To listen or not? Responding to “Baby, its Cold Outside,” Michael Jackson and R. Kelly in an age of sexual enlightenment

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside”

 When I think of the famous duet song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (written by Frank Loesser in 1944; popularized in the 1949 film Neptune’s Daughter) I think of recordings and TV scenes, rather than the composition itself. Specifically, I think pf Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald’s famous version recorded for Decca Records in 1949 a decade before their more famous duets at Verve. The song also takes me back to a playful scene from early 1990s TV when the characters Dwayne Wayne and Whitley Gilbert, of NBC’s Different World, were courting with Ray Charles and Betty Carter singing a 1961 rendition of “Baby.” More recently, I recall a pivotal 2010 episode of FOX’s Glee when the characters Kurt and Blaine harmonized together in a holiday themed episode.

In 1961 Ray Charles and Betty Carter recorded one of the most iconic versions of “Baby, It’s cold Outside.”

In 1961 Ray Charles and Betty Carter recorded one of the most iconic versions of “Baby, It’s cold Outside.”

 Given these fond personal memories I was surprised to learn that in 2018 several U.S. and Canadian radio stations decided to stop playing “Baby” because many listeners read its lyric as a veiled form of sexual coercion through the sly use of alcohol. The pointed use of the song in satirical scenes on episodes of Saturday Night Live and South Park featuring convicted rapist Bill Cosby only amplified this tie-in.

 According to daughter Susan Loesser’s 1993 biography, A Most Remarkable Fella: Frank Loesser and the guys and dolls in his life: A portrait by his daughter, Loesser wrote “Baby” originally as a tongue-in-cheek song for a housewarming part he and his wife hosted. The song, sang by Loesser and his wife Lynn Garland, aimed to gently encourage guests to leave the party. The song caught on and he eventually sold it to MGM studios; it won the 1949 Academy Award for Best Original Song after being featured in Neptune’s Daughter.

 I am sure Loesser did not imagine their song would engender so much controversy but, of course, authors who create public works lose control of the meanings and interpretations their creations long after they are written, published and broadcast. This issue came to the fore in when singer Connie Francis attempted to sue the Universal Music Group (UMG) for using her recordings for sexual scenes in several films. She lost in each case because UMG rather than Francis owns the copyright to the music.

 So what does one do with “Baby”? I respect the objections of those who find the song triggering or problematic. These are profoundly personal emotions that defy external judgment. If I were playing the song and someone asked me to not play it, I would comply out of regard for their well-being.

 Otherwise, I will continue to enjoy the classic recordings of the song. When sung by gifted interpreters its lovely melody and intricate lyrics, can weave a spell rare in contemporary pop. I can understand how a song could evoke bad memories or associations for listeners for many reasons; this is not a unique property of “Baby.” Harmful associations could be projected onto almost any song or recording given the context.  

 Interpreting art necessarily involves some level of interpretation and ambiguity. Isolating select lyrics from a song and declaring that only one interpretation or reading is possible or acceptable is anti-intellectual and censorious. In this instance, there is no direct causation between the song itself and actual sexual abuse.

 Sexual abuse is a serious social concern rooted in a pathological thirst for dominance and power that would not be lessened by taking “Baby” out of rotation. Sexual abuse is too serious of an issue to be whittled down to a consumer choice. To do so trivializes the complex reasons why sexual abuse happens and the often problematic way our society responds judicially and socially. There are more profound social measures, including early education about healthy sexuality and relationships, and the importance of affirmative consent that will impact the behavior and values more so than eliminating one song. Avoiding “Baby” may provide some individuals with temporary relief from what may feel tasteless, offensive and antiquated to many ears, but the larger battle for sexual justice is more difficult than turning down the volume or skipping to the next track.

 

Michael Jackson

 The 2018 premiere of Dan Reed’s documentary Leaving Neverland has reignited accusations of Michael Jackson as a pedophile. While he was never convicted successfully during his lifetime, two adults who first met Jackson as children, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, are adamant that, despite their previous statements, they were abused by the singer. Since trying Jackson from the grave is futile, I am more compelled by the seduction of celebrity, especially one whose image was largely defined by select ideas of innocence, and how it can cloud our willingness to consider certain possibilities, however ugly.

Filmmaker Dan Reed’s 2018 documentary has reignited controversies and questions over the nature of Michael Jackson’s behavior toward young male fans.

Filmmaker Dan Reed’s 2018 documentary has reignited controversies and questions over the nature of Michael Jackson’s behavior toward young male fans.

 Jackson, as lead singer of the Jackson 5, was highly iconic for a generation of children. This was arguably even more salient for black children who had few black teen idols in popular culture of the early 1970s. Talented, energetic and precocious, Motown was primarily interested in the J5 as a crossover group and hence very protective of the J5’s image. Motown did not want Jackson or his brothers commenting on politics, culture, or the larger world. Their job was to sing, smile, and sell records.

 The toll of this isolation has always been a distorted sense of reality that expanded when Jackson’s 1979’s solo album Off the Wall became a multi-platinum success and reached its acme with 1982’s Thriller, the best-selling album in history. As Jackson sold more records and became more exposed through innovative videos and iconic visual style, his identity became increasingly vulnerable to scrutiny. Suddenly, the child-star-turned-celebrity musician was ridiculed for his gendered affect, his appearance, his intelligence, his religious upbringing and anything else that would challenge his ascent to superstardom. As James Baldwin presciently commented in the 1985 essay “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” “The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good sense to know it and the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of carnivorous success. He will swiftly not be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael” (689 qtd. from The Price of the Ticket).

 Baldwin understood that a black man who broke the barriers Jackson was breaking would not be permitted an easy time in a country that has demonized black men from its outset. Jackson fulfilled his commercial goal to “crossover” and become the ultimate cross-cultural human commodity almost too well.  His did not seem fully capable of distinguishing commercial approval from authentic social acceptance. Unanchored by any reality known to most people he lost sight of the rules that typically govern the ways adults and children interact, as well as America’s persistent racial script.

 The personal attacks he endured regarding his style and persona during the 1980s and early 1990s always engendered sympathy from his loyal worldwide audience. But the 1993 accusations of child abuse permanently disrupted Jackson’s seeming imperviousness to consequences for his notoriety. While many questioned Jackson’s carefully cultivated image of Peter Pan like innocence, his most dedicated fans were emboldened against what they saw as the ultimate attempt to dislodge Jackson from his hard won cultural status (The case was settled out of court for millions in 1994). The re-emergence of these accusations in 2005 (Jackson was tried and acquitted) only intensified fans’ perceptions of Jackson as the eternal victim of a vicious manhunt aiming to dismantle Jackson’s musical and cultural legacy.

 Baldwin was prescient in predicting Jackson’s potential downfall as one mediated by deep-seated racial resentment and narrow American conceptions of masculinity. Fans’ fiercely protective attitudes about Jackson’s image and innocence was also understandable given popular media’s ongoing harassment of Jackson. Even after he settled out of court in the 1990s and was retried and acquitted in 2005, fans may have sensed that Jackson’s life would remain fodder for exploitation and ridicule.  

 Neither of these reflexes, however historically warranted, negate the possibility that Jackson may have acted inappropriately or abusively. For example, Jackson never denied sharing a bed with children in the past. Why is this acceptable from a beloved celebrity when it would be highly suspect in ordinary life? These questions are more perhaps properly directed at the parents who allowed their children to be enshrined in the glare of celebrity, but the parents were clearly seduced as well.

 The desire by multiple generations to appreciate Jackson’s music, enjoy his performing style and revel in his various personae should not preclude the idea that he could harm another being. By refusing to entertain this as a possibility Jackson’s fans replicate the reductive skepticism society has directed toward female victims of abuse toward Robson and Safechuck’s claims.  The power of celebrity is so blinding in this instance that for a large portion of the public no evidence Robson or Safechuck could ever present would warrant even cursory consideration.  Since Jackson was never formally convicted of a crime one could not legally declare his music as that of a pedophile, but this has not stopped radio networks, TV shows (e.g. The Simpsons) and other entertainers who use his music from turning down the volume and taking it out of circulation indefinitely.  Whether he was legally charged or not, to some, their reasonable doubt was compelling enough for them to take a stand.

 

R. Kelly

To this listener R. Kelly’s songs are either crude pillow talk or schmaltzy feel good anthems with limited variations. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a classic composition that has generated notable renditions from some of the finest singers of our time. And Jackson is an undeniable pioneer in contemporary music, Kelly’s music is predictable, formulaic and inessential. I was not listening to him intently before or after his conviction which amplifies further reasons to avoid him. His warbly tenor and almost campy sensibility have made his music easy to dismiss as ridiculous for decades. His recent conviction is the most persuasive evidence that beneath his moribund music lies a potentially disturbed and abusive person needing some form of intervention, whether judicial and/or therapeutic.

Kelly was tried in 2008 for multiple counts of child pornography but was acquitted. This has not stopped the tide of accusations about inappropriate and illegal sexual behavior dating back to the early 1990s. Lifetime’s January 2019 documentary Surviving R. Kelly inspired public concerns that led to him being indicted for criminal sexual abuse.

The Lifetime network’s 2019 Surviving R. Kelly documentary captured the voices of of women who accused the singer-songwriter of sexual abuse.

The Lifetime network’s 2019 Surviving R. Kelly documentary captured the voices of of women who accused the singer-songwriter of sexual abuse.

Rather than trying Kelly here, I am more interested in noting that famous musicians perceived to be as problematic in the ways Kelly has for many years can only thrive when fans and the industry allow them to do so. The artists Kelly has written and produced for, the remixes he has been featured on, the film makers that have commissioned him, the channels that have played his videos and related entities made him a “brand,” even if they were not fully aware of his alleged activities. The same holds true for his label and his loyal fans.  RCA Records recently dropped him from the label. But after multiple platinum sales successes that made him the most popular R&B musician from 1995-2010 (according to Billboard) these decisions seem more motivated by fears of bad publicity and decreased sales than a sudden moral awakening. Only now has the record label conceded to the notion that Kelly may have made some harmful choices. I wonder if they would have waited so long to respond if a less popular and profitable singer had experienced similar charges?

For his loyal fans I hope the boundary between loyalty and skepticism is wavering. As the example of Jackson proves, successful black male entertainers are often hyper visible and vulnerable to extraordinary scrutiny. As such, audiences are understandably skeptical and protective, and leery of presuming guilt.  Whereas Jackson was never convicted and there remains considerable ambiguity, the sad case of Bill Cosby’s assault victims illustrates how perpetual systematic sexual violence can be when it is overlooked. We should not need a formal conviction to ask why we give celebrities the benefit of the doubt but turn our eyes and ears away from potential survivors.  

 

COPYRIGHT © 2019 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

Getting Away…Letting Go…Gone: Reflecting on Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston

Though Michael Jackson passed way in 2009 and Whitney Houston in 2012 their record companies continue to market their catalogs. In 2014 Epic released Xscape, a compilation of previously recorded but unreleased material. It spawned the hit “Love never felt so good” and lot of controversy from members of the Jackson Family. After releasing a Houston compilation in 2012 Sony/BMG released Whitney Live: Her Greatest Performances in 2014. They continue to intrigue audiences in death as in life.

Thriller  cover Copyright  © 1982, 2001 MJJ Productions/Epic.  Whitney Houston  cover Copyright ©  1985, 2010, RCA/JIVE label group.

Thriller cover Copyright ©1982, 2001 MJJ Productions/Epic. Whitney Houston cover Copyright© 1985, 2010, RCA/JIVE label group.

Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson share reputations and roles as the most iconic black singers of the 1980s. As such they epitomized the longstanding black “crossover” dream better than any other black singers of the rock era. Or rather, as we learned from their tragic premature deaths they embodied the nightmarish side of the dream to the extreme.

 Even compared to commercial heavyweights like Stevie Wonder or Diana Ross, who achieved immense success as pop-soul artists, Houston and Jackson gave up more. In the ‘70s Wonder and Ross still had to make it with black audiences first before crossing over. But Jackson and Houston reached a point much earlier in their careers where they started with the general/white/pop audience and did not need to “crossover.” They had already arrived. White audiences, and global audiences, embraced them as eagerly as blacks—maybe more so.

 In morphing from black acts with presumed “specialized” urban appeal/ethnic resonance (and other industry euphemisms) they mutated into distant commodified versions of themselves. Jackson was a prodigy who became a promising, awkward teenager who grew into a handsome independent young man before becoming a human commodity with Thriller. The fragile tenderness on Off the Wall’s ballads (i.e. “She’s Out of My Life”), the recurring escape themes on its dance cuts (“Burn this Disco Out”), especially the title track gave him away, in retrospect. The leap from his sappy middle-of-the road (MOR) solo albums at Motown to Off the Wall’s layered expressions hinted at reservoirs of suppressed emotion within Jackson.

 As ear candy these songs are expert pop craft. As tell-tale signs of something impending in his psyche and career they are frighteningly prescient. Thriller is almost exclusively an opportunity for Jackson to escape into meaningless accessibility tinged with paranoia (“Billie Jean,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”). Content is not so much the message as feeling; like the milk you drink to cool hot foods Thriller was a rich, sweet, creamy balm that could never cool the sting of Jackson’s life in the long-term. Its beginning was his (the real MJ) end as opposed to “His” (MJ global superstar/King of Pop). The kinds of social, psychological, and emotional developments young men usually traverse from childhood to young adulthood were already complicated (stifled?) when he went into making Off, and Thriller cemented their stagnation.

 Because the American popular culture industry was not built for or by blacks, black artists always struggle to get in. Once “in” they know what they have left behind (safety, comfort, empathy, cultural understanding from the black “niche” audience), they are often daunted by what they want to see (fame, success, acceptance), and what could be seen by cautious eyes (second-guessing, rejection, contempt). Fame has not proven itself as an antidote to racial pandering as figures as disparate as boxer Jack Johnson, athlete/actor O.J. Simpson, former Ms. America Vanessa Williams, and golfer Tiger Woods experienced at different phases of their careers.

 Though Houston lacked Jackson’s adolescent commercial pedigree she was a young woman when Arista record exec and producer Clive Davis shepherded her into pop heaven. Even her mother Cissy’s experience as a renowned background singer and minor R&B star could not prepare her for the platform she reached with her immense vocal talents. Davis’s “hit” single mentality was broad enough for her to crossover but too narrow to really “get” who Whitney was and what she might face. This is where Farah Jasmine Griffin’s classic book If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery is crucial. Her book localizes the sources of Billie Holiday’s pain and elusiveness. There’s something we cannot know (hence Mystery) because there was something Holiday was trying to protect (not hide). Drugs helped her establish this distance; the same was tragically true of Houston in many respects.

 Beneath the studio gloss, the elegant phrasing, and the entertaining if often prosaic songs lies something raw and unarticulated that usually gets condensed into a broader emotional field of pop feeling. Yet this is unsatisfying because Houston was not easy to reach or understand despite her apparent commercial accessibility. Beyond the hits was someone unseen; one who betrayed the obvious sentiments of her attractive but unchallenging music. Who knows how she would have developed differently if her fame came when she was more seasoned? This is where 1990’s mediocre album I’m Your Baby Tonight is crucial. In wanting to make Houston seem “blacker” (via hiring New Jack producers like Babyface, L.A. Reid and Daryl Simmons) her record company essentially rejected who she was to win the black audience’s favor. As such she descended publicly into a black urban tale fit for Maury Povich: Erratic behavior, a loutish husband, self-destructive behavior, drug abuse, and unidentified angst. What she wanted—acceptance? understanding?  fame? catharsis?—killed her. Drug use is never passive, but the gradual erosion of self occurs at slower speeds and lower frequencies.

 ************************************************************************************************************************************

My first thought with both of these singers is always to wonder when their biological families and black audience “families” had to let them go, hence the essay’s title. Our families, however flawed, usually know us best because they are intimate witnesses of our becoming. Jackson’s proximity to his parents and his siblings is both a testament to family support (usually rare for artists) and an understandable motivation for him to become more independent artistically and personally. Since he remained affiliated with The Jacksons (musical group) into the early ‘80s it’s not clear when his family’s respect for his solo pursuits drifted toward concern. And if his audience thought he was growing increasingly strange in the mid-80s during the acme of Thriller his family surely noticed.

 Similarly, the symbolic grounding the black audience offered performers grew increasingly strained as the black managers, mom and pop record stores, chitlin’ circuit venues, and black radio formats that created the black music sub-industry, and fostered affinities between performers and their audiences crumbled under the weight of change. Music critic Nelson George’s 1989 book The Death of Rhythm & Blues chronicles this especially well. Record company consolidation, MTV etc. all widened the gaps. While Jackson has understandably attained loyalists from multiple cultures black culture is still his root. It was not until the early 1990s when he was accused of child molestation that black audiences reasserted their support for him. And this was reignited in the early 2000s when he accused record exec Tommy Mottola and Sony Music of racism prior to the launch of 2001’s Invincible.

Between Thriller and his death there were multiple lulls in the black audience’s interest in Jackson the musician.  By the rise of New Jack and hip-hop in the late ‘80s he was catching up with the black audience’s taste rather than leading it. The child star that emerged as icon incarnate for black kids around the world grew into a distant relative black people cared for but had lost touch with.

 Houston’s mother Cissy wisely waited until Houston reached a certain level of maturity to let her record for Arista Records, and years of “wood shedding” occurred under Davis’s tutelage. Her commercial success and stable image marked her as a responsible and competent person publicly. No one would have suspected she needed her family to intervene too much after her first two blockbuster albums in 1985 and 1987. Davis guided her career closely for years but in the early ‘90s, around the time she married Bobby Brown, Davis’s grip started slipping. The once unreachable star suddenly appeared more vulnerable (i.e. weird behavior, missed gigs) but in the most clichéd of ways. Rumors about drug use, her troubled marriage, and diva-like behavior overshadowed her music. The once unstoppable force was grounded by tawdry scandal. By the 2000s all of her recorded output began to be viewed (or rather labeled) as “comebacks” rather than records. Her personal life overshadowed her music and black audiences ate up the drama but not necessarily the music. They reveled in the tabloid shenanigans but still wanted her to be OK. A woman once viewed suspiciously as a pop princess whose “blackness” was under question was reunited with her root audience in her darkest hour. But the gaps grew so wide that by the end it’s not clear if anyone knew what to do with her or how to handle her struggles.

 Labeling talented, affluent vocalists with agency as tragic “victims” is a misnomer. Houston and Jackson made choices that benefited them creatively and enabled them to amass huge fortunes. Beyond this material reality their deaths compel reflection because they always seemed to be reaching for something we’ll never quite know and slipped in the process. My guess is that their most dedicated listeners and fans will continue guessing what happened in that gap between their initial public life and their sudden deaths.

 

COPYRIGHT © 2015 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.