Monday, November 4, 2013

Why the New Lady Gaga/R. Kelly Duet Kind of Creeps Me Out (and Why Gaga Doesn't Give a Damn!)

Once again, better late than never. Two singles into ARTPOP -- Lady Gaga's third full-length studio album, premiering worldwide on November 11, five days after its goes on sale in Japan -- and the former short-lived new queen of pop is finally getting the attention that eluded her throughout the ongoing run/round of "Applause," the first offering from ARTPOP and Gaga's best single since "Poker Face." (Clap clap clap!)

"Do What U Want," Gaga's new duet with R. Kelly, debuted at No. 13 on Billboard's Hot 100 this week, and likely will soon become the No. 1 single that "Applause" deserved to be. Personally, I would have preferred to spend the next few months with "Venus," which is not a Shocking Blue/Bananarama cover but a brand new paean to Greek mythology's goddess of love that was scheduled to be the next ARTPOP hit. At the 11th hour, "Want" replaced "Venus" as the second single due to overwhelming fan reaction to a snippet of it that was used in a U.S. Best Buy commercial for Beats headphones that first aired on October 17.

Now a robust ARTPOP debut at No. 1 -- or No. 2, depending on how Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP 2, out on Tuesday, holds up during its second week -- seems inevitable for the singer who, a few weeks ago, was being accused of losing her Midas touch, due to the underperformance of "Applause." It managed only a No. 4 peak, while being overshadowed by No. 1 hits from Katy Perry ("Roar") and Miley Cyrus ("Wrecking Ball"), Gaga's now apparent heir apparent in shock pop.

As pop singles go, "Do What U Want" is sturdy enough stuff, if slightly dull beyond the Gaga + Kelly angle, which puts it in the same musical/publicity-hook realm as "Nobody's Business," the equally '80s-inflected Rihanna-Chris Brown duet from Unapologetic. It can't seem to decide whether it's an open letter to judgmental haters (as if  we haven't heard enough of those, including "Nobody's Business") or a lusty PDA anthem. In other words, it's hardly original, and it's far short of poetry.

It's also not the scorching R&B ballad or rousing up-with-yourself anthem that we've come to expect from anything with Kelly's name attached to it, nor is it the arch electro-pop at which Gaga excels. It sounds more like something Christina Aguilera would do/should be doing -- in fact, on the first verse, which Gaga sings solo, she almost sounds like she's channeling Aguilera the way she did Madonna on "Born This Way" -- but it's almost refreshing to hear Gaga, for once, not trying so hard to be different.

But did she really have to do it while wailing sexual come-ons alongside a guy who is four years shy of 50? (Kelly is 46; Gaga is 27.) Normally, I'm not prissy about May-September hooks ups (God knows I've had my share), but it's hard for me to listen to this one and not remember that earlier this century, Kelly was accused of and charged with having sex with an underage girl. (He was eventually acquitted.)

It wasn't even Kelly's first legal entanglement involving sex and a minor. In 1998, he settled out of court with a woman who accused him of having sex with her when he was 24 and she was 15, the age, incidentally, that Kelly's then-protegee Aaliyah was when rumors surfaced that she and Kelly, who was in his late 20s at the time, had secretly married. If Aaliyah, who was killed in a 2001 plane crash, were alive today, she'd be 34, seven years older than Gaga.

It puts a different twist on a relatively harmless lyric like "Back of the club, taking shots, getting naughty." Gaga might be certainly old enough to do all of the above, and it's not like she hasn't gotten more sexual in song and dance all on her own, but its hard for me to control my cringe impulses when I think that Gaga was two months shy of turning 6 when Kelly released his debut album in 1992. 

Perhaps that's part of the reason why Gaga opted to invite Kelly to co-sing the song that she had been working on with her producers in the first place. By teaming up with an older man who is as sexually driven as Kelly, she gets to give another middle finger to anyone who would dare to question her judgment (like me, though it's not so much her duet partner as what she's singing with him that gives me slight pause), while all but ensuring her commercial resurgence and Kelly's first pop hit in years. 

Yes, Kelly is a great, talented artist who has collaborated with his share of divas -- among them, Whitney Houston ("I Look to You"), Toni Braxton ("I Don't Want To"), Celine Dion ("I'm Your Angel") and Michael Jackson ("You Are Not Alone") -- but for perhaps the first time in his career, he is the beneficiary of someone else's artistry. Would the song be getting as much attention had Gaga sung it on her own? It might be too ordinary and straightforward to have flown higher than "Applause" solo, so, my protestations aside, it was probably a genius move to invite Kelly onboard to give it a naughty little kick. 

For now, though, I'll continue to get my own kicks from "Applause."

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