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R. KELLY – “Ignition (Remix)”

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#954, 17th May 2003

So here we are. In 2014, when I wrote the entry for “I Believe I Can Fly”, acknowledging the monstrousness of R Kelly, I had plans to make this piece some sort of grand follow-up. Here is a song that – when I started Popular – was the most beloved of its year. I’ve heard “Ignition (Remix)” in clubs; I’ve danced to it; I’ve watched threads online spiral into giddy delight over it. I expect it was played at my wedding. I expect I played it.

Will I ever play it again? I doubt it. I remember its creamy confidence, its conspiratorial, tale-telling joy well enough not to bother. To this day, any time I’m in a hotel lobby my brain jumps a track and “after the party, the hotel lobby” wanders into my mind. Not as a welcome or unwelcome guest, either, just a well-used connection whose spark lies somewhere below the conscious. “Ignition (Remix)” is part of the mental furniture.

But it can’t ever be more than that again. Its easy familiarity, its cosy pleasure are part of the problem – “Ignition (Remix)” was a song that captured the feeling of so-what-I’m-drunk, the happy state of being lightly toasted, rolling from place to place and finding they’re the best places, with the best people, in the best of all possible worlds, until the night ends. But then the night did end, and now it’s the morning and I want no more of it. To use a critical idea not so available in 2014 (let alone 2003), “Ignition (Remix)” is cancelled.

Perhaps unfashionably, I think the idea of ‘cancellation’ is a useful one on an individual level. It sidesteps the question which has always dogged conversations about our relationships with art made by bad people – does it make the art bad? – by creating a space in which the answer isn’t relevant. “Ignition (Remix)”, like Morrissey’s “Speedway”, is a song which, good or not, I have decided to put beyond use. I’m not claiming consistency, or asking anyone else to emulate me – it’s just what I’m doing.

This is less difficult to live by – another difference from 2003 – because of the internet, and not because the internet makes it easier for angry crowds to form, or victims to have their say (though it does). By simply holding up to the light the immense scale of musical production – the impossible number of songs, albums, and careers available for us to listen to – the internet brings home how very much good music there is, and how very little of it we will ever hear. That forced widening of perspective has all sorts of implications for how people relate to music – for me at least, it makes discarding artists a much less drastic proposition.

But all this theory is dodging an uncomfortable question. Lots of things have changed since 2003. But when “Ignition (Remix)” came out that year, almost everybody who was active in online music chat, me included, knew that there was a tape doing the file-sharing rounds of R.Kelly and a 14 year old girl. “Ignition (Remix)” isn’t a song that people soured on when they found out the truth – it’s a song which came out in open defiance of that truth.

Now, some people called out R.Kelly early on and wanted nothing to do with the song – credit to them. Why didn’t I? I could file through excuses but the truth has two parts to it, neither flattering. First, the deeds and misdeeds of celebrities didn’t seem as vivid as they do now – maybe because I was younger or more callous, but also because the cliched “separation of art from artist” was easier in those days. The art was what you lived with every day; the artist was still a creature of report and rumour.

But also, I kept the truth of the tape an open question because I didn’t want it to be a closed one. “Ignition (Remix)”, and the happiness it brought me, was a big part of why. In the conversations around why the industry protected R.Kelly, why promoters kept booking him and critics kept reviewing him, the assumption is that Kelly was too rich and popular to be touched. So he was.

But he became rich and popular – and was able to live as an abuser in plain sight – because he was extremely good at what he did: charming people, and writing songs that charmed people, just silly or knowing enough to disarm. Complicity was what he sold best. “Ignition (Remix)” does what a lot of great pop does – which is why it’s hard for me to stomach now. It holds the door open for you on a fantasy of a charmed life; playfully, so you might drop your guard, believe it, and look away.

No mark given.

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