Feb 14

R. KELLY – “I Believe I Can Fly”

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#764, 12th April 1997

kellybelieve Every so often on a project like this you meet records made by somebody who is widely seen as a monster. R Kelly has a lengthy history of accusations and lawsuits saying that he is a serial sexual predator, a man who uses his fame and power to exploit underage girls and escape the consequences. The details – to be approached with appropriate trigger warnings – are covered in this interview between Jim DeRogatis (a Chicago music critic who has reported on the lawsuits against Kelly for years) and Jessica Hopper. You should particularly read it if the extent of your awareness is that he’d been tried for something and acquitted.

There’s a class of writing based around the internal ethical gyrations of critics faced with allegations like this – or indeed proven crimes. Mostly, the feels of a critic dealing with good art by bad people are not interesting, particularly as they’re unlikely to be consistent (mine certainly haven’t been). At worst it makes a story about the handwringing of a music writer rather than about abuse and its enablers and victims. But critical attitudes and activity en masse can be revealing. In the case of R Kelly, there was a sudden burst of attention for – and belief in – the accusations, sparked by the interview I linked above. Two weeks before that interview, I watched a crowd of people dancing to R Kelly’s second UK number one at the Thought Bubble comics convention after-party, and it was a moment of great communal joy. How and why many critics and much of the public – me included –shrugged off the idea of R Kelly as a predator in 2003, and why many – me again included – believed it a decade later, is a story with important and uncomfortable implications, but it’s directly relevant to “Ignition (Remix)” and not to “I Believe I Can Fly”. I couldn’t write about Kelly without mentioning the allegations – because I can’t listen to him without thinking about them – but I’m going to park actual discussion of them until then.

On our first meeting with him, writing for Michael Jackson, R Kelly delivered a song perfectly tailored to its singer, a lulling ballad Jackson could fill with his tics, his sentiment and his presence. The main problem with “You Are Not Alone” is that it’s terribly static – any emotional tension is resolved by the first chorus, and Kelly has to deploy one of the most flagrant key changes we’ve ever met to get any sort of motion into the song. “I Believe I Can Fly” seems at first like it presents similar problems – like “You Are Not Alone” it hovers suspended in its forcefield of thick, stately chords, and the most memorable part of the song is a statement of apparently total self-affirmation (“I believe I can fly / I believe I can touch the sky”). Where can it actually go? The difference, though, is that “I Believe”’s positivity is constantly undermined: the song struggles against a tide of doubt, and even dread, before belief eventually wins out.

Flight isn’t just a metaphor for self-belief. It’s about escape, too – and in this song the two ideas entwine. “Spread my wings and fly away… I see me running through that open door…” – the door is open, the only thing stopping him running through it is himself, and the music moves to underline that, introducing notes of fear that turn the rising affirmation of “open do-o-or” into a cliffhanger. “I Believe I Can Fly” is a man trying to convince himself he can – a moment of awful indecision extended over five minutes. And if five minutes, why not longer? Exploring how long he can keep a song in this state of suspense is the main driver of Kelly’s “Trapped In The Closet”, which is, below its pantomime trappings, a descendent of “I Believe I Can Fly” – each (increasingly ludicrous) situation resolving into new, ever-more baroque tension.

In “I Believe” the tension can only be resolved by faith – on his own, Kelly can’t make the leap, and the crucial moment is when the gospel backing singers rise up into the song, with their staccato “I can fly! I can fly!” affirmations. This religious dimension is what separates “I Believe I Can Fly” from the wave of affirming, inspirational songs we’ve seen in the last decade, where the singer tends to address their audience directly (“You are beautiful… you’re a firework…”): people still need a nudge to believe in themselves, but now the singer plays the role of angel and self-help guru. R Kelly, though, presents himself as the supplicant – a weak man full of doubt – self-belief as a battle, and inner strength as something inseparable from higher power. This is the conceptual framework of addiction treatment – what underpins the recovery process. And from its gorgeous intro, where swelling, looming, heartsick chords find support from a lone oboe, “I Believe I Can Fly” reinforces that idea: you fly by reaching out in order to reach in.

This dramatization of a struggle is what has given “I Believe I Can Fly” a public life well beyond its origins on the Space Jam soundtrack or its place within R Kelly’s career – a staple for reality TV contestants, school choirs, marching bands and more. Pop songs are a set of tools used by many hands, as well as artistic statements made by a few, and instinctively I care more about the first. But these two sides are still connected by money, which makes “separating the art from the artist” a glib default position. So “I Believe I Can Fly”’s genuine power as a redemption song – it’s the most convincing self-help song I can think of – makes a lot of cash for a man who may well be irredeemable. And this is the tension “I Believe I Can Fly” can’t resolve and never addresses. Reaching out to a higher power is only the first step in the classical recovery process, which is designed to lead not just to personal change, but to restitution. So you can fly. Now what?



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  1. 61
    Alan not logged in on 26 Feb 2014 #

    I have a very indie looking “Oxford Bands” sampler CD with that one Jennifers track (Tightrope?) on it. A 96 of playing Different Class and playing Worms on the PC is something I can identify with. A 90s in CDs+game… before would be 94/95 is MarsAudiacQuintet + Starfighter 3000, and after 97/98 Riven+… er probably If You Are Feeling Sinister :-O

  2. 62
    Weej on 26 Feb 2014 #

    Obviously I’m not about to agree that Pulp are a one-album deal – in fact I listen to Different Class & This Is Hardcore less than a few other of their albums. DC is good of course, but you’ve got to remember that it was written and recorded in a very short time, and side 2 of TIH is definitely not the group at their best. For their most consistent long-player I’d go for Intro – though it’s not an official album it works as a piece better than any of their others. (Is this a good time to plug my Pulp Songs blog? It’s here – http://pulpsongs.wordpress.com/ I’m just approaching the end of His ‘n’ Hers now and some of the b-sides are better than most of what went on the actual album)

    I also listened to DC while playing worms, If You’re Feeling Sinister was more Civilization II.

  3. 63
    tm on 26 Feb 2014 #

    #60 I enjoy TV Movie and Seductive Barry; the tracks I always skip are Party Hard and The Day After the Revolution (boring song and no way that 14 minute drone outro’s taking up space on my iPod nano although the two times I did listen all the way through, it does seem to have some interesting Steve Reich-y undulations to it but then if you stare at a candle flame long enough, you’ll see all sorts of stuff)

    #61 My other 1996 gaming soundtrack was Stanley Road which, like people have said of Supergrass, was Weller using his rock chops to make hooky pop songs before he started releasing an album every six months, most of which sounded like they were written in the rehearsal room. Though admittedly I haven’t heard any of his most recent stuff.

  4. 64
    Tom on 26 Feb 2014 #

    Just to say the next entry will be up tonight (it’s a day late cos some paid freelance work turned up)

  5. 65
    tm on 26 Feb 2014 #

    Looking forward to it. I’m loving this renewed fecundity!

  6. 66
    Izzy on 26 Feb 2014 #

    Will that thread feature some discussion about R Kelly?

  7. 67
    wichitalineman on 26 Feb 2014 #

    Re 54/56: The Jennifers were good looking, a lot of 20-something girls I knew fancied them (guiltily, as they were teenagers), and they weren’t the finished article but clearly had potential.

    Yes, the ‘car compression’ was their secret weapon – it made Caught By The Fuzz twice as exciting too. It was down to engineer John Cornfield, who worked on the first Kenickie album as a direct result of his ace work with Supergrass.

    With Richard III and I Should Coco, I’d also guess there’s some tape speed manipulation going on. Just a teeny bit faster than the actual performance.

  8. 68
    Rory on 26 Feb 2014 #

    What’s this – the thread has turned into a Supergrass and Pulp discussion while I wasn’t looking? *Vapours*

    Hearing “Caught by the Fuzz” for the first time over an in-store sound system was one of the most memorable record-store moments of my 20-odd years of hanging out in record stores (which I can’t say I’ve done much for the past 5-10, for reasons of Small Children as much as half the stores vanishing). I bought the single immediately, and was convinced, convinced that I was helping along a dead-cert number one.

    I’m not sure it even charted in Australia. Nor did I Should Coco, which I also loved. From then on I accepted that I was totally out of touch with the charts, and also bought every Supergrass release I could get my hands on.

    In It For the Money I liked well enough, although not as much as Coco, but it was Supergrass and Life on Other Planets that confirmed them in my affections as one of the nineties’ best (although the latter came out in the post-Britpop doldrums of 2002 and didn’t sell as well as it should have).

    Their later albums didn’t do much for me, but I was looking forward to Release the Drones, their “almost finished” krautrock-influenced seveneth album that never appeared. Gaz Coombes’s solo Here Come the Bombs was alright.

    As for Pulp: #60 “the run through from “His ‘n’ Hers” through to “We Love Life” is fantastic” – yes, this, although I’d start the run at Separations, which after His ‘n’ Hers is my second-most-listened-to Pulp album. I put His ‘n’ Hers on the other side of a C90 with Suede’s Coming Up for commuter listening, which made it one of the two albums I listened to most in the mid-1990s, and it still sounds like the definitive record of their 1990s sound, but Separations is the one I return to nowadays. They’d put all the pieces in place but the public hadn’t noticed, and there was still no real sign that they would.

  9. 69
    Kat but logged out innit on 26 Feb 2014 #

    Was just listening to [2000s-era Bunny] and LORDY there’s a particular (British) artist who adopts a lot of R Kelly’s mannerisms, which I’d never really twigged before. The whole video is like Trapped In The Closet but in West London and a couple of years too early. I am just putting this here so I remember to pick up on it when we get around to it.

  10. 70
    23 Daves on 26 Feb 2014 #

    #68 I used to love “Separations” as well. I back-tracked to it after “Different Class” turned me into a full-blown Pulp fanatic rather than just a fan (like many, I suspect). I don’t return to it very often these days, though. The songs themselves are largely on a similar level to a lot of the work on “His ‘n’ Hers”, but the production and cheap-sounding nature of some of the arrangements does them no favours. It would be interesting to find out what it would have sounded like with a more impressive recording budget.

    Even the much-dismissed “It” is half a good album. Or, er… half a good mini-album, anyway. Perhaps it should have been released as a great EP. The Peel Session version of “Wishful Thinking” is better than the final LP version as well.

  11. 71
    Baztech. on 26 Feb 2014 #

    I am also rather upset Richard III didn’t make top spot, although Dave’s comment earlier regarding initial oomph is a fair point. Definitely sounds best on first 2-3 listens, not usually a good trait for a song to have.

    Love this discussion about computer games and albums being playing in the background, I can only remember a couple. PlayStation game “Circuit breakers” was often being played to the sounds of Gorillaz’s self titled debut. I also recall going back to Super Mario 64 to the sound of Street’s “Original Pirate Material”. Not sure many people can say they have done that….

    To be honest a lot of my memories are with Crash Bandicoot and Marc Radcliffe’s voice…

  12. 72
    Erithian on 26 Feb 2014 #

    I’ve turned to this having just put little Thomas to bed in his Superman pyjamas complete with cape. Some Superman pyjamas come with a little warning note saying “Caution: does not enable you to fly.” I think “I Believe I Can Fly” should come with a similar warning saying “Pssst, R – you can’t, mate.”

    It’s heartening to find I’ve come up with the same idea as Punctum, but when I listened to this just now for maybe the first time this century, the drum machine track jumped out as something they’d put on a demo and normally replace later with something worthwhile. Instead they leave it there and add a none-too-convincing vocal, a few fake whoops and a song that aims for inspirational and misses by a few miles.

    What it does bring back to mind, weirdly you might think but stay with me, is the Estonian Eurovision entry from 2002. There was a documentary – a quick Google suggests it was called “Estonia Dreams of Eurovision” – showing the rivalries between entrants in the national heat to choose the song that would defend the title Estonia won in 2001. As the winner, Sahlene, reprises her song “Runaway”, the losers gather in the green room and cheerfully (and bitchily) sing the lyrics of “I Believe I Can Fly” over the chorus, which it resembles pretty closely. “Runaway” eventually came third for the hosts, and I’d be happier to spend time with the song – and needless to say, the singer – than the one under discussion here. Compare and contrast (with added Wogan): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tky7vWXSZrs

  13. 73
    Cumbrian on 27 Feb 2014 #

    Re: Playing games whilst listening to music. I only have two that really stick in my mind: I played Metroid Prime to Depeche Mode’s Violator a lot – the music seemed to chime with the landscapes I was running around. The other would be listening to Permission To Land by The Darkness a lot whilst playing F-Zero GX – you could get through 2 championships in roughly the time it took for the whole album to play.

    I also listened to a lot of music whilst playing Championship/Football Manager – but that game lent itself to just bunging on whatever, so there was no fixed soundtrack to that one.

  14. 74
    Kinitawowi on 27 Feb 2014 #

    I’m usually not in favour of overriding game music… but a friend and I at university whiled away many, many hours playing through Bubble Bobble to Fatboy Slim’s You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby. Its sequel, Rainbow Islands, was played along with the Divine Comedy’s Best Of.

    We were odd people.

    I’ve seen several people argue that the Need For Speed games are begging to be resoundtracked as personal tastes dictate; probably as the equivalent of bunging CDs into your own car. And then there’s Guitar Hero, of course.

    I don’t think any music directly related to a video game has bothered Popular, has it? (Well, one of the Chemical Brothers songs might have been on Wipeout 2097, but Dr Spin’s version of the Tetris theme only ever made number 6 and Wiz Khalifa’s “Never Been”, based largely on a sample from Chrono Trigger, was never likely to turn up…)

  15. 75
    Andrew Farrell on 27 Feb 2014 #

    The entry on Firestarter also talks about Wipeout 2097, IIRC.

  16. 76
    Tom on 27 Feb 2014 #

    Yeah, I have to stretch to bring videogames into Popular to any real degree – it’s one of the areas where the charts-as-cultural-seismograph aspect I like breaks down (perhaps fittingly, as videogames have stolen some of pop’s, and pop criticism’s, fire)

    Most of the games I play are long, multi-session, strategic/RPG ones, and I just listen to whatever I’m listening to for those – rarely the in-game music, as it tends to suck. On short-session or arcade games I will listen to the actual music, as it tends to fit better than anything else. So you’re left with the rare games that use actual pop music well – Wipeout, GTA, etc. (I never played GTA Vice City but used to enjoy being in the room when people did, the music was so effective.)

  17. 77
    flahr on 27 Feb 2014 #

    We are still twelve years away from the first chiptune number one :(

  18. 78
    Cumbrian on 27 Feb 2014 #

    Re: games meeting Popular. There is at least one bunny on the GTAV soundtrack on the Pop station hosted by Cara Delevigne (whose name i am bound to have garbled there). In fact, there may well be 2 or 3. Upcoming Spice Girls rivals are the ones I am thinking of.

  19. 79
    Auntie Beryl on 28 Feb 2014 #

    There are actually four bunnies – you’re OTM re the Spice Girls rivals, plus there’s a French dance act (but not *that* one), a Swedish female vocalist, and somebody we will be discussing repeatedly in the fullness of time, but not for many Popular years yet.

    Oh, and “West End Girls”.

    I may have played GTA V a little too much of late.

  20. 80
    Cumbrian on 28 Feb 2014 #

    3 of those are genuine bunnies though aren’t they, with the fourth being just a bunnied artist (i.e. the track in question didn’t get to #1 in the UK)? I say just – massive artist obviously.

    West End Girls being on it is class actually. In previous games, I spent a lot of time listening to the classic rock station but I’m not that impressed with that station on V. The pop station has many more great tracks on it – as does the classic soul station.

    I battered GTAV to death and was enjoying the multiplayer but put it down prior to Christmas and am yet to go back. I enjoyed it but I said elsewhere that it might well be the video game Be Here Now. I might flesh this though out imminently.

  21. 81
    Auntie Beryl on 28 Feb 2014 #

    #80 Wiki & Polyhex have the four bunnies I’m thinking of as UK number ones. perhaps we’re talking about different artists here?

    [Off topic: I loved the single player GTA V, but online had filled with griefers by the time I got there. Shame.]

  22. 82
    Cumbrian on 28 Feb 2014 #

    I think we are. I hadn’t remembered Barbadian Bunny and was thinking of North Western France and Ferry Running Bunny.

    That’s frustrating. I had hoped that the reputation system that they had put in place to combat griefers would prevent that. Seems it hasn’t worked.

  23. 83
    Gareth Parker on 31 May 2021 #

    I think Tom’s mark of 6/10 is just about right here.

  24. 84
    Mr Tinkertrain on 4 Mar 2022 #

    #4 – I was quite surprised to discover this had had a couple of weeks in the top 10 before going to the top; I’d long thought this was one which had gone straight there. It certainly felt like it. I’d rather have seen Richard III (an 8), Song 2 (a 10) or Old Before I Die (a slightly generous nostalgic 8) make the top than this, although I do actually like the fact that Song 2 stalled at #2 – seems quite appropriate.

    Leaving aside discussions of the man’s character, this is OK at best but not great. If I have to listen to one of his ballads, I’d much rather listen to If I Could Turn Back The Hands Of Time from a few years later. 5.

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