We're Just Kidding Around!
Robert Sylvester Kelly (aka R. Kelly) is something of a titan in the music world. At times called the “King of R&B” or the “King of Pop-Soul,” his trophy case carries an impressive three Grammy’s and twelve Billboard Awards, among others. At the height of his fame and prior to the #MeToo movement in 2006, most people might have thought R. Kelly was forever tenured on his throne in the annals of musical fame.
In what can only be described as a series of shameful events, R. Kelly’s public image came crashing down. In 1994, he forged a fake ID for a 15-year-old girl he married illegally. In 1996, Tiffany Hawkins filed a lawsuit for “personal injuries and emotional distress” during their sexual relationship; Hawkins was just 15. In 2001, a 17-year-old sued him for an indecent relationship. In 2002, R. Kelly faced his first actual charges filed by the Chicago police; these charges were for child pornography. That it took eight years for actual charges to be levied is telling of the way women who filed reports of sexual assault were cast aside prior to the #MeToo movement. Even more incredible is the fact that “[it] took six years for the case to come to trial, during which time Kelly… was nominated for an Image Award by the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).” In light of these accusations, publication studios and marketing agencies have canceled contracts with Kelly left-and-right.
One might think that given the stench of these scandals, performance groups would distance themselves from R. Kelly in any way possible. At Dartmouth, that turns out not to be the case. The Dartmouth Aires' first true claim to fame was in 2011 when the group scored 2nd place on NBC’s The Sing Off, and their performance of R. Kelly’s “Remix to Ignition” was their biggest hit. Today, a similar recording remains their top single and has amassed over 2.5 million listens on Spotify.
Just a light skim of the lyrics is enough to raise eyebrows. Part of the first verse into the pre-chorus goes:
“That’s why I’m all up in your grill
Tryin’ to get you to a hotel…
So baby, gimme that ‘toot-toot’
And let me give you that ‘beep-boop.’”
These lyrics clearly insinuate a man trying to get a woman to have sex with him. The second verse continues this theme:
“Now, it’s like ‘Murder She Wrote’
Once I get you out them clothes
‘Privacy’ is on the door
But still they can hear you screamin’ ‘More.’”
“Ignition (Remix)” was released in October 2002, eight months after Kelly’s sex tape with a minor was released to the press. For someone accused of child pornography, releasing a song with these lyrics is a bold move. Although they do not necessarily provide evidence of the accusations, the lyrics, in a way, make a mockery of Kelly’s own lawsuit. It is as if he is telling the accusers, “I can make songs that are explicitly about sexual coercion, and I’m still untouchable,” thus solidifying his immortal status and ensuring the continuation of the status quo: his accusers are silenced or forced into paid non-disclosure agreements.
The 2005 Aires' cover can most likely be thought of as a rendition cover. That is to say, it does not attempt to strictly mimic R. Kelly’s version, but through subtle changes in the sonic construction, carries different implicit meanings to the communities listening to the music. Keep in mind that the Aires are an all-male group, most of whom are affiliated with a fraternity. Also recall that Greek spaces have historically been hotbeds of sexual assault within the Dartmouth community. In the context of males performing in male-dominated spaces, the Aires’ cover of “Ignition (Remix)” very nearly becomes an anthem to the sexualization of women on campus. The Aires do not change any lyrics, thus, the words “tryin’ to get you to a hotel… so baby give, gimme that ‘toot-toot’” can be interpreted as objectifying women. This objectification is only worsened by the fact that a group of socially powerful, mostly white men is the sole performer of the piece. For women already uncomfortable with female objectification in Greek spaces, their exclusion from performance and unease within the physical setting in which this piece is usually performed only fortifies the social power that men hold. In other words, who gets to participate and where we are participating matters.
The ending of the Aires' cover is deeply troubling on every level. A narrator in the Aires says the following:
“Listen guys, I don’t think R. Kelly is all that bad. I mean, just, I mean really, just think about yourself in his situation. Lots of girls, people coming around. I mean, if you had the chance, I mean, you’d videotape it too, right?”
The rhetorical question “you’d videotape it too, right” is followed by an emphatic “yeah!” from the rest of the group. That a mostly white, wealthy, all-male group with strong connections to Greek life — again, notorious for its history of sexual assault — would sing a cover of this song is already concerning. That the group chose to end the cover with this narrative at the end completely negates the humanity of Kelly’s accusers and the validity of their stories. To say that these words fully enable similar stories of abuse to continue today is no understatement; in fact, these words reaffirm, if anything, the practices that Kelly participated in. In the context of the Aires and Dartmouth, the fact that this song exists and is so popular suggests that the sexual abuses that occur in Greek spaces are acceptable. After all, “you’d videotape it too, right?” This messaging is further reinforced by the song’s album cover: an x-ray with a blurred spelling of the word “impaired,” something that can most likely be interpreted as a play on alcohol impairment (which is, again, a major contributor to sexual assault in Greek spaces).
Another question we should address is this: if this recording is so problematic, why don’t the Aires just take it down? The answer, in short, is profit. As mentioned above, the Aires’ “Remix to Ignition” has over 2.5 million listens; their next most listened-to single is “Crazy” at circa 450,000 listens. As their most-listened-to single, the Aires’ “Remix to Ignition” is kept around for monetary reasons. While perhaps disheartening, this truth is in no way shocking and illuminates the intersection of money and music in a capital-driven society.
It is worth noting that, during the writing of this section of the project, the Aires decided to see if it was possible to cut this ending out of the Spotify recording. I was told that, “this [ending] has been on the group’s mind for a while, so we are trying to remove it.” However, I then posed this question via text:
“If you had to pull and re-upload the whole Remix to Ignition, would the group still do it? That means losing the number of listens on Spotify for that track which is currently your highest by about two million.”
I did not get a response for some time, presumably because this member reached out to the whole group and formulated an answer. I assume this because I was then texted full-paragraph answers outlining how the group was having difficulties obtaining masters for a single track and that altering one song requires altering the whole album. He did end the text with, “The plan of the group is to upload that new Ignition track regardless of the effect it has on listen count.” Only time will tell if the Aires actually live up to this promise.
 Savage, Mark. 2021. “R. Kelly: The History of Allegations against Him.” BBC News, September 28, 2021, sec. Entertainment & Arts. https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-40635526.
 Derogatis, Jim, and Abdon Pallasch. 2002. “City Police Investigate R&B Singer R. Kelly in Sex Tape.” February 12, 2002. https://web.archive.org/web/20020212051418/http://www.suntimes.com/output/news/cst-nws-kelly08.html.
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