Lady Gaga got some unwanted attention after TMZ leaked a 33-second clip of the pop controversialist’s suppressed video collaboration with R. Kelly and Terry Richardson.
The clip begins with Gaga on an operating table (perhaps a nod to the hip surgery the pop star underwent last year), suggestively covered only by a bedsheet. Pop singer R. Kelly — who married the late Aaliyah when she was 15 and in 1998 paid $250,000 to settle a lawsuit related to sexual relations with a minor — plays her doctor. In the clip, Gaga’s asks, “Will I ever be able to walk again?” Kelly replies, “Yes, if you let me do whatever I want with your body.” Kelly then puts Gaga under anesthesia, and backup dancers in nurses’ costumes gyrate and twerk over her unconscious body.
It’s notable that Lady Gaga (née Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) is known for her over-the-top theatricality, and Kelly directed, wrote, and starred in a 91-minute, 33-chapter “rap opera” titled Trapped in the Closet. And the song is not actually about sex. Gaga, whose net worth is estimated to be $190 million, reportedly wrote the song as an attack on reporters (whose mean annual wage was $43,630 in 2013, according to the Census Bureau). Gaga, who frequently shows off her body in videos that are often provocative or shocking, was reportedly incensed that some in the media had criticized her physical appearance.
This time was different, however, which seems to be why Gaga decided not to release the video. In a statement, the songstress pled that she’d only been given a week to produce the clip. “All my my most successful videos were planned over a period of time when I was rested and my creativity was honored,” Lady Gaga told fans at the time. “Those who have betrayed me gravely mismanaged my time and health and left me on my own to damage control any problems that ensued as a result.” Apparently, playing an unconscious, undressed woman being “treated” by Dr. R. Kelly — treatment that includes Kelly’s team of scantily clad “nurses” taking advantage of her unconscious body on the operating table — can actually damage your health.
Richardson, the director, has been accused of sexual harassment and misconduct by numerous women, as National Review Online’s Christine Sisto has reported. The photographer has done suggestive videos and photo shoots for celebrities including Miley Cyrus, Kate Upton, Jared Leto, and even Barack Obama — before he became president. Despite the allegations, Richardson remains in demand and has worked for such magazines as Vogue, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, and GQ. Several of Richardson’s accusers say his clout in the industry gives him enormous power over unknown or aspiring models.
But Lady Gaga does not need to support or hire Richardson. Why collaborate with him? For that matter, why co-star with R. Kelly, who carries a well-earned reputation for creepiness even though he was acquitted in a prominent 2008 criminal case surrounding a video in which he had sex with and urinated on a 17-year-old? Music journalist Jim DeRogatis has been covering allegations against Kelly for more than 15 years, and he has documented multiple civil and criminal charges against the singer, all by girls aged 13 to 16. The accusations against Kelly include group sex with multiple teenage girls, making sex tapes of his many encounters without consent from the other parties, bullying a teenager into getting an abortion, and coercing an underage girl to get her underage friends to have sex with him. DeRogatis has interviewed many of the accusers, including a girl who tried to commit suicide after a relationship with Kelly.
The music industry and fans continue to support Kelly. In 2013, he dropped his twelfth studio album, Black Panties, headlined the Bonnaroo and Pitchfork music festivals, and made an appearance at Coachella, where he guest-performed with Phoenix. Releasing a duet with Lady Gaga was the cherry on top of one of the best years Kelly has had in a two-decade career. Still, why did Lady Gaga need to make an offensive music video with two alleged sex offenders? What about women’s rights? The proliferation of rape culture? Misogyny? #Yesallwomen?
DeRogatis asks, “Sometimes great art is made by despicable people. Does that matter? Should it?” Some say no. But is this video great art? The decision to suppress the video suggests Gaga’s answer is no. One could argue that Gaga’s video is not meant to be taken literally, that she intends for the video and song to be a metaphor. But considering Kelly’s criminal record and the allegations brought against Richardson, the video would in fact have been “an ad for rape.” Performers and celebrities bring their own histories to creative work; and Kelly and Richardson’s histories can’t be separated from the product.
Art is not created or distributed in a vacuum. The context of the art in question matters, as DeRogatis asserts in a Village Voice piece. Though we have only seen a short clip of a larger project that was scrapped before it was distributed and viewed by millions, the clip raises the question of what Lady Gaga was thinking when she conceived the video — and shows that she made the right decision in quashing it. More celebrities should do the same after — or better yet, before — working with Kelly and Richardson.
— Caroline Rizzo is a rising senior at Yale and a Buckley Program intern at National Review.