Hip-Hopera Killed the Video Star:
Music Videos, Stardom, and Intersectionality in the Context of R. Kelly
When The Buggles recorded their 1979 hit “Video Killed the Radio Star”, the group had little knowledge of just how true these words would ring. The Oxford Dictionary recognizes a music video as recorded performance of a popular song that is typically accompanied by dancing and visual images that interpret the lyrics (OED Online). Music videos supplement all genres of music and range from live, improvised performances to high-budgeted, theatrical productions. Even so, music videos offer visual representations of musical performances that complicate the sensory experience, thus their popularity has blossomed exponentially in the world of music. Portrayals of lyrics in music videos encourage viewers to take a predetermined stance on the lyrical content and narrows potential interpretation of the song. Music videos often offer a narrative structure that includes character development and gives life to individuals that are either well-defined or alluded to within the lyrics. In an effort to challenge traditional structures and dissemination of music videos, artists often employ dramatic elements to evoke an overwhelming emotional response from viewers. With the creation of shocking and original content, musicians and artists can utilize music videos as a forum for supplementary revenue or to comment on social phenomena.
Popular culture frequently employs absurdity to attract viewership and music videos are marketed to specific audiences through dramatized interpretations of lyrics. An artist certainly familiar with the employment of absurdity throughout his career, Robert Sylvester Kelly, or R. Kelly, has built a career on outrageous performances and hypersexual music that continues to shock audiences. Noted for developing “sex-soaked sound”, Kelly’s journey to the limelight was undoubtedly expedited by musical collaborations and production work with notable figures including, but not limited to, Usher, Toni Braxton, Wyclef Jean, Russell Simmons, Sean Combs, and Mary J. Blige (Ramirez 29). With twelve studio albums, numerous complications and collaborations, three books, and a lengthy filmography, Kelly is no stranger to the spotlight. Accompanied by 24 Grammy nominations, 3 of which were won, and thirteen national and international tours, Kelly’s stardom is undeniable. R. Kelly’s net worth was approximated at $150 million in 2013 and can be credited to his perpetual self-promotion and commitment to shock appeal (The Biography).
One facet of Kelly’s career, however, stands out above his copious achievements. The Trapped in the Closet video series has unquestionably challenged the role of the music video in popular culture for both its pure absurdity and the commentary regarding human relations offered in the lyrics. The video series has been recognized as a “rap opera” and a soap opera-esque video saga with the collection approaching 33 installments in 2014. For the purposes of this analysis, I will primarily utilize the first five chapters of the video series, with necessary references to thematic elements introduced in later videos, in order to develop a specific critique of Kelly’s nontraditional take on the music video. Furthermore, I will investigate crucial intersections of social dynamics introduced in the videos to assess the validity of Kelly’s creation as a fundamental artifact in popular culture. Through strategic analysis and consideration of outside reception, I argue that R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet video series marks a relevant and pivotal point in music history for its employment of controversial thematic elements such as fidelity and religion, and sheer absurdity demanding dialogue.
As a result of the hyper-connected society in which we live, it is impossible to differentiate a work of art from its creator. Thus, it is vital to discuss R. Kelly’s personal presence in hip hop culture and his credibility as an artist prior to the release of Trapped in the Closet. I would be remiss to neglect Kelly’s cyclical legal battles that have plagued his professional career ranging from copyright infringement, collaborative disagreements, and felony charges. Accusations of an annulled marriage with the performer, Aaliyah, were proven true with the emergence of documentation that revealed falsified age reporting from the late singer. Furthermore, coinciding with the initial release of the original Trapped in the Closet demo, Kelly was charged with 21 counts of child pornography, although 7 were later dropped, after a video recording of his sexual relations with a minor became public (Ramirez 28). Over a period of seven years throughout the early 2000s, Kelly’s trial took shape in the public eye, yet effectively failed to permanently taint the performer’s already scandalous career. Although Kelly plead not guilty and was acquitted on all counts, the commentary offered by a work such as Trapped in the Closet is jaded by Kelly’s public transgressions and alleged criminal activity. It is difficult to verify credible commentary, especially that which could be considered even remotely profound, if an artist’s greatest work follows public disparagement. For the purposes of this work, I intend to distinguish between Kelly’s artistic construction and his personal life in order to effectively analyze the given artifact in the context of popular culture.
The release of the Trapped in the Closet series, first as a music video trilogy and later as digital audio files, marked a major milestone in R. Kelly’s career. Although the performer is no stranger to dramatic showmanship, R. Kelly’s production and release of Trapped in the Closet addressed previously uncharted themes in his prolific repertoire of raunchy, sexually explicit music. Totaling 175 minutes between all of the 33 chapters, Kelly’s production was released in three distinct installments with a budget nearing $4 million. In seven years, from 2005-2012, Kelly wrote, produced, and starred in the dramatic video series that has garnered international attention for the performer (IMDB). Kelly is reported to have derived the original Trapped in the Closet segments as a result of idle studio time during which he took an interest in video production. Set to a consistent chord progression, Kelly croons lyrics that are less than profound for 33 segments, but his simplistic language and style permit accessibility by a diverse audience. Since its initial release, the “rap opera” has matured into an ongoing project that offers valuable insight into traditional roles of domesticity and the politics of respectability for men and women in the United States.
Characterization and Dramatization in Trapped in the Closet
Though the series includes 33 chapters, this essay will address the first five installments in which five central characters are introduced. Kelly stars in the series as the central character, Sylvester, who is married to Gwendolyn. His extramarital affairs serve as the initial conflict for the series, but they spawn a series of events that prompt the introduction of supplementary characters and a complex storyline centered on marital relations. Gwendolyn’s infidelity, also revealed in the first five chapters, disrupts traditional gender norms that excuse masculine infidelity and condemn feminine transgressions. Throughout the entirety of the series, Sylvester and Gwendolyn’s relationship is surprisingly one of the most resilient presentations of marriage despite the initial infidelity. Here, Trapped in the Closet offers an imperfect paradigm for the traditional marriage trope by disregarding idealistic depictions in favor of an intricate web of love and relationships. Thus, the rap opera mocks customary representations of marriage and simultaneously provides a complex plot to merit and sustain viewership.
Sylvester’s one-night-stand with Mary, who later reveals herself to be Cathy, immediately instigates supplementary conflict to the initial theme of infidelity presented among Sylvester and Gwendolyn. Cathy is married to Rufus, a devout Christian pastor, who literally stumbles upon his wife’s infidelity. This scene is further complicated by Rufus’ introduction of Chuck into the plotline upon discovering his wife’s unfaithfulness. Rufus, despite his Christian principles and profession, reveals himself to be homosexual and equally an infidel. In the first two chapters, the literal and metaphorical closet from which the series takes its name is revealed. As Sylvester emerges from the bedroom closet to face his infidelity, Rufus is compelled to confess his homosexuality to his wife and her suitor. Rufus’ motivation to reveal his sexuality, however, only arises to compete with his wife’s infidelity. Sylvester, though generally uninvolved in the conflict, has endured the situation and remained present through the revelation of infidelity.
The emergence and sustained presence of Sylvester’s hand gun, a Berretta, represents his need for security during the conflict in which he has little authority. Sylvester intends to defuse the situation through the utilization of a violent symbol, the Berretta, and evokes religious sentiments from both Cathy and Rufus as they fear for their own safety. Rufus expresses his agreement with Sylvester that the group should handle the situation “Christian-like” despite the subsequent revelation of his sexuality that contradicts tenets of the Christian religion. Likewise, Sylvester pleads with “God” before being discovered in the closet, although he shows no remorse for his marital transgression and his threat to use a firearm on unarmed individuals in the conflict. Aside from the external conflict of adultery and power imbalances within marriage fidelity, each character presented through the second chapter of Trapped in the Closet appears to be at odds with principles of the Christian religion as each call on or boasts the loyalty of God, but ultimately falls to the temptations of sin. Thus, Kelly has reinstated the sanctity of
marriage as a religion institution in popular culture, a feature often dismissed or overlooked, and poses a criticism of behavioral tendencies of those who align with the Christian faith. Kelly’s personal beliefs are undoubtedly interwoven and muddled in this video saga and the musician has commented that, “I know I got famous for doing these sex songs, but I know there is a God; I believe there is a God” (The Biography).
Supplementary to his Berretta, Sylvester’s desire to control every situation is supported by his continued reliance on his personal cell phone. Sylvester is dependent on constant communication to direct his every move, and he utilizes the cell phone throughout the series to disrupt and intervene at every point of conflict. Sylvester’s exit from his initial scene of infidelity presents the cliffhanger of a man answering his wife’s cell phone. Again, Sylvester’s need for control is threatened and his Berretta is drawn as a defense mechanism to help him literally and metaphorically regain control of the situation. Although it is unclear if Gwendolyn’s brother, Twan, who was recently released from prison, actually answered the phone call, Gwendolyn’s disloyalty is revealed in chapter four. Officer James is introduced as her counterpart, a man who had just previously given Sylvester a speeding ticket and likewise knew Cathy’s personal story of infidelity. The revelation of Gwendolyn’s infidelity completes the cycle of transgressors in which all four parties are married individuals, but are partaking in extramarital affairs. It is worth noting that each individual had previously given immense trust to his or her spouse that permitted the infidelity to occur, yet this trust is immediately revoked in the context of infidelity even though it is dual-sided. Sylvester’s affinity for power as expressed with his profuse wielding of his cell phone and Berretta may reveal his emotional absence in his physical relationship that permitted such disloyalty to occur. Author and pop culture analyst Chuck Klosterman noted the lack of character recognition regarding modes of communication by explaining the fragile nature of human interaction today that resulted in explosive and violent exchanges among the infidels (The Guardian). Thus, for Sylvester in particular, the perpetuation of communication technologies and means of authority has degraded the need for introspection and tarnished the sanctity of his marriage.
Apart from the complicated marital situations, the women of Trapped in the Closet experience traditional subordination at the hands of their male counterparts. Although their marital status may contribute to the domestic treatment showcased, both Cathy and Gwendolyn are the victims of misogynistic actions by Rufus and Sylvester, respectively. In the initial scene, both Sylvester and Rufus condemn Cathy for her infidelity and dishonesty despite their personal affairs. Rufus boldly proclaims that Cathy has permitted another man to enter his house, thus further shattering the image of equality in marriage. Rufus threatens Cathy despite her apologetic state and proclaims that she is “not as sorry as she’s going to be” (Kelly). Sylvester also uses the titles “woman” and “bitch” in reference to Cathy to call her attention. Such blatant disregard of her name implies his lack of respect and his attempt to distance himself from his extramarital affair. The visual aid offered by the music video later reveals that Rufus also has a framed self-portrait on his office wall. As a result of misogynistic gestures and words, both men belittle Cathy in the series’ initial chapters before another female character is even
The introduction of Gwendolyn into the rap opera likewise sets her up to be an infidel. Sylvester expresses immense distrust in his wife as he speeds home from his own affair to investigate the scene. As anticipated in any production from R. Kelly, vulgar lyrics accompany a lengthy sex scene in the fourth chapter that positions Sylvester to be a dominant sexual being. Gwendolyn is expected to remain composed and poised outside of the bedroom, yet should be sexually adventurous, enthusiastic, and erotic with her partner. This dichotomy is imposed on women in nearly all forms of media and is extremely common in other music video depictions within and outside of hip-hop culture. The only sense of agency Kelly lends to women in the first five chapters of the series is their decisions to sexually liberate themselves through their affairs. The women’s unfaithfulness discredits them in society and within their social circles, but serves as their best defined moments of independence and choice in the earliest video segments.
Although each man’s infidelity is seemingly treated as most severe, both Sylvester and Rufus feel entitled to their negative reactions when they discover their wives’ disloyalty. While Cathy and Sylvester are caught, Rufus and Gwendolyn are motivated to cheat on their spouse upon discovering the infidelity of their partners. Both individuals are prompted to reveal their infidelity to their partner as a result of the emergence of the others’ transgression: Rufus catching Sylvester in his bedroom with Cathy and Sylvester finding a used contraceptive in his bed. Gwendolyn explains that she had previously witnessed Sylvester at a club and knew of his affair. Likewise, Rufus felt compelled to explore his true sexuality upon suspecting his wife cheating when she went out at night with her girlfriends. As the cheater becomes the cheated, sentiments of betrayal emerge and each individual is characterized by his or her level of defensiveness, despite personal transgressions. Such a web of lies prompts a discussion on the theme of secrecy and morality within each marriage. Each of the four individuals is hiding something from his or her respective partner and justifies the secrecy with the knowledge or suspicion that his or her partner is also an infidel. The worth of intimacy within a relationship is challenged as each individual solicits another for sex outside of their previous commitments.
Nonetheless, the Trapped in the Closet series, more specifically chapters 1-5, reveals the intense intersections of sexuality and gender roles in the context of marriage. The intersections of these facets, although absurd at times, illustrate well-defined stereotypes, while simultaneously debunking myths associated with each of the themes. In Kelly’s presentation of contemporary, heterosexual marriages, permeability appears to be inevitable at the fault of rapid communication and the ease with which infidelity can occur. Although the first five chapters of the series do not include the most dramatic and complicated situations in the context of the production as a whole, Kelly successfully presents a relatable scenario and the foreseeable intersection of religion, morality, and commitment in modern relationships. Kelly’s dramatization, presented in the form of music video, sets forth the story of Sylvester, Gwendolyn, Rufus, and Cathy to criticize infidelity and hypocrisy common in marriages today. Similarly, Kelly offers commentary on power relationships in the sphere of domesticity by suggesting women are presented with contradictory societal expectations. The primary chapters of Trapped in the Closet posit temptation to be at the root of all infidelity and addresses the reality of how likely individuals are to succumb to such temptation. The series, in short, is appropriately dramatized and serves as an innovative method of bringing contemporary issues into music, music video, and visual hip-hop/rap culture.
Reception, Criticism, and Reproduction
There are two types of people in the world: those who believe R. Kelly is a lyrical genius and those who believe he is entirely farcical. In general, it is no secret that much of R. Kelly’s career has centered on productions for vanity and shameless self-promotion. Thus, Trapped in the Closet was received with much hesitancy. The absurdity of the collection is undeniable, yet many individuals support the notion that Trapped in the Closet accidentally became a brilliantly profound artifact in popular culture, according to chat rooms, threads, and discussion boards devoted to the topic. In an interview regarding the release of the series, Kelly himself commented that “I can explain some of my other songs, but not this one” (Rolling Stone). Although the series was produced and promoted as a serious musical endeavor, it has evolved into a work that has elicited thoughtful academic discourse and internet hilarity. Internet boards offer contradictory criticism towards the rap opera that imply the series falls somewhere on the spectrum between an epic failure and waste of effort and funding and an insightful attempt at addressing critical social issues that are pertinent to hip-hop culture and beyond.
Trapped in the Closet has been reproduced, spoofed, and parodied by numerous sources, both political and satirical, thus noting the successful dissemination of the series. Comedian and television personality Aziz Ansari has repeatedly featured segments on R. Kelly in his live comedy shows that are now sold on DVD and offered through Netflix. Ansari, like many other comedians, acknowledge Kelly as a prolific comedian for his hefty repertoire of music and film that many viewers refuse to take seriously. Ansari commented, “I never thought I’d say this, but I wish more people in comedy were as creative and original as R. Kelly” (UCB Theater). In a sense, Kelly is at the top of his field when he is received as a comedic personality that produces projects such as Trapped in the Closet by knowingly giving the public absurd material. Kelly’s intentions in the production of this specific artifact are unclear, although individuals are hesitant to give him credit for any profound commentary drawn from the video series. Chuck Klosterman noted that the pure existence of such a series is absurd, but that is not to say something meaningful cannot be derived from its manifestation (The Guardian). He also recognizes that Kelly, as Sylvester, is a reliable narrator that drives an “erratic moral current” through the duration of the series. Kelly’s private and public lives inevitably influence his credibility as a producer and musician, thus many struggle to find it permissible to accept his commentary on morality and fidelity. Kelly’s legal troubles and consistent quest for the shock and awe emerge as points of contention for critics. Still, it is impossible to deny Kelly’s versatility that is frequently compared to that of Tyler Perry, a likewise prolific writer, actor, director and producer also crucial to the hip-hop community that gave life to the controversial character, Madea (The Biography). Like Perry, Kelly stars in his productions, undertaking multiple roles that transcend norms of masculinity and femininity. Thus, Kelly’s commitment to his productions, despite his motivation for their creation, is irrefutable.
Nonetheless, Trapped in the Closet is an accurate representation of the image Kelly has perpetuated throughout his work: consistently ludicrous and never to disappoint. Various memes have been circulated on internet boards and social media sites that poke fun at Kelly’s work and personal life. Two meme types, in specific, appear to be frontrunners in the R. Kelly meme collection: “Real Talk” and “She’s Too Young for U” (Unruh). Images from the first meme group tend to use a background photo of Kelly posing in a pensive position. The commentary on the image usually references Kelly’s absurd profitable initiatives and his egotistic professional demeanor. The latter meme category is in direct reference to Kelly’s legal trial in which he was charged with the creation and possession of child pornography. Other parodies of Kelly and his professional career generally use Trapped in the Closet as a main point of reference. Weird Al Yankovic, a well-known parody developer, produced his most lengthy parody ever with “Trapped in the Drive-Thru”, an ode to the mundane task of pursuing a late-night meal (Wikipedia contributors). Commenting on his creation, Weird Al refer to his choice to parody the original Trapped in the Closet because it is “brilliant and wonderful and ridiculous all at the same time”, sentiment expressed by many of Kelly’s critics (IMDB). Kelly gave full permission to Weird Al to produce and release the lengthy song that includes three sections that parallel the chapters of Kelly’s masterpiece. In general, Kelly appears to welcome parody as a compliment to his production by generously permitting its satirical reproduction.
Perhaps one of the most successful and recognizable parodies of the rap opera, Comedy Central’s satirical cartoon South Park dedicated an entire episode to Trapped in the Closet. In the season nine episode of the show, Kelly is transformed into an animated character that helps convince an animated Tom Cruise to emerge from a literal and metaphorical closet associated with Scientology (Parker and Stone). The majority of characters in the episode enter the literal closet during the episode, thus contradicting the sense of isolation associated with being “in the closet” in regard to homosexuality or any secretive issue. Kelly’s character even sings a parody of his own song during the episode in which he acts as the voice of reason for the other characters. Positioning Kelly as a commentator in the episode is ironic in itself for his absurd tendency to dramatize and misconstrue events and to use violence as means of authority and control. Although such media attention may center on Kelly’s missteps, it is attention nonetheless. Kelly appears to be unscathed by the sardonic jests at his life and career as he continues to produce content. Reporting to Billboard at the American Music Awards, Kelly stated that, “It feels good to still be on people’s mind after 23 years in the business” (Ramirez 29). Nearing fifty years of age, Kelly has nonetheless proven his commitment to showmanship and ultimate relevance in popular culture by continuing to shock audiences with melodramatic productions.
Limitations and Future Research
The popularity of artifacts in popular culture is perpetuated by the common man’s commitment to redistribute that artifact. Trapped in the Closet is no exception in the sense that its reception is most evident in public discussion boards, blogs, and file sharing networks. These information sources are limiting, however, because they are not academic, peer-reviewed sources with credible analysis. Furthermore, solely utilizing the first five chapters of the rap opera significantly limits the scope of analysis when considering R. Kelly and Trapped in the Closet as pivotal icons in popular culture. Because Kelly’s ultimate purpose of creating the production is relatively vague, it can be argued that any analytic claim made on the subject is credible or worthless dependent on the context. Trapped in the Closet is unquestionably dynamic and dramatic in order to address social phenomena and norms which facilitate crucial interactions of class, gender, and sexuality. These dramatizations, however, are dependent upon the blatant portrayal of stereotypes that can be misinterpreted and mistaken for gospel if this artifact is not viewed with a critical lens. Thus, Trapped in the Closet occupies a unique space of popular culture, not within the traditional confines of music videos nor true film, which presents complicated themes likewise deserving of applause and constructive criticism.
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