Gaga’s statement is an unusual one, though, as is the song she has to answer for. The lyrics of “Do What U Want” are about surrendering to physical domination, and at the time they most clearly referred to the demands of fame: “You don’t own my life but / Do what you want with my body,” was a taunt to the ogling tabloids. Kelly’s involvement fit this theme, Gaga explained back then, in a manner that’s stomach churning to read now. “R. Kelly and I have sometimes very untrue things written about us, so in a way this was a bond between us,” she told reporters who asked about the accusations against him.
Those accusations were, thus, part of the art, coloring its meaning. Kelly’s involvement made it a song not only about fame, but also about alleged sex across creepy power differentials. This wasn’t really even subtext: Gaga and Kelly playacted an Oval Office affair at the American Music Awards. The video had him as a doctor groping a patient. Some muddled commentary on sexual line-crossing was clearly being made. So was an attempt at profitable controversy.
Gaga’s apology now seems to acknowledge that she worked with Kelly not in spite of the allegations against him but because of them. “As a victim of sexual assault myself, I made both the song and video at a dark time in my life, my intention was to create something extremely defiant and provocative because I was angry and still hadn’t processed the trauma that had occurred in my own life,” she wrote. “The song is called ‘Do What U Want (With My Body)’, I think it’s clear how explicitly twisted my thinking was at the time.”
In recent years, Gaga has spoken with increasing frankness about being raped by an unnamed music producer when she was a teen. Her 2015 single “Til It Happens to You” was about surviving assault, and she mentioned the song in her R. Kelly apology. Other singles, such as 2013’s “Swine” and 2016’s “Diamond Heart,” raged at some violative male pig. “Do What U Want,” she now suggests, was all along part of this lineage—the sound of a woman finding solace after the appropriation of her body, in “defiant and provocative” fashion.
But it wasn’t a dare she stood behind for long. Just months after “Do What U Want” debuted, Richardson’s video was shot and then shelved—because of “mismanagement,” Gaga said, but reportedly also to avoid blowback. Shortly after, Gaga recorded an alternate version of the song that swapped in Christina Aguilera’s vocals for Kelly’s. Now, five years after the initial release, she’s disavowing the tune entirely, and inviting perfectly valid criticism for sending royalties Kelly’s way all this time.
It’s a strange story, but also a cautionary one for “provocateurs” now pushing back against #MeToo. Disgraced men have reemerged as unabashed trolls, with Kevin Spacey playing the villain in a home movie and Louis C.K. telling extra-vile jokes. Other entertainers—facing tests of their relevance just as Gaga was in 2013—have talked up their own bravery in allying with dicey figures. Nicki Minaj, for example, cited Gaga’s work with Kelly when justifying her friendship and collaboration with the rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine, who was convicted of using a minor in a sexual performance. Kanye West rapped lyrics seeming to scoff at #MeToo on a posthumously released song by XXXTentacion, who was accused of brutal domestic violence.
Minaj’s single with 6ix9ine is her only true hit in awhile, and West’s XXX verse marked one of the rare times lately that the content of his music has been responsible for his headlines: signs that doing the “dangerous” thing of teaming with accused predators is a sure way to grab attention. But sooner or later, Gaga might warn them, there’s a price to pay for doing so.