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Is the Christina Aguilera Version of “Do What U Want” Lady Gaga’s Attempt to Distance Herself From R. Kelly?

The more I listen to pop music, the less I try to parse the songwriting. Not to be a rockist, but it’s difficult for me to find poignancy in a song written by a team of five to six songwriters, even when — as in the case of Lady Gaga’s “Do What U Want” — the themes are blunt and heavy-handed. Not that I paid much attention to any deeper meanings the first few times I heard the song. With the song’s pretty basic title and the collaboration with erotic-crooner R. Kelly, I wrote off the song as a catchy tune about sex, particularly sexual agency, underscored by the repeated line, “You can’t have my mind.”

Of course, picking up mostly (or only) on sexual overtones is not necessarily the fault of a casual listener. Consider the performance Lady Gaga and R. Kelly delivered when the former hosted Saturday Night Live back in November; Kelly came out unannounced during Gaga’s performance, and the pair offered a seductive, yet fairly uncontroversial, routine which involved Kelly doing pushups over Gaga and tossing her around like a rag doll (even the choreography took the titular refrain quite literally). A few weeks later, the pair reunited for the American Music Awards in character as the President of the United States and his sexy secretary, in a nod to the line in Kelly’s verse: “You’re the Marilyn, I’m the president.”

Weeks later, after Jessica Hopper interviewed Chicago-based music journalist Jim DeRogotis about the allegations of sexual assault and statutory rape that have surrounding R. Kelly for years, the collective Internet seemed to turn on the R&B singer. It sparked a piece by Slate’s Amanda Hess, who compared Kelly’s collaboration with Lady Gaga to the video for Beyoncé’s “XO,” directed by fashion photographer Terry Richardson (who, coincidentally, is directing the video for the Gaga/Kelly track). As things on the Internet go, questioning of these female performers’ feminism (or lack thereof) followed. Even Lena Dunham got mixed up in it!

The aforementioned video directed by Terry Richardson has yet to be released, although it was slated to premiere last month. This is admittedly all conjecture, but I wonder if Lady Gaga and her team are feeling like they’re at the center of a crisis. After all, Artpop hasn’t been received particularly well, commercially or critically, resulting in a narrative that Gaga’s persecution complex has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Suddenly, “Do What U Want,” presumably about how Gaga feels unfairly criticized by the media, is coming true.

Additionally, the added subtext of R. Kelly’s sexual inclinations has left the song feeling less like a catchy R&B-inspired dance track and more like an uncomfortable acknowledgment of a performer’s refusal to take accountability for his or her actions. Kelly’s line “Ya, we taking these haters and we rough ‘em up / And we lay in the cut like we don’t give a fuck” bears resemblance to Kelly’s actual response to the Village Voice piece. “[A]s you know, when you get on top of anything, it’s very windy up there,” he said, dismissing the allegations as some form of “hate” thrown at him and his success.

Amid the renewed attention to R. Kelly’s sexual assault allegations, Lady Gaga performed “Do What U Want” with Christina Aguilera on the season finale of The Voice. It was a coup for the pair, who many had assumed were feuding since Gaga’s debut (all oversexed blonde pop singers must hate each other, you see). The performance was well receieved, especially as critics had compared Gaga’s vocals on the original track to Aguilera’s sensibilities. With all that in mind, the pairing was much more interesting (to me, at least) than the original.

Gaga released the studio version of her duet with Aguilera yesterday, and it’s very much like the original mix, save for new lyrics written for Aguilera that fit much better, thematically. “My bones hurt from all the shows, but I don’t feel the pain ’cause I’m a pro / I sink in and then I’m okay ’cause my body belongs to you when I’m on stage,” Aguilera belts, in lines that make a bit more sense in the context of the song than R. Kelly claiming that he’s the cream to Gaga’s cup, the green to her blunt.

One wonders, given the suspiciously absent Terry Richardson-helmed video, if this official release with Aguilera replacing Kelly is a move on Gaga’s part to distance herself from the negative press. Is it at all possible for the Richardson video to drop online without creating a major controversy — even of the “bad press is good press” variety? It’s enough to make you wish that Gaga would go in a different direction entirely, teaming up with Aguilera for a video shoot, with another woman sitting in the director’s chair.

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