R. Kelly, Trapped in the Closet, Chapters 1—22, 2005—07, music video, stills
Now the midget jumps outta the cabinet and stomps the policeman on his toe.
The policeman hoppin’ around on one leg, screamin’ ‘son of bitch’ while he runs under the table. He yells ‘freeze’ , dives over the table and lands on the midget... While the midget is kickin’ real fast screamin’ out, ‘Bridget, Bridget'. She yells, ‘Darlin’ don't hurt him.’ He says, ‘Bridget get yo’ ass back...’ Then he continues to ruff up the midget as if the midget was under attack... Then Bridget runs up to her room, goes in her purse and pulls a number out... The policeman puts him on the table and yells, ‘Man, what the hell you doin’ in my house?!’ He whips cherry pie crust off his mouth and says, ‘Man, I was paid not to tell you...’ Then the police pulls his gun out and yells, ‘Trespassin’ man, I got the right to shoot you...’
- R. Kelly, Trapped in the Closet
We and you ought not to pull on the ends of a rope in which you have tied the knots of war. Because the more the two of us pull, the tighter the knot will be tied.
- Robert McNamara to Nikita Khrushchev, 1962
Stepping aside for a moment from rather abstract questions of how to work and what forms might still offer some resistance to the increasingly fragmented flows of capital into every aspect of our thoughts and actions — questions that have dominated a great deal of recent discussion about the potential of advanced art — where might we find models of production and storytelling that provide an alternative set of thinking and action? It has become normal to regard popular music as incapable of providing the alternatives that it once seemed to offer in terms of collective identification, nonconformist lifestyles and anti-corporate values — even when they always emerged from and were distributed by unique anti-corporate-corporate models. There are many reasons for this. One of the most profound is connected to the crisis of authorship that went alongside the rapid decline of the profit structure of the ‘music industry’ from the mid-1990s to the present. The anxiety expressed by the so-called entertainment giants, in the face of increasing consumer rejection of their controlled streams of content and structure, led to an increasing number of stand-offs between various governments and corporations accusing people of stealing music and those who viewed the new chaotic, pirated realm as holding potential for new models of creativity and exchange. From 1994 to 2004 there was a golden age of music pirating and exchange via Napster, LimeWire, Pirate Bay and other sharing systems. A combined assault from legal departments and the rise of Apple corporation’s closed system of attractive, functional minicomputers (the iPad, iPod and iPhone) have since ground these portals into wary inaction and increasingly obscure domain registration.
Apple, appearing to understand aspects of Operaist critical analysis, gauged that a closed system plus lack of will — a.k.a. a resistance to work for rewards — might provide a new base of consumers prepared to pay for things as long as they don’t have to do very much. But crucially Apple realised this exploitation of relative inaction could only work when combined with a new model of innovation, which here appeared in terms of a new bond to software rather than the production of an entirely new device — for there were a number of mp3 players before the iPod appeared. The prior dominant Sony model, which was soon shared by Aiwa, Panasonic and all the other major Japanese corporations, was the continual production of self-competitive devices featuring minor product differences. Apple computerised consumer devices, with the introduction of technical complexity masked by a simple interface that created the need both to update and be conscious of which system is operating the devices. This has led to a dramatic shift away from the notion of an increasingly replaceable but enduringly functional device — that is, the CD player that still works but is obsolete in terms of looks or available content. Apple, instead, has moved towards a continually functional and updatable microcomputer that at the same time requires updating as an object, not because it is fundamentally obsolete but because the new model is marginally more compatible with incrementally added functionality. The iPod, therefore, heralded a substantiation of fashion choices, which were before associated with a lack of seriousness, by including the consumer in a continual process of voluntary and involuntary updating and exchange of contracts even when no money changes hands. At every update the product may be better but the relationship between the consumer and the corporation is reasserted in favour of the corporation. Every contract entered into on renewal of software extends the rights of the software producer over the user of the device. Strangely a particular psychological aspect appears to be enacted at the same time that allows us to generally tolerate this situation. Without bothering to read the lengthy agreements on updating the device, the consumer appears to gain a degree of satisfaction, in that he or she believes that the organisation selling the device is offering guidance as to the potential, future function and relevance of the object, all of which had become hard to gauge when consumer electronics appeared merely to innovate based on looks and size with only occasional jumps in format. The exchange now appears serious, legalistic and committed rather than shallow and determined by taste alone.
The car industry has also understood this for the last few decades. The build quality and general tenor of a 1980s BMW 5 Series is closely related to a brand new BMW 5 series. There has been no dramatic paradigm shift in its base-level engineering. It is arguable that the car in developed consumer society reached a certain grade of technology sometime in the mid-1970s with the implementation of robotised production — since then the question has not been about dramatic developments in fundamental technology but about small tweaks in secondary technology — not overlooking or underestimating the advances in automated navigation, braking and suspension systems. Apple is also devoted to tweaking software and operating systems. Its understanding of our immersion in a culture of minor changes ensures that product replacement is not as important as it may appear to be, while the means of bonding us — via a process of upgrading and updating rather than style replacement — deepens our connection with the corporation as legal partner and computer operator. It is essential to get as many devices out in the world as quickly as possible — as a portal to link us permanently to the host. This is the computerisation and data submission of everyday life. While the closets and drawers of many dwellings contain abandoned but perfectly functional ‘obsolete’ portable CD players and mini-disc recorders, desks and bedside tables hold iPhones, iPads and iPods with outdated operating systems — requiring updating in order to continue to keep pace with themselves in the same way that the control system of a 2011 BMW requires the latest operating system in order to truly distinguish itself from the prior model.
This process of updating means we sign many contracts and agreements that give up information about our activities and patterns; hence the music corporations have been able to gather information on consumers that permits the development of new corporate models based on information-gathering. The traditional Sony model of consumers or individuals has been replaced with that of the ‘dividual’ consumer, a Deleuzian model Karl Palmås elaborated from his studies of car production and corporate development.1 Palmås’s dividual consumer exists as part of a multitude of dividuals — or data types who find phantom form as temporary exceptions and aberrations within flows of analysed consumer data. In other words, we only stand out or can be differentiated when we show up as data that diverges from the generalised flow. We are not individuals but can be spotted when we appear as spikes in some plotted data. Palmås shows that these new forms of consumer data-gathering are derived from analytical military technology in the same way that Robert McNamara and his ‘Whiz Kids’ brought military ordnance and supply data analysis from World War II to bear on the emerging post-Fordist contexts of the US car corporations of the 1950s and later into the World Bank.2
The question might therefore be: where might we find peculiar models that seem to offer resistance to this structure within the entertainment world? We have become used to the idea that the informal set of shared relationships that developed through so-called social networks and sharing sites provides a true alternative to the monolithic herding of prior cultural identifications. The screaming fans of Beatlemania have been replaced by an audience of subjective consumer re-distributors who act as super-subjective operatives in a world of infinite discrimination. While it would appear to make sense to look at the networks of experimental, discursive or performative practices and alternative cultures, it might be productive to take into account more apparently mainstream output. With its flows from smooth production via blog and internet leaks to DVD, Blu-ray and iTunes releases, the world of mainstream R&B contains one particularly fascinating case study.
R. Kelly made a unique work titled Trapped in the Closet between 2005 and 2007. Produced, directed by and starring the recording artist and comprising 23 episodes, the multi-part series of parallel narratives — or simultaneous realities — follows the singer on a sequence of fictional encounters. These include one-night stands and moments of apparent betrayal, with concurrent confessions. Issues of sexuality and gender, exposed both by the title and the opening episode, reveal a complex triangle of gay and straight sexual exchanges, and there are, in addition, varied moments of aggression, double dealing, comedy and parodies of stereotypes. Eschewing the standard format of either single or album, Trapped in the Closet continues the explicit narrative tradition of R&B that is extant in the extended spoken sections of Millie Jackson’s work in the 1970s and 80s. It is the narrative qualities of Jackson’s work — her extended stories about the pleasure, strife and betrayal that relationships can bring — that chime with Kelly’s later developments. With Trapped in the Closet there is a shift towards the recounting of a lengthy narrative over a cyclical repetitive melodic sequence that reaches a climax during every short episode of the opus. Consonant with the narrative tradition of R&B, we hear only the singer’s voice: the story is told by R. Kelly, who both sings the narration and performs the others characters’ words at all times. The significant shift in structure that breaks with earlier models in this filmed series is the lip-syncing of the singer’s words by each character as they ‘speak’ the words they have been given by Kelly. He extends his voice to others, providing an overwhelming subjectivity sometimes at odds with the evidence on screen. This procedure emphasises the narrative while creating a rupture when the recounting authority of the author’s voice is transferred intermittently to his actors’ mouths. Trapped in the Closet self-consciously reveals
Kelly as intent on repossessing the potential of both author and ‘talent’, in the sense of a creative property traditionally possessed and exploited by the record company. He has stated that the work is ‘alien’ 3 — a revealing word that suggests that the work functions outside the standard processes of creation, production and dissemination, but also that it is barely recognisable or controllable by the author himself.
Trapped in the Closet has an underlying quasi-moralistic structure that underscores the complexity of the characters and situations. It is a story that shows the potential of a transferred disease between a large group of straight and gay characters. It also appeared just after Kelly was accused of making a porn video with an under-age girl. The series, therefore, far from being alien, appears to be something of a mea culpa combined with a series of speculations on complex relationships, with their tendency for exposure, vulnerabilities and borderless qualities in terms of gender and orientation. And the work appears extremely grounded in messy reality through its demonstration of networks of relationships and use of one key protagonist to both see and narrate this vast matrix, while at the same time being a subject/victim of the story’s revelations himself — he is often as confused as the rest of the characters. At various points each demonstrates varied states of incomplete understanding; it is these layered and partial understandings that give the project its tensions and potentials.
The whole work represents a
commonality brought about by a collapse of hierarchy due to lack of
awareness and knowledge as much as a conscious desire to level any
There are repeated moments of challenge and questioning, revelation and announcement, rather than immediately productive exchange. The narrative quality is layered and necessarily incomplete. Every character — including the one played by Kelly — desires questions to be answered yet at every point is confronted with only partial explanations. Processes of interrogation followed by apparent explanation both drive and complicate the narrative. Episode 15, for example, opens with Sylvester (played by Kelly) and Twan, his brother-in-law, entering a diner. Twan confronts the two women he finds working there, Tina and Roxanne, insulting them by comparing them to Laverne and Shirley, two geeky television characters from a 1970s sitcom set in a Milwaukee brewery. Twan reminds them that he has served three years in prison for them. Roxanne, unhappy at being abused, threatens Twan, challenging him to fight and brandishing a heavy pan at him. Sylvester intervenes to try and calm Twan down, telling him that this time any criminal penalty will be worse than three years. Tina takes Roxanne aside to calm her down. Sylvester reminds Twan that he is technically still under house arrest for the earlier crime. Twan replies that he just wants answers to some questions. Sylvester asks him to relax. Twan apologises to Tina and Roxanne about his aggressive approach. But his new polite approach is actually an act, and Twan soon launches back into an aggressive, curse-laden series of demands for answers. Twan is furious that he went to jail for something that in his opinion was the fault of the two women. Sylvester asks what Twan plans to do — ‘kill them?’ — and reminds Twan that he will be locked up for life if he does so. Sylvester asks Twan to forget about the whole thing, and offers to talk to Tina and Roxanne himself. Twan states that the two women cannot be trusted. Sylvester says it is not about trusting them but trusting him. Sylvester tells Twan that he was also in prison at one point, for five years, and is not going back inside for anyone either. Twan seems to acquiesce. Sylvester pulls out his gun and approaches the women, whom he addresses as ‘ladies’, somewhat ironically. Sitting down, he places his gun on the diner counter and lights a cigarette. He tells the women that there are a lot of unanswered questions. Tina starts crying and says that things were supposed to have been simple. The two claim that Twan had told them that the ‘job’ would be like a vacation. Roxanne starts to tell Sylvester what happened.
The three of them — Tina, Roxanne and Twan — were driving to Atlanta, with Twan at the wheel. According to Roxanne, Twan started acting ‘like a fool’, ‘smoking grass’, playing the radio loud and swerving across the road. The women told him to stop but he just yelled that he was Rick James. Twan intervenes, explaining that he was just drunk. Sylvester can’t believe that he would be drunk and stoned while in the middle of what is now clearly a drug deal. Tina takes over the story, explaining to Sylvester that Twan had indeed been acting wildly. Tina tells Sylvester that she looked behind her and saw a police car. Roxanne informs Sylvester that Twan’s response was to speed up — stating that the police were not going to stop him. More squad cars gave chase and, according to Tina, a ‘fucking helicopter’ joined in too. Sylvester asks if Twan stopped. No, replies Roxanne, but fortunately their unreliable old car broke down. Sylvester listens as they describe finding themselves face-down, handcuffed on the ground. As the three of them are put into the police car, Twan yells to the girls to not say anything. The story cuts to a montage of the three of them now separated and being questioned by police. Roxanne is told by the police that they believe the drugs are hers, according to information given to them by Twan. She cracks and says that she is not going to jail for him and then — cutting back to the diner — we see her defiantly tell Twan and a baffled-looking Sylvester that it was she who sold out Twan to the police. Twan is furious. Sylvester is shaking his head. But Roxanne stands her ground, claiming that she was protecting Twan. Twan is indignant at this explanation, but before Roxanne can explain further Tina steps in to inform Twan that it was all because she (Tina) was pregnant with his child at the time.
All of this action and exchange takes place in the form of sung words within the confines of a five-minute song. Even in this episode, with its quite consistent narrative quality, complication is inextricable from the means of delivery: the four characters narrate a story in the past tense while questioning each other in the present tense, with all voices sung by Kelly and lip-synced when appropriate. And we are left in the end with a complication that introduces more relationships into the web that Kelly has already described in the earlier instalments. This lack of closure, in the commonly used pseudo-psychological term, drives the potential endlessness of the story. While the end of episode 23, currently the last of the series, does finish with a series of overlapping telephone calls where a large number of characters call each other to apparently inform one another or ask questions about the potential of their all having HIV, even then it is not clear if the ‘package’, slang for HIV/AIDS, really is ‘the package’ or some other misunderstanding. We are left therefore with a situation of endless potential connections, with a series of people representing all traditional strata of urban life, from police to clergy through small-time crooks and comfortable suburban dwellers, caught in a process of questioning and permanent doubt.
The whole work represents a commonality brought about by a collapse of hierarchy due to lack of awareness and knowledge as much as a conscious desire to level any social structure. A closed system is suggested that contains an infinite proliferation of relationships, desire and collapse — a set of circumstances that cannot be accounted for and a sequence of endless recounting that both exaggerates and defies Palmås's logic of systems and dividuality. There are no data aberrations in Kelly’s story. There are individuals tied together through their complex personal relationships to form a social bond that is both excessively real yet caught in a permanently dramatised form. All behaviour is aberrant and complex when viewed from Kelly’s closet. The attempts to extend control that were rooted in military ordnance through to the legal constraints that we so happily sign up for every time we use a digital device — these are left limp and beyond control, evaded by the users of pay-as-you-go devices and relationships.
See Karl Palmås, ‘Predicting What You’ll Do Tomorrow: Panspectric Surveillance and the Contemporary Corporation’, Gothenburg: Chalmers University of Technology, 2009.↑
Robert NcNamara was President of the Ford Motor Company, US Secretary of Defense and President of the World Bank, in that order — three roles intimately engaged with the development of neoliberalism and globalisation.↑
‘It’s an alien. People ask me why is it an alien and I say it’s come down to show us new genres and new ways to produce movies, magic, song and dialogue which have all been put together, and has never been done as far as I’m concerned. I call that alien. And people ask me when Trapped in the Closet is going to end and I say when the aliens decide to leave.’ R. Kelly in conversation with Matt Singer, IFS news special, ‘Trapped in the Closet: The Complete Saga’, Independent Film Channel, August 2007.↑