Lady Gaga pulled the original version “Do What U Want” off the internet in response to reports that R. Kelly is a pedophile and terrible dirtbag.
I really admire Lady Gaga for taking a stand against pedophilia and terrible dirtbaggery, for siding with the victims of R. Kelly’s sexual assault, and for using her platform to stand up for women.
But I really loved that song.
In this article, I share the controversial history of “Do What U Want”, compare and contrast the R. Kelly and Christina Aguilera versions, defend the R. Kelly collab and call for a re- do.
“Do What U Want” has a tumultuous history. Gaga released it as the second single off “ARTPOP” instead of the previously planned “Venus”. Her collaboration with Robert Kelly happened just as the litigation against him kicked off. Gaga constantly defended the song during ARTPOP’s promotion. Gaga and Kelly gave an uncomfortable performance on SNL; at the 2013 American Music Awards, they riffed on the lyric “you’re the Marilyn, I’m the President” in a sketch that cast Kelly as the POTUS and Gaga as the victim of tabloid journalism. Photographer Terry Richardson (“Wrecking Ball”) shot a music video, then faced his own sexual assault allegations. Interscope never released the video. They did release the single with a Richardson photo of Lady Gaga’s butt, which caused further controversy.
In 2014, Gaga recorded an alternate version with Christina Aguilera. Time Magazine said the alternate version “”allow[s] more sales without the moral dilemma that comes with supporting Kelly”. Even in 2013, R. Kelly was a risk.
Six years later, all recordings including R. Kelly have vanished from streaming services. Starting this month, CD and vinyl copies of ARTPOP won’t have the song either.
I, as previously stated, 100% agree that R. Kelly exploits and mistreats women. He does not deserve anything from Gaga’s work. Even after he was acquitted from sexual misconduct and assault charges in 2008, stories floating around L.A. confirmed that R. Kelly was very horny at best and an egomaniacal sex addict at worst. The Netflix documentary “Surviving R. Kelly” dragged his crimes to light for good.
But in the case of “Do What U Want”, I’m separating the art from the artist. Lady Gaga wrote the song with Paul Blair, Martin Bresso, William Grigahcine. Paul Blair suggested a collaboration with R. Kelly after the lyrics and thematic content were finished. I’m guessing R. Kelly wrote the part that he sings, which goes like this:
“Early morning, longer nights (Yeah)
Tom Ford, private flights (Yeah)
Crazy schedule, fast life
I wouldn’t trade it in, ’cause it’s our life
(But let’s slow it down)
I could be the drink in your cup
I could be the green in your blunt, your pusher man
Yeah, I got what you want
You wanna escape (Oh)
All of the crazy shit (Let go)
You’re the Marilyn, I’m the president
And I love to hear you sing (Girl)”
Musically, Kelly’s verse diversifies the song; the second verse doesn’t follow the same structure as the second. Kelly’s parts give the song an R&B vibe, which sets it apart from Gaga’s other work.
Christina Aguilera’s version features traditional verse/ chorus/ verse structure and focuses on vocals.
Lyrically, the versions are totally different. Christina’s version replaces R. Kelly’s verse with these lyrics:
“My bones hurt from all the show hmm
But I don’t feel the pain ’cause I’m a pro I
I sink in and then I’m okay eh,
‘Cause my body belongs to you when I’m on stage eh”
The rest of the song sounds basically the same.
The addition of Kelly’s lyrical content and a male voice transforms “Do What U Want” from blase pop song to a salaciously defiant “fuck you”.
Gaga said she wrote the song “about my obsession with the way people view me”. She directs the words “You can’t have my heart, and you won’t use my mind/ You can’t stop my voice ’cause you don’t own my life” to the press. A controversial lover “taking these haters and roughing them up” taps into a female fantasy about her man standing up for her. The lines “I could be the drink in your cup/ I could be the green in your blunt, your pusher man” give the woman power- she holds the cup, she holds the blunt. The man basically says he’ll be there if she wants to “get naughty”, and the woman says “do what you want with my body”. She has enough independence and self- worth to get dirty without feeling dirty. Gaga gives a middle finger to the press; we give a middle finger to anyone who tries to slut- shame us.
In contrast, Christina’s verse about “bones hurting from all the show” and “my body belongs to you when I’m on stage” plunk the subject matter firmly in Pop Divadom. I can’t relate. The effect of girl- on- girl singing feels tepid. We hear two women with incredible voices, showing off their incredible voices. Sexual defiance and empowerment disappear.
I support Lady Gaga’s actions, but I gotta say that I support the song too. I’m sorry “Do What U Want” got caught in the crossfire of Lady Gaga’s integrity and R. Kelly’s terrible dirtbaggery. I think fans deserve better than the version Gaga recorded with Christina. Maybe Gaga can find a nice male women’s rights advocate- maybe even an unknown!- to re- record the track. Maybe she can donate the profits to victims of sexual misconduct, abuse, and assault. Maybe she can use “Do What U Want” to send a message of sexual independence and ownership over female identity. Maybe “Do What U Want” can empower women- without R. Kelly.