Gaslight of the Gods: Why I Still Play Michael Jackson and R. Kelly for My Students

Full michael jackson vitae

Image: Mary Lopez, Creative Commons

By William Cheng

"Just out of curiosity, you guys, clap if you’re done with R. Kelly," Aziz Ansari instructed the audience during his recent Netflix stand-up special, Right Now. The large crowd applauded and cheered loudly. Minutes later, arriving at the subject of Michael Jackson, the comedian cast another line, this time with more dubious bait: "Clap if you’re done with Michael Jackson."

Only a smattering of claps, as sporadic and muffled as popcorn in a microwave. No cheers. "That was way less people!" Ansari exclaimed with widened eyes, drawing much abashed laughter. "You guys are all collectively like, ‘Uh, I don’t know what to tell you, Aziz. The music’s way better. Sorry. I’ll take the hit on Kells, but Michael is a bridge I’m not willing to cross. I got a wedding next month!’"

Plenty of couples these days are actually banning R. Kelly and Michael Jackson from wedding playlists. R. Kelly in particular, as D.J. Chris Keenan puts it, "is a 100-percent no-go at all gigs now." In the wake of Lifetime’s docuseries Surviving R. Kelly and HBO’s Leaving Neverland — and with #MuteRKelly, #CancelMJ, and #MeToo seared into public consciousness — cancel culture is in full swing.

Granted, as implied by Ansari’s jokes, some listeners continue to debate whether the quality and utility of music created by alleged abusers should bear on the permissibility of its consumption. Others argue that the monumental oeuvre of an icon such as Jackson is simply "too big to cancel."

For purposes of private enjoyment, I don’t seek out the music of R. Kelly or Michael Jackson anymore. My threefold reasons aren’t especially new: First, I don’t wish to contribute to the streaming revenue for these artists or their estates; second, there’s so much other music in the world to discover; and finally, I feel strange nowadays — unsettled, enticed, guilty, complicit — whenever I hear, say, "I Believe I Can Fly" or "Man in the Mirror" on the car radio or in a mall. The emotions are too messy.

But that last reason is exactly why I do choose to play such songs — now more than ever — for the college students in my music classes.

To feel uncomfortable and trapped in a relationship with lovable music made by problematic musicians is not so different from feeling uncomfortable and trapped in a relationship with a problematic partner. Our vulnerability to charismatic music offers a key to understanding our vulnerability to charismatic people, institutions, and ideologies more broadly.

It’s not a clear-cut analogy. Yet in our relationships with music and with people, there are shared dimensions of coercion, turmoil, and psychic unraveling. Being beguiled. Losing your sense of self. Believing you can’t quit someone or something that’s become an indelible part of who you are.

I continue to play Michael Jackson in popular music classes today because, in part, I feel obligated to deal with questions of historical context and stylistic lineage. But when I play "Black or White" and "We Are the World," I also want these influential recordings to remind students firsthand of our collective susceptibility to seduction, musical and otherwise. (Instead of streaming these songs and generating clicks, I play them in class using CDs from the school’s music library whenever possible.) For courses emphasizing European classical music, I conduct similar exercises with Richard Wagner’s music dramas, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, and Mozart’s Don Giovanni (an opera condemned by some writers as a misogynist rape fantasy).

To be clear, it’s not my job to tell students what music they should love or consume. My job is to teach them how to think critically about the consequences of consumption, the nature of aesthetic enchantment, the tangled networks of music-industrial forces, and the rhetorical strategies displayed by people on multiple sides of a given issue.

I would certainly grant permission to any students who ask to duck out of the classroom because they’re upset by, say, "Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number," the 1994 ballad written by R. Kelly for Aaliyah, who began recording the song at age 14. (Aaliyah and the 27-year-old R. Kelly secretly wed in the summer of that year.) For anyone who has experienced abuse — not least at the hands of an older or physically dominant person — R. Kelly’s explicit lyrics, ventriloquized through a teenaged chanteuse, can undoubtedly sound disturbing.

At the same time, listeners might find this R&B jam enthralling, with Aaliyah’s sultry and multilayered vocals pulsing just shy of a downtempo 85 BPM, and the chorus’s catchy, singable melody (tightly constrained within the first five notes of a minor scale) swaying like a snake within the confines of a small basket.

Over the course of the song, moreover, the hypnotic repetition of "Age ain’t nothing but a number / Throwing down ain’t nothing but a thing" intensifies the familiarity — perhaps believability — of this mantra. Even within a single playback, we might not hear the eighth or ninth iteration the same way we heard the first utterance three minutes prior. These words have the potential to work on listeners: assuaging, massaging, chipping away at cognitive defenses and deep-set values.

So even though the majority of the repertoire I typically teach has been written or performed by musicians who, as far as I know, did not prey on their young protégés, I devote at least one class each term to the acclaimed music of so-called "monstrous men." When I play such siren songs, I challenge students to:

  • Contemplate how the listening experiment feels.
  • Articulate what it could mean, and what it would take, to detach from certain musical pieces — or from certain people, certain groups — all but overwhelming in their magnetism.
  • Consider how lessons in a music classroom can sharpen their abilities to detect and redress any unjust or dangerous relationships in their own lives.

For it’s one thing to say you could easily resist bopping your head along to a "tainted" track. It’s another matter entirely to prove this stoic capacity when the visceral beats of Michael Jackson’s "Thriller" or R. Kelly’s "Bump n’ Grind" ensorcell your limbs on the dance floor. Likewise, it’s easy to say you should break away from a noxious partner, colleague, or boss. It’s much harder to follow through when the person is standing immediately in front of you — potent aura, voice, and all.

When I scan the numerous insightful think pieces today about the age-old question of "separating art from artist," I wonder how many of these authors are actually listening to that particular artist’s art while they write. My guess is not many. But if more writers were to do so — say, cue up R. Kelly’s millennial anthem "The World’s Greatest" during first draft — would some essays turn out a little differently? Can we accurately and honestly express our ideas about specific music without opening ourselves to its immanent power, and without letting ourselves feel, at times, powerless in turn?

With a new academic year under way, music educators across the country will be facing redoubled quandaries about which music should or should not be played in their classrooms, whether it’s the pantheon of pop or the recordings of various classical musicians facing serious allegations (such as former Metropolitan Opera director James Levine, conductor Charles Dutoit, countertenor David Daniels, and opera legend Placido Domingo).

I respect the decisions of teachers who are taking firm stands in favor of cancellation. Deprogramming, divesting, and boycotting are all vital tools in combating the myriad vices of musicians and music industries. For my part, I believe there’s a complementary wisdom in allowing ourselves, as an exercise, to listen on occasion to the music of problematic artists, if only to speak candidly about our common vulnerabilities.

Put another way, there’s strength in knowing our weaknesses. Music and musicians, as much as anything else, alert us to just how seductive and seducible people can be.

Because in the end, you and I — like the artists we’ve made gods — are only human, after all.

William Cheng is an associate professor and acting chair of the music department at Dartmouth College. His most recent book is Loving Music Till It Hurts (Oxford, 2019), and he is co-editor of the Music and Social Justice series (University of Michigan Press)

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