It was singer R. Kelly’s first interview since being charged on 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual assault, yet when CBS’ “Gayle King: The R. Kelly Interview” aired Friday, the hourlong special already felt like old news.
Half the nation had already seen clips of the embattled singer exploding, then melting down, when the network aired portions of the interview Wednesday on “CBS This Morning,” then continued to drop other choice bits and pieces throughout the week. And like all things that are disturbing, graphic, dramatic and humiliating, the superstar’s crash and burn went viral.
But there was something more to that moment than the usual pain-and-suffering porn that passes as news. When Kelly jumped out of his chair and loomed over King, yelling and crying, “Y’all trying to kill me. You’re killing me, man. This is not about music… Y’all just don’t want to believe the truth,” it seemed revelatory coming from an artist who’s always let his music do the talking.
Kelly, 52, has sold more than 75 million records, and his biggest hit, “I Believe I Can Fly,” is an inspirational staple at high school graduation ceremonies, church events and even weddings.
Now he faces up to 70 years in prison in Cook County in Illinois for charges relating to his alleged sexual assaults of women and girls. The singer was arrested and jailed mere hours before the interview aired, but this time on charges related to unpaid child support.
According to the Associated Press, the singer is slated “to be released on Saturday from the Chicago jail where he’s been held since Wednesday after someone paid the $161,000 he owed in back child support.”
Meanwhile, Friday’s hourlong interview with King promised at least a few more insights into Kelly and the cases against him: “You may have already seen some of my interview with R. Kelly,” said King in her opener, “but you haven’t seen it all. Not yet.” But that promise was short-lived.
The first indication that there wasn’t much in the way of new, illuminating material was the show’s set. King presented standing in front of three giant images of Kelly pulled from the angry interview clip — apparently CBS hadn’t gotten enough mileage out of his pained shrieks yet.
Kelly’s violent outburst did seem to confirm what many have said about the figure at the center of Lifetime’s recent docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly” (he declined to appear in the show). The series gave his accusers the narrative, and through their alleged first-hand accounts, they paint the superstar as a controlling figure and predator who preys on underage girls.
Kelly claims he’s a misunderstood public figure who’s been backed into a corner by the media, opportunists and public scrutiny.
The difference was that Lifetime series had a defined purpose— to give his accusers a voice. Friday’s production had no such direction, as King asked the same question basically over and over, and Kelly denied it over and over.
Had he ever performed “unspeakable sexual acts” with underage girls, “abused women,” or “humiliated and demeaned” girls?
“Absolutely not,” he responded. “I’m not a devil, and by no means am I a monster.”
Aside from the appearance by Kelly and the two girlfriends currently living with him in what’s been described by some as a cult setting, the broadcast was a mix of interviews and materials either mirroring or pulled directly from the Lifetime series. His accusers recounted the worst periods of their lives, some of them for the second time, on national TV.
King’s interview Friday relied mostly on Kelly’s raw and painfully awkward persona to drive the drama. Clad in a suit and tie, he was charming one minute, sweating and desperate the next, then furious and weeping.
He directly addressed the camera several times, pleaded that the public believe him, and then loosened his tie when he began chocking back tears describing what the “rumors” have done to his relationship with his children.
It was stomach-turning, tragic, and no matter what you think of Kelly, uncomfortably exploitative. If only there were the payoff of fresh insight, a sharp narrative or the sense that CBS had moved this story forward culturally or otherwise.
King remained impressively calm and composed when he exploded, and did a competent job steering their talk, but what was the point? This “news” special, culled from what was left of a picked-over interview, all about capturing the pitiful melodrama of a fallen star.