caring, that you can be absent at will, that what happened doesn’t really matter at all.

In her apology, Gaga explains that, “As a victim of sexual assault myself, I made both the song and video at a dark time in my life, my intention was to create something extremely defiant and provocative because I was angry and still hadn’t processed the trauma that had occurred in my own life.”

The author of The Atlantic article interprets Gaga’s explanation, in my opinion, wrongly.

Just, he’s wrong.

“It’s a strange story, but also a cautionary one for ‘provocateurs’ now pushing back against #MeToo… Other entertainers—facing tests of their relevance just as Gaga was in 2013—have talked up their own bravery in allying with dicey figures. Nicki Minaj, for example, cited Gaga’s work with Kelly when justifying her friendship and collaboration with the rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine, who was convicted of using a minor in a sexual performance. Kanye West rapped lyrics seeming to scoff at #MeToo on a posthumously released song by XXXTentacion, who was accused of brutal domestic violence.

Minaj’s single with 6ix9ine is her only true hit in awhile, and West’s XXX verse marked one of the rare times lately that the content of his music has been responsible for his headlines: signs that doing the “dangerous” thing of teaming with accused predators is a sure way to grab attention. But sooner or later, Gaga might warn them, there’s a price to pay for doing so.”

He reads her word “provocative” and thinks, “She’s admitting to being a provocateur, like Milo Yiannopolous and Logan Paul. She admits that she offends for profit. She admits that she was stirring shit up to stay in the headlines.”

I have been that wounded provocateur, that table laden with fresh, warm bread. I have invited people to feast on me, and it wasn’t to stay relevant, right? It was to figure out how I could control my own humiliation. There was no profit at stake. I was trying to work my way back to break-even. Of course, I had no idea, at the time, why I was acting that way. All I knew was that if I called them I could control them, and when they came I hated them for being predictable, and when they left I hated them even more for doing what I always expected they’d do. There was no sweetness in directing the same empty, used moments, even when I was the one casting and recasting them.

I am also disappointed and annoyed at the way Kornhaber shoehorns the Gaga-Kelly saga into a cautionary tale for other people who enable talented sexual predators. The song was released in 2013, long after musicians started ignoring problematic pedophiliac love stories, and long before there was a #MeToo to push back against, and I cannot take seriously the author’s extension of logic that Gaga’s work with Kelly was somehow the first or greatest collaboration with a toxic predator, the poisonous tree from which Kanye West and Nicki Minaj ate, the thing we should all blame for this mess.

Kornhaber is out of line when he compares Gaga’s collaboration (a very poor choice made by a post-traumatic brain) to Louis CK’s unwelcome, grasping, premature reemergence into “comedy,” or Kanye West’s collaboration with a dirtbag, or Nicki Minaj’s. Stop putting a woman’s mistake at the imagined origin point of someone else’s bad behavior. I’m so tired of that song.

Hold West and Minaj responsible for West’s and Minaj’s choices. Hold CK responsible for CK’s hateful material. And yes, hold Gaga responsible for her collaboration with Kelly and Richardson.

That being said, I think that at the core of this author’s thinly-veiled and poorly-aimed rebuke of Gaga’s choices, there are some questions which are relevant to a broader discussion:

  1. Is it okay to hold Gaga to #MeToo movement’s standards of professional behavior, for the poor choice that she made before there was a #MeToo movement?

  2. Was her 2019 apology for what she did in 2013 sufficient for us to forgive her for that poor choice?

  3. Is Gaga getting preferential treatment and unearned forgiveness for collaborating with a sexual predator because she’s cool, white, female, popular, etc.?

Should we answer question 1 idealistically or pragmatically? Hey, actually, this is my blog, so we can do both!

Idealistically: Yes, we should always have been holding all people to the standards of basic human respect and decency. OF COURSE. None of the entertainers we love should ever have been willing to work with assholes, predators, pedophiles, rapists, domestic abusers, and sexual harassers.

Pragmatically: If you are making money in entertainment, you are probably making it because you are (knowingly or unknowingly) working with the assholes, predators, pedophiles, rapists, domestic abusers, and sexual harassers who held the keys to your kingdom. They’re making money off your name, and in exchange they give you enough power that you can make more money for them, but not enough that you can buy your own independence.

We knew enough about R. Kelly in 2013 that a collaboration with him should not have been okay. Gaga knew who Kelly was and still decided to help him make money off of her name. She helped him pay the rent on those houses where these girls were being abused. She will need to reckon with that fact. She should have been outraged by him. We should all have been outraged by him. I do not excuse the collaboration, even though I understand why she did it.

But, to move into question 2, I do think that her apology makes clear that she understands the harm she did. She calls her state of mind “twisted,” and expresses how deeply she regrets creating this work out of unprocessed pain instead of getting some much-needed therapy. I am satisfied by her apology, but that begs interrogation in the answer to question 3:

Why am I satisfied by her apology?

Is it the quality of the apology that invites forgiveness, or my empathy for the guilty party? Am I more inclined to pardon someone like Gaga, who is like me in age, race, sex, and ideology, than I am to exert myself to empathize with someone like Louis CK, who is not “like me,” and whose apologies I have not found satisfactory for the same uninterrogated gut-instinct reasons that helped me pardon her without a second thought?

Of course it’s easier for me to forgive Gaga than CK. I believed there must be an explanation. I waited for her to apologize. I gave her days that I would not have given someone with whom I did not identify so deeply. And when her apology arrived, as soon as I read it I forgave her completely. I remembered how it felt to be angry and twisted and do stupid, regrettable things.

There are lots of reasons to be disappointed in Gaga, even after hearing her explanation for her bad judgment in 2013. For one thing, there really was no reason to wait so long to apologize. For another thing, why did it take an explosive docuseries for her to do what she could to cut off that revenue stream to Kelly? Her poor judgment on this does not end in 2013, and I don’t excuse her failure to make this right sooner. I still forgive her. Her apology was humble, honest, and she hit him in the wallet.

She should never have made the song. True.

She should have apologized sooner. True.

That brings us to the present, where the song is made and the apology is late, but it’s here, and it’s sincere. Is that enough?

We are working with a third-best resolution that is nevertheless good enough for me. Perhaps I’m sick of fake non-apologies (pay attention, Louis) and Gaga’s feels real, actionable, and responsible. Perhaps I believe in these first days of a new year that truly sorry people, the ones who show up with changed behavior and material investment, deserve forgiveness.

Perhaps I like Gaga and just want her to be sorry enough.

Perhaps I feel guilty, too.

Maybe by showing those boys what they could take from me while I had left myself temporarily, I made them believe they could do the same thing to other girls. I may have enabled some terrible behavior by permitting it and not considering that the person who did it might apply it elsewhere after I floated away.

Like Gaga, I never thought about other girls. I was younger, less powerful, less profoundly wounded than she was, but neither one of us could see past our own shit at the time. When I spoke nobody heard me, and when she spoke millions of people sang along but nobody heard her either.

We were not the authors of harm but we were its publishers. We need to fully own what we did, and refuse to carry what they did. It’s a fine line to walk: wounded by someone who will never be sorry, and sorry for wounding others in the pain we didn’t make.

It might not be enough and if that’s the case, I accept and respect that. I’m here to hear that. And as unsatisfying an ending as it is, this is where I leave you today: We are both hurt, both guilty, both defendants, both victims, both sorry, both waiting (too late) for you to be truly sorry, too.

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