Camp Is for Everyone: R. Kelly and the Evolution of Trash

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I don’t care much for R. Kelly. It’s probably not a huge shock if you know me personally or follow me on the Internet — “Tyler Coates hates everything that is wonderful and good!” — but in this case it’s less about hatred and more about apathy. Sure, “Ignition (Remix)” has always made me cringe to the point that I’ve described it as the song I hate the most (there’s something about the phrase “freakin’ weekend” that really gets under my skin; it’s the opposite of “cellar door” for me), but for the most part my hesitation about R. Kelly comes from not being able to take him seriously — there’s something about his oeuvre that seems too jokey and deliberately dumb. Through the process of wondering why I wasn’t a fan, I might have cracked the code: R. Kelly is camp for straight people.

The broader appreciation of camp has come a long way since Susan Sontag published her famous essay “Notes on ‘Camp'” in 1964. You can probably blame the Internet for this: it’s a breeding ground for the appreciation of terrible shit, where irony and sarcasm seem to run rampant. This was probably always the case — it’s always been easy to find weird corners of the web where bizarrely awful things are trumped up as some form of art — but the proliferation of social media has made the access to camp much easier, not to mention a group experience.

But it also seems like American culture in general has embraced camp with open arms. Take a look at American Horror Story, for example; it’s a highly entertaining show that blends actual pathos and social criticism with melodrama, horror, and over-the-top performances from female actresses of a certain age (Ryan Murphy can at least be commended for providing roles to a handful of actresses over the age of 40 when there’s not much out there for them in film or, frankly, other TV shows). It’s a trashy soap opera, presumably one not to take too seriously, but it’s also incredibly fun to watch — more fun, I’d argue, than Mad Men, which I’ve always found to be a dismally boring soap that takes itself way too seriously. I don’t know many straight men who are into American Horror Story; it’s seemingly for girls and gay guys, and we’re all fine with that.

Camp, however, has found a much warmer home in pop music, a genre that seemingly appeals to women and homosexuals. It’s a world that has, especially in recent years, valued the ability to surprise and shock over actual talent and songwriting abilities. It’s why we have Lady Gaga and Katy Perry looking like real-life cartoon characters; it’s likely the reason that “Work Bitch” exists. There’s a camp element in what music writer Maura Johnston dubbed “trollgaze,” a term she introduced in a blog post about Lance Bass-backed none-hit wonders HEART2HEART, a seemingly serious version of the ’90s boy-band parody 2GE+HER:

You can call the genre “trollgaze,” although its appeal transcends any sort of musical style; this is actually why it works as a marketing strategy, because the potential for laughing at/being annoyed by/saying “wtf” at a piece of art trumps its aesthetics. The result, of course, is a somewhat toxic cycle where those people who are willing to wear lampshades on their heads over and over take attention away from artists who are trying to figure out what the hell they’re doing, and who don’t want to play for laughs to the cheap seats in order to establish a foothold.

You can make the argument that stuff like HEART2HEART and Rebecca Black aren’t camp; more accomplished (or, more accurately, more successful and monied) acts like Lady Gaga and Lana Del Rey may not be camp, either. They seem to be too aware of themselves and their lowbrow cultural offerings to be accidentally awful. (Say what you will about Gaga’s self-declared importance; I think she’s too smart to actually take herself that seriously.)

(A confession: I can recognize I’m not immune to this Internet-fueled, borderline-sarcastic love for garbage. Remember that Spaghetti Warehouse song? I listened to that for an entire day.)

To bring it back to R. Kelly, though: you get the notion that, well, he does think he’s making art. And hey, even I can point to a handful of his songs and recognize that they’re objectively good. (“I’m a Flirt,” for example, is a hot jam.) But then there’s plenty of offerings in his catalog that all serve the same purpose, which is to figure out more rooms in one’s home where it’s possible to bump and grind. And, of course, Trapped in a Closet, which I found too stupid to laugh at when it was released in several parts nearly a decade ago. Even then, I couldn’t tell if my friends who were excited about it were laughing at or with R. Kelly. I still can’t tell, to be honest!

Maybe that’s how camp has evolved in the 50 years since Sontag published her essay: it’s expanded to include something for everyone, primarily because it’s become a genre-transcendent aesthetic. Are we supposed to take these pop-culture elements seriously, or is everything “art” with a heavy use of quotation marks? All I know for sure is that when I listened to “Do What U Want,” the collaboration between R. Kelly and Lady Gaga from the forthcoming ARTPOP, I wanted to listen to it over and over again, which surprised me considering my general indifference toward both of them in the past. Perhaps it’s time I stop worrying and just embrace the trash.