For as long as art and literature have existed, artists and writers have struggled with the task of depicting reality in a limited medium: from the impressionists who tried to paint how rather than what the eye sees, to stream-of-consciousness writers who attempted writing how the mind thinks. Ultimately, though, neither effort was really met with success. People do not actually see how impressionists paint or think like James Joyce writes. Rather than trying to cover up the fact that their creations could not measure up to real life, artists of the subsequent postmodern era started to celebrate this creative reality, to revel in the irony of acknowledging the failure of the medium. Duchamp takes toilets off the wall and signs his name on them, while Paul Auster writes himself into his own novels.
This irony can be intelligent and communicative, but it dominates much of today’s postmodern culture. Author David Foster Wallace, for example, wrestled with this problem extensively, “Irony’s useful for debunking illusions, but most of the illusion-debunking in the U.S. has now been done and redone…. Postmodern irony and cynicism have become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy.” Wallace argues that irony entraps. The point of irony is to make the non-ironic look silly. The problem of literary production is no longer just to make a serious point; you have to do it without looking silly. And the best way to do that is through ironic detachment and a lack of commitment. And that’s the dangerous problem Wallace refers to. If you are not ironic, you will be silly. If you are, you cannot be serious.
Wallace struggled with this conundrum in his own writing. Despite his complaints about the style, Wallace’s writings ooze meta-fictional references and self-aware asides. Wallace fictionalized himself into stories even more extensively than Paul Auster. Largely, I think this is because Wallace deeply believed that we cannot take any art seriously if it does not openly acknowledge itself as art through these ironic games. He knew that without a solid backing in irony, his non-ironic message could only be mocked. Despite recognizing this dilemma, he could not escape from it. If a MacArthur Fellowship-certified genius like Wallace could not break out of this irony-trap, what hope do the rest of us have?
Real talk in “Real Talk:” Ironic and genuine?
I would like to answer this by taking a step back from the long established mediums of literature and painting and look instead at something a bit more populist and modern: a music video on YouTube. More specifically, I would like to look at the music video for R. Kelly’s song “Real Talk.” R. Kelly has been an R&B institution for the past twenty years, writing and producing hits consistently.
In the music video, R. Kelly announces that he has decided “to do this shit, ‘Real Talk’ on YouTube because it’s a great song…we gonna be real man, I’m just gonna be real, we gonna roll the film, and I’m doin’ this for the fan’s around that globe that love real talk.” As he speaks, he pulls out a cigar and whiskey and proceeds to argue loudly in song on the phone with his girlfriend. In the background, some of his friends play poker. After R. Kelly breaks up with the girl he is talking to, a fight erupts at the table. Kelly breaks the fight up and yells at the cameraman to stop filming and the video cuts out.
While the video may initially seem silly, a deeper look reveals the ridiculous contradictions throughout the video. The video is called “Real Talk,” but what could possibly be less real than a pre-scripted music video with paid actors? The fact that Kelly takes such efforts to “convince” the viewer his video is real with the introduction, the drugs, and the fight at the end only rubs the contradiction in the viewer’s face. This is a striking case of medium-aware irony. The lyrics in this situation are going to sound ridiculous because any sort of singing in a real break-up situation would sound ridiculous. Kelly simply chooses lyrics that are going to drive that point home. So is Kelly’s video the sort of thing that David Foster Wallace despises? Is Kelly just a cool, distant, ironist, incapable of conveying any serious message?
Despite the ridiculousness, the contradictions, and the irony, I do not think any viewer walks away with the sense that R. Kelly is trying deceive. When Kelly says at the beginning of the song “I’m doing this for the fans around the globe that love real talk,” it’s hard not to believe him. Despite the meta-fiction, in watching “Real Talk,” you get the sense that R. Kelly really does think that this is what his viewers think about. This is what they love. Irony or not, Kelly means what he says, and the video gives the viewer a nice look into Kelly’s mind.
Escaping the Ironic Closet
Kelly’s magnum opus, his long and periodically updated “hip-hopera,” Trapped in the Closet, provides an deeper context to understand Kelly’s ability to be read genuinely and be understood beyond the irony. Trapped in the Closet is the convoluted tale of a man, Sylvester, his wife Gwendolyn, and a legion of their lovers and acquaintances, including a midget named Big Man, a pastor and his gay lover, a pimp named Luscious, a reverend named Mosley James Evans, gangsters, cops, drug dealers, and Rosie the Nosey Neighbor. All of the actors lip sync as R. Kelly sings every part and also serves as the narrator. Trapped in the Closet is filled with irony and meta-fictional tricks. For example, we have R. Kelly as Sylvester, R. Kelly as Narrator, R. Kelly as Commentator, R. Kelly as Commentator on the Commentator, and somewhere through all this we have R. Kelly as Creator
R. Kelly, moreover, explores the issue of how an artistic medium can depict reality accurately. He lampoons the inconsistency between the modes of expression possible in a music video and real life. Kelly makes this inconsistency comically clear during the commentary for one episode, “Y’all notice there’s such a lot of profanity in this part, because I wanted to bring such a reality to people with the dialogue and the lyrics… I wanted to put it there and the lyrics to be in 3D, you know?” R. Kelly does not actually swear in this part of the opera. Instead, he actually sings the word “boop.” As in, “Whoah, whoah, whoah, what the boop is this? / Another man in my bed? You better start talking boop.” The effect is absolutely absurd. This is the only chapter Kelly censors himself in which he comments on the reality of language. His ironic intent is obvious.
Trapped in the Closet was released in three pieces and each has a distinctly different feel to it and makes Kelly’s thought process clear. The first part is serious and dramatic. Infidelities are discovered and lives are fundamentally altered. We hear things like, “I thought your name was Mary / That’s what you said at the party / Man this is getting scary / I’m gonna shoot somebody.” In the commentary, Kelly mentions that he put in “things that happen in real life.” The viewer gets the sense that she’s looking at the heart of the world as Kelly sees it, regardless of necessary fictional impossibilities and ironies. But Kelly’s ridiculous exploitations of irony make it difficult for a casual viewer to empathize at all with Kelly’s vision. There is really no choice but to laugh at the absurdity of the first part. The plot then heads even deeper into the absurd in the second section of Trapped in the Closet. A police officer’s wife has an affair with a midget, a man is shot in the arm only to fully recover five minutes later, and the dramatic entrance of a nosey neighbor with a spatula sends three gun-bearing men over the edge. Kelly has taken what made the first part ludicrous and overtly worked it into the plot itself. The artist has recognized what made it impossible for viewer’s to empathize with his vision in the first part and claimed it fully as his own. He has essentially become the ironist Wallace warned us of, albeit with a good deal more self-mockery.
In the third installment, R. Kelly is finally able to find a happy medium between ironic awareness and genuine emotion. He keeps up the silliness with the bickering of the elderly couple next door and the attempted conversion of a pimp during a church service. He goes back to building the world of Trapped in the Closet. The back stories of characters are laid out more fully, and the world widens from one plot track to a whole series of simultaneous but interconnected events. The plot at this stage presents a compelling mixture of silliness and seriousness, far from the overblown melodrama of part one or the total ridiculousness of part two.
Nevertheless, the experience of the first two parts plays an important role in our experience of the third. R. Kelly has shown us that he is well aware of all the absurdities involved in attempting to resemble reality in an artistic medium. He has been through the requisite irony. But in the process of doing so, Kelly has exposed himself as a potentially ridiculous figure. As you watch parts one and two, you have to wonder what sort of person would make such a thing. When you see a giant picture of R. Kelly on stage hanging on Sylvester’s wall, you cannot help but laugh a little bit at R. Kelly. By exposing himself to this sort of ridicule, Kelly has placed himself squarely on our level. The singer approaches real life, full of its absurdities and complexities, with a sense of humor and profound passion, as another imperfect but authentic guy rather than a cold and distant ironist. When his plot lines grow serious again in part three, we do not laugh like we did in part one. Instead, we feel what Kelly wants us to feel: genuine empathy for those people in “real” situations like the ones Kelly can hint at through the medium of the music video.
Is R. Kelly a paragon of modern creativity, a triumph of the human spirit and the solution to the problem of irony and emotion in art? No. Well, maybe a little. R. Kelly is able to incorporate a considerable amount of postmodern irony into innocent little works. He has a certain delightful naiveté, a willingness to seem ridiculous and a desire to entertain, but also a desire to help us out, to show us we are not alone in the real world. R. Kelly is able to signal his knowledge of the difficulties of modern artistic communication while also telling us he does not care. What he cares about is us, real people, and he is willing to tease himself to prove it.