By now you’ve likely seen clips from a certain music video that are floating around online. A female pop star is lying down on an operating table, presumably naked under a white sheet. Her doctor, looking as club-ready as a surgeon gets, reaches under the sheet. She moans at his touch, and he notes that the medicine must be kicking in. Soon she is passed out, at which point a gaggle of women wearing discount-store slutty nurse costumes come into frame. The nurses party around and on top of the unconscious pop star in a most ostentatious manner while the doctor watches. At one point cooked lobsters are waved like puppets amidst her limp limbs, while a tower of shrimp hovers near her exposed breast. Another nurses mounts the singer’s lifeless body and humps her in a cartoon jack-rabbit way, easily a foot separating their genitals. Meanwhile, the singer, seemingly off in a dream, is writhing around in a dress made of tabloid clippings, in a room wallpapered in more press rumors. A photographer is there, shooting her as she poses, eventually in nothing more than loose newspaper pages. At one point she humps the air for little reason at all.
Remove the players from the over-the-top clip and tell me it doesn’t sound like a failed attempt at camp. It’s not sexy, and it’s not meant to be. That, of course, doesn’t change the fact that it’s disturbing to see an unconscious woman’s body placed in sexual scenarios, particularly at a time when roughly a quarter of all sexual assaults involve drugs. But factor in the specific players in this video — for Lady Gaga’s “Do What U Want,” costarring R. Kelly, and directed by Terry Richardson — and somehow the offensiveness is multiplied.
The clip, of course, was never released. For as many missteps as Gaga made during her extensive ARTPOP roll-out, the “Do What U Want” video never became one of them. On social media, Lady Gaga teased its early December release, calling it her “most personal” video (likely referring to the bit where she rolls around in tabloid trash, the song’s initial inspiration). Right around the time of the clip’s intended release, the Village Voice published an extensive interview with Jim DeRogatis, the former Chicago Sun-Times music critic who worked tirelessly reporting the underage sex allegations involving R. Kelly back in 2002. DeRogatis also made all of his transcripts and legal files through the years available at this time, shortly after Kelly had released a new album to some acclaim. The interview and the accompanying DeRogatis files were so powerful, it felt as if all of us on the Internet were collectively slapping ourselves in the face for forgetting R. Kelly’s terrible past.
Lady Gaga and her team were not straight-up stupid enough to release a music video with R. Kelly at time when he was, once more, the most reviled man in music. But the video’s leak this week, when Richardson’s alleged history of sexual assaulting young women has once again been under a microscope, is nearly as bad as if it had premiered during The R. Kelly Reconsideration of 2013.
Gaga — who previously bragged that she had “great chemistry” with R. Kelly in the clip — wrote a statement to fans in January regarding the video’s delay. “It is late because, just like with the ‘Applause’ video unfortunately, I was given a week to plan and execute it,” she said, adding a barely veiled slight to her then-recently dismissed manager. “It is very devastating for someone like me, I devote every moment of my life to creating fantasies for you.”
By the looks of the video, it’s hard to imagine who would welcome such a fantasy without realizing its disturbing nature. But ARTPOP’s roll-out was full of storylines and stunts that never connected to the album’s larger concept (think: more Marina Abramović, fewer Muppets Thanksgiving specials). It leads me to think that no one was telling Lady Gaga no. Like many other parts of her career, this video probably seemed to Gaga like manufactured controversy, all in good fun. What it’s spawned is an actual controversy — a scandal that requires an explanation for what was likely her lack of judgment in making what an inside source aptly noted was “an ad for rape.” In the time between when Gaga shot the video in October and its leak now, her two collaborators have battled in the court of public opinion, their images permanently altered. We shall see how this plays out for Gaga’s own public persona.