Our Weekend with Michael Jackson and R. Kelly
The first rule of moving into a new place is to set up, even in a temporary location, the stereo. Good music sets the beat for organizing your new digs and allows for mini-dance parties as you determine which cabinet the coffee mugs will call home. This is what I did when Katie and I moved into our first and current apartment together.
Katie came with a record player. I had planned on buying one for myself just about the time we got serious, so when we moved in together, hers became mine, and I was Don Hall-excited about it. I could finally dust off my vinyl collection and give the old discs a spin. The first one I chose was my original pressing of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. At about the third track, the Paul McCartney duet “The Girl is Mine,” Katie asked, “Who is this?”
“Who is this!?” I responded, astounded and slightly confused. “It’s Michael Jackson. It’s Thriller — the second best-selling album of all time.”
“Oh, I don’t like Michael Jackson.”
I immediately questioned our entire relationship and my taste in women. “What!? How can you not like Michael Jackson?”
“He’s super creepy.”
“Okay. But what about his music? You like his music, right?”
“Eh. It’s okay.”
Once my wave of panic broke, I realized why Katie’s opinion was what it was. She’s six years younger than I. She was born in 1986, a year before Bad was released. By the time she was old enough to purposefully consume music, MJ was well past the mercurial and eccentric pop god the majority of the world adored. Balancing the art and the artist wasn’t an issue for Katie because she never experienced Michael at his best; before the cracks in his façade revealed the twisted man behind the sunglasses and the white glove.
Katie admitted that his influence in pop music was undeniable and that she didn’t dislike his music, so I happily let the rest of the album play. As it did, I age-splained what Michael Jackson was like before the pedophilia stories broke and he dangled his child over a balcony and his face and skin looked like Vincent Price’s nightmares and he painfully French kissed Lisa Marie Presley on TV. I told her how I, like millions of children and adults, copied his dance moves as best we could, and how I listened to my Bad tape so much that I eventually wore it out and had to have my parents buy me a new one. I told her how we — the fans — let slide the strangeness of carrying Emanuel Lewis like a baby at the 1984 AMAs because, well, geniuses do strange things. Michael Jackson fandom was completely lost on her. And it makes perfect sense as to why. She was, ironically, too young to have been pulled in by the magnificence of Michael’s magnetism.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was a huge fan of hip-hop, R&B, and rap music. I sought that music out and consumed it ferociously and almost exclusively.
Throughout my pre-teen and early teenage years, I was so into the music that my bedroom walls were plastered in magazine clipping photos of my favorite artists: Bell Biv DeVoe, Boyz II Men, Father MC, En Vogue, TLC, Tony Terry, Tony! Toni! Toné!, Mary J. Blige, Positive K, R. Kelly, New Edition, 2Pac, etc. My father, standing with me in my room, once asked me, “Are you gay?”
“You have all these pictures of men hanging up.”
“I like their music.”
“Do you want to be black?”
“I’ve never thought of that.”
I would rush home from junior high school every day (when I didn’t have band or spring musical rehearsal, or Hebrew school) to watch BET’s half-hour music video show. It played a lot of my music and a lot of music that wasn’t being played on radio. It introduced me to artists that were under the radar compared to what the rest of my friends were listening to. I reveled in knowing about music they didn’t. One artist, early in his career, was R. Kelly.
The video for “She’s Got That Vibe” wowed me. The song was New Jack Swing perfection. The video was early ’90s cool. I wanted that CD. I needed that CD. Since I was only twelve years old and there was no internet, I was at the mercy of my parents driving me to the mall and other record stores to find the CD. No place we knew of carried it. One desk clerk at the Lincoln Mall Sam Goody almost laughed at me when I asked him if they had R. Kelly’s album.
“Never heard of it.”
Oh, you will, I thought.
Soon after, a mailer from Columbia House arrived in our mailbox. “12 CDs for a Penny!” it advertised. I flipped through the pamphlet to see what they were offering and there it was: R. Kelly and the Public Announcement’s Born Into the ‘90s. I was sold. I told my parents I wanted to do it.
“It’s a scam,” my parents told me. I didn’t care. I wanted that album, and eleven other albums Columbia House had available for my listening pleasure. After the twelve CDs for a penny, I’d be locked in to purchase another set number of CDs at their price within a certain time period. I don’t remember what that was exactly, but I told my parents that I’d assume all financial responsibility. They decided to let me go forward on it, and in what may well be my most successful moment of money management, I met my requirements with no problem. Babysitting, cutting grass, and saving my allowance money afforded me the ability to score stacks of amazing CDs.
When Born Into the ’90s arrived, I devoured it. Every single track was incredible. I couldn’t get enough of it. I loved that R. Kelly was from Chicago. I loved that his voice sounded unique against everything else out there. I loved that his songs were all about girls because I was all about girls.
Not long after I memorized every lyric on the album, I discovered the first clue that R. Kelly was a little odd. It had been there, right in my ears the whole time. Toward the end of “She’s Got that Vibe,” R. Kelly starts listing all the girls who “got that vibe.”
“… Stephanie's got it
And Sabrina's got it
Rachelle has got it yeah
Gladys got it
Fontina's got it
Little cute Aaliyah's got it
Ooh Stacy's got it
I tell ya Tita's got it
I tell ya Rita's got it
Oh Laurel's got it
And Kim's got it, yeah”
“Little cute Aaliyah’s got it.” Harmless the first few hundred times I heard it, but once Aaliyah came onto the scene, I had to pause. Aaliyah was my age. She was a child. Why would he be singing about a child having that vibe? I knew it had to have been that Aaliyah because I knew R. Kelly wrote and produced her first hit, “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number.” Weird, I thought. But that was the extent of it. Because what did I know? I was twelve.
When R. Kelly’s second album, 12 Play dropped, I bought it immediately. This time Sam Goody had it. The songs were a whole lot sexier. While still a great album, I didn’t really understand why he was so fixated on screwing. Where was the romance I thought I heard on Born Into the ’90s? By the time his third album, R. Kelly was released, I had lost interest. In part because I had discovered punk rock and also because I couldn’t relate to much of what he was singing about. I was fifteen years old and horny as hell, but I couldn’t understand why R. Kelly seemed to be so incredibly horny. It was extreme.
I moved on. But I would occasionally go back to those first two albums and play them. When the accusations about more inappropriate sexual activity and molestation and predatory behavior came to the surface, I wasn’t surprised at all. R. Kelly was a dangerous pervert from the very beginning and he’d been telling us about it every step of the way.
In January, Katie and I watched the Lifetime documentary Surviving R, Kelly. It was, of course, disturbing and disgusting but it was hardly shocking. Similar to her experience with Michael Jackson, Katie never got into R. Kelly’s music, and though I told her of my love for the guy in the early ’90s, I was not inclined to promote his impact on music or make any case for separating the art from the artist because, for one, R. Kelly’s art was chock-full of his disgusting behavior and two, because while some have called R. Kelly a genius, he’s not. R. Kelly is no Michael Jackson.
As more stories about Jackson’s alleged pedophilia came to surface, I never once denied that it was wrong. But I never thought he was a predator. I always figured — like so many of us — that he was a product of his wonky childhood and was a broken man who didn’t know appropriate social behavior. He was the proverbial man-child — a little, lonely boy stuck in the body of a lonely grown man. I believed that he did some inappropriate things, like sleeping in the same bed with his boy fans. Playing odd, pervy games that kids might play when they’re just figuring out what their penises are for. But I never thought he was a rapist, a pedophile, a predator. He was just a really, really weird dude. The whole thing struck me as sad, and yes, gross.
When we watched Leaving Neverland, I did so with ever-increasing discomfort as the indisputable stories of rape, manipulation, and the twisted workings of a predator unfolded. When it was over, Katie asked me, “What do you think about Michael Jackson now?”
“He’s a fucking monster,” I said.
I’ll still go back to Born Into the ’90s and 12 Play because when I do, I’m brought back to where I was at the time when they were new music. At this point, I know I’ll enjoy them even more once the sonofabitch is in jail. Proper justice makes everything sweeter. But is there still enough salt in R. Kelly’s music when I think about the damage he caused all of those girls and their families? Damn right.
Michael’s music doesn’t gross me out to the same degree. It’s not riddled with blatant statements of abuse and hurtful perversion. It’s too much a part of my DNA. It’s too much a part of the world’s DNA. The influence of 1980’s Michael Jackson is a through line in almost every single pop song since and will likely continue to be. My son is almost a year old and Thriller gets him dancing every single time. (I haven’t played any R. Kelly for him yet, so I’m not sure how he’ll like that stuff.) And when he’s old enough, I’m sure I’ll have to have The Talk with him. I imagine it’ll go something like this:
“Harry, Michael Jackson’s music is incredible. Appreciate that. But know that Michael Jackson was a horrifying person. He hurt people while singing about healing the world. People are complicated. His music may inspire you, but please don’t let the man behind the music inspire you. Unless we’re talking about Quincy Jones. Because as far as we know, Quincy Jones is still a stand-up guy.
“I loved Michael Jackson growing up. And I can’t forgive him for what he did. It’s not really my place to forgive him because he didn’t hurt me or my family, but I still feel slighted by his foul behavior. So keep on dancing, my son. Get up off the wall, shake your body down to the ground, moonwalk, if you can, but know that even the greatest artists, our heroes, can be hideous monsters.”
Like so many of us who are or were Michael Jackson fans, I’ve been poring over my relationship with him and his music. I’m not ashamed that I wasn’t fully committed to thinking he was a pedophile rapist. I needed the facts laid out before me. And, baby, they’re here.
But I’ll tell you this: even at the height of my adoration for the King of Pop, I never thought Captain EO was anything but wretchedly uncomfortable. Worse than that Lisa Marie kiss.