Updated: August 19, 2013 1:44PM
The Pitchfork Music Festival enters its eighth run this weekend with many of the most respected artists in the indie rock world: Belle & Sebastian, Bjork, Low, Wire, Joanna Newsom and the Breeders.
And then there’s R. Kelly. The Chicago-born R&B superstar holds the festival’s Sunday night headline spot, an appearance that comes only a month after a headlining performance at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival outside Nashville, another annual destination event largely consisting of white, up-and-coming rock bands and hallowed veterans. There, Kelly not only delivered a greatest-hits set backed by a robed gospel choir, he later joined Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes, among others, for an early morning live jam session onstage. In April, he appeared at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California, where he once again collaborated with an unusual suspect: French dance-pop band Phoenix.
Kelly, 46, is not exactly known for collaborating with artists outside his genre, or even cooperating with the media, which makes his sudden crossover into the indie rock world curious. Till this point in his 21-year career, he has been marketed mainly to black audiences. His music, which rotates among traditional soul balladry, glitzy studio pop and bump-and-grind bedroom fare, remains a staple on black radio and BET, and keeps him a major draw at festivals like the Macy’s Music Festival in Cincinnati, set for the weekend after Pitchfork, where he performs on a bill alongside Jill Scott, KEM, Fantasia and Ginuwine.
To white audiences, particularly millennials, Kelly’s music is less known, except for “Trapped in the Closet,” the 33-chapter DVD opus released from 2005 to 2012. After “Trapped” crossed into the mainstream, it became fodder for note-perfect parodies by Jimmy Kimmel, Dave Chappelle, “South Park” and countless others. Incomprehensible, hilarious, shocking, surreal — those terms all can be aptly used to describe “Trapped,” a novelty project that dares the viewer to untangle, not just the plot, but the purpose behind the entire effort.
Of course, it is no coincidence that “Trapped” provided Kelly a handy distraction soon after a real-life saga threatened his career: A 2008 trial in which the singer faced 14 counts of child pornography (charges prompted by Sun-Times coverage beginning in 2000). Even though a jury found him not guilty on all counts, the trial brought to the surface a series of ugly incidents from Kelly’s personal life: his shotgun wedding with singer Aaliyah, later annulled because she was only 15 years old at the time, and allegations of sexual misconduct with underage girls.
The popularity of “Trapped” and his reach into a new market can be seen as a second chance for Kelly to succeed in a crossover attempt launched more than a decade ago. Before his trial, said Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African-American studies at Duke University in Durham, N.C., Kelly was poised to have a major career as a global pop star in the vein of Michael Jackson. After Kelly’s inspirational hit, “I Believe I Can Fly,” became a worldwide smash in 1996, he then recorded a duet with Celine Dion, a No. 1 pop hit in 1998, and he even played the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics, a kind of rite-of-passage for any performer seeking a global presence.
“The [child pornography] charges derailed all of that,” said Neal, whose recent book “Looking for Leroy” (NYU Press), includes a chapter on Kelly. “If crossover was a possibility, it would have changed the trajectory in early 2000, and Pitchfork would have been a natural projection in that regard.”
But that didn’t happen, which is why Kelly has booked shows at Pitchfork, Coachella and Bonnaroo. The audiences at all three festivals are likely not invested in, or even aware of, Kelly’s pre-“Trapped” career, which means his past controversies are moot.
“It’s a crowd that doesn’t care. I don’t mean they don’t care in they don’t take issues of sexual violence seriously,” Neal said. “But that’s not their relationship with R. Kelly, opposed to black audiences who are conflicted about him but who have also been following him for 20 years. Pitchfork’s audience is a bunch of hipsters who have no idea who Aaliyah is.”
David Leonard, chair of the critical culture, gender and race studies department at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., agrees that Kelly’s appearances at Pitchfork “is about recouping his image” and “trying to reach audiences and markets that weren’t there before and weren’t needed before.” Because the Pitchfork audience primarily knows him through the mockery surrounding “Trapped,” however, he might become a “spectacle to gaze at ... opposed to other artists, who are there to be enjoyed for their music.
“So clearly, Bjork fans will attend, whereas, for longtime R. Kelly fans, is this festival for them? Are they going to come to this festival? Probably not. That’s probably not the intended audience.”
“Trapped” was perfect for grooming a young audience that primarily learns about new music via YouTube, and its success meant “the music itself becomes very simplistic,” Leonard said. He added that “Trapped” also presents storylines about black sexuality that “become much more acceptable to white audiences.”
Because “Trapped” also helps to disarm the lingering concerns about Kelly, Leonard said, “The seriousness gets stripped away.”
The music that Kelly is performing at these festivals also doesn’t reflect his studio interests in recent years. At these venues, he has been concentrating on sexed-up dance-pop, a style from early in his career, instead of the more mature music, mostly inspirational songs and traditional R&B ballads, largely aimed at engaging his aging black audience over the last decade.
However, none of his recent albums has been as commercially successful as his earlier ones. Which is probably why, in speaking to the Associated Press, he described his next album, titled “Black Panties,” as his “next ’12 Play,’” his 1993 breakthrough smash that featured libidinous hit singles like “Sex Me, Pts. 1-2,” “Bump n’ Grind” and “Your Body’s Callin’.”
Like aging blues singers who rebranded themselves in the 1960s for white European listeners, but were criticized in the process, Kelly clearly knows what works best for his emerging new audience, even if it might be considered astep backward artistically.
“Part of what has always been R. Kelly’s strength is he always understood his audience,” Neal said. “Plus, he is also incredibly talented and not only knows how to write great songs, but he knows how to keep it young and relevant.” What helps, Neal contends, is “the further away he gets from the actual trial,” the shorter people’s memories become. That is, “as long as the music is relevant,” Neal added. “If he was making bad music, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Mark Guarino is a free-lance contributor. Email to firstname.lastname@example.org