Surviving R. Kelly and the Problem With Modern Fan Culture

R. Kelly. Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images for BET

“Cancel culture” is fake. The value of the term is its ability to make public outcry seem disingenuous, to reduce what are often reasonable quibbles to histrionics, tokens of an era where people’s ability to handle opposing viewpoints is being ground to dust. There’s nothing nefarious about wanting to create distance between yourself and people you find troubling. No one ever gets “canceled,” not in life, or in prison, or in death. You fuck up publicly, and you screenshot an apology for your social-media accounts, where you’re cheered for your growth and maturity as your infraction is subsumed by a fresh press cycle. Get exposed for something egregious, and you take a year off and come back joking about money you lost on sabbatical. Go to jail, and your legend grows as fans call for your freedom and plot on your return. Die, and you’re sainted, sins absolved as you become a totem representing only the good you did, never the bad. There’s not much a celebrity can do to lose the entire audience. Even serial killers keep admirers.

Public figures rarely stay “canceled” because accountability is exhausting, and because being a fan means supporting someone like they’re part of your own family. Picking principles and sticking them out requires a measure of tyranny. The chicken company sponsoring homophobia means ditching delicious strips and dipping sauce. The football league stifling players’ protests means less game-day camaraderie. The sitcom man’s conviction means retiring a beloved TV father figure. The music man’s decades of cases and accusations mean weaning yourself off of several classic bedroom jams. Most people eventually decide that ethical consumption is a pipe dream because any money trail you follow will inevitably lead to a creep. Fans trust in the good intentions of whatever individual or organization they’ve built a personality around because changing the way we process art, commerce, and identity is exponentially tougher than cynicism and resignation. There’s no reward for it. You might get a drop of peace knowing you’re no longer “part of the problem.” You might enjoy a day of shine for a passionate social-media missive. Eventually, the dust settles, people cool down, and staying angry scans as vindictive behavior. “The issue’s been addressed,” you might hear. “What more do you want?”

It’s a good question. What’s desired is insurance that bad gaffes and awful acts won’t happen again. That’s not always as simple as “sorry.” Watching Surviving R. Kelly and tracking the fallout in its wake has been a lesson in how slowly the entertainment industry is moving toward accountability. If you grew up loving popular music over the last quarter century, chances are that you partied to at least a dozen songs R. Kelly created for himself and others. But it was nearly impossible not to have known something was fishy. Everyone old enough to bop to “Ignition” when it came out did so during a still quite shocking sex-crimes trial. Maybe you raised an eye at whispers about the marriage to Aaliyah, or laughed in disbelief years later at the Chappelle’s Show skit and the Boondocks episode. Maybe you resolved to never give the guy your money and continued to enjoy the music in silent shame. Maybe you didn’t do any of that. Hearing accusers’ stories in vivid detail was painful but necessary, for the sake of confronting what we were supporting and ignoring as fans, wittingly or unwittingly. It’s also a case study in the ways wealth and talent get weaponized in the wrong hands, in the shadowy moral quandaries that dissolve in the light of fame.

Could it happen again? It never stopped. The music industry doesn’t handle stories of abuse much better now than it did 15 or 25 years ago. Music and media are still so full of men who have fought accusations of gross misbehavior that two of them ended up being interview subjects in the Lifetime doc. Many of the biggest success stories of the last year in music involved men with volatile histories. Tekashi 6ix9ine once pleaded guilty to charges stemming from a sex party involving a minor. XXXTentacion’s meteoric ascent ran concurrently with a domestic-violence case that was only thrown out last summer after he was killed. Last month, Kodak Black walked out of a Hot 97 interview after morning-show host Ebro Darden asked if the Florida rapper wanted to come back for a dialogue about sexual assault when his own pending case was resolved. In June, XXXTentacion’s music broke a streaming record set by Taylor Swift. Kodak has scored a half-dozen platinum singles in the last two years. Tekashi’s “Fefe” went triple platinum. R. Kelly’s Spotify stream count spiked in the aftermath of Surviving. Last spring, Spotify’s initiative to remove tracks by Kelly, XXXTentacion, and others from its in-house playlists was thwarted by fans and artists who boorishly denounced the gesture as an act of censorship. If a publicly traded media company easing off of endorsing celebrities through troubling court cases is cause for outrage, the music biz is in a bad way.

Stories like these persist because, as fans, we’re wired to compartmentalize music and the actions of the people who make the stuff as separate and unrelated phenomena, when really the story is that fame often acts both as a lure that draws victims into abusers’ orbits and a shield against criticism when accusations come to light. Modern fan culture is tower defense. It’s as much a game of supporting a favorite artist as defending their honor. Jumping ship when a celebrity says or does something troubling is seen as betrayal. Staying onboard through rocky times is considered an act of loyalty. There’s no reward for that, either, just the illusion of blamelessness. Disbelief and deflection are coping mechanisms for fans, but they’re also lifelines that enable wrongdoing to continue without repercussions. The lesson of the year in scandals is that no one’s above reproach, that we all should be informing ourselves and interrogating our allegiances and the ways we are or aren’t helping to carve out a better future. It’s the least we could do.

Surviving R. Kelly and the Problem With Modern Fan Culture