"Trapped in the Closet": Ironic or Not?

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Shit. Think. Shit. Think.

Matt Singer, the guy who's been hosting IFC.com's stream of the new "Trapped in the Closet" chapters, used to be a Voice film intern, and I've got this theory that he might've first heard about "Trapped" from fellow former Voice intern and vocal R. Kelly proponent Pete L'Official. (Pete can't remember.) But I actually knew Singer before that; I went to college with him. We lived on the same dorm floor sophomore year, and we both DJed at the college radio station. Matt and I were never boys or anything, but we were pretty good acquaintances, and I did see him every day for a while there. So the ongoing spectacle of the "Trapped in the Closet" saga gains an additional weird wrinkle with him attached, awkwardly interviewing Kelly and perching uncomfortably next to him on a couch before the individual episodes come on. Matt's a good guy, and I'm happy to see him playing such an active role in such a big cultural phenomenon, but his presence is just one of the many truly bizarre and anomalous aspects of the whole "Trapped" thing. Matt, to put it delicately, doesn't exactly strike anyone as being well-versed in R&B. (I can't remember what kind of music he listened to in college, but I do remember that his roommate was a big Dar Williams fan.) Matt's reactions to Kelly's labor of love are weirdly mesmerizing; the part where Kelly tells him that they need to get some girls up in there is by far my favorite. It'd be easy to view Singer as the "smirking hipster" that this article calls him, but I mean, you'd probably be chuckling to yourself if you were sitting in a living room with R. Kelly for an hour too. R. Kelly is funny, and he knows he's funny.

A few days ago, Kelefa Sanneh wrote a Times article about "Trapped," particularly about how some of the attention that the new chapters have received is of the gallingly ironic sort: "Many of its biggest fans seem to think they're laughing at Mr. Kelly, not with him, as if the whole thing were some sort of glorious, terrible mistake." People like Weird Al and Jimmy Kimmel have done "Trapped" parodies, which is pretty ridiculous when you consider that "Trapped" itself is already total self-parody of a particularly broad sort. Anyone who doubts that Kelly possesses the ability to laugh at his own sexed-up persona should really see the Live! The Light It Up Tour DVD; the opera version of "Feelin On Yo Booty" should dispel any lingering doubts. Kelly knows that he's being funny with "Trapped in the Closet"; any storyline that includes a midget shitting himself at a pivotal moment can't be taking itself all that seriously. And so these "Trapped" parodies inevitably end up coming off like Date Movie, a movie that attempted to parody other comedies by stealing their jokes and extending them to gross and unfunny lengths. Everytime I read about some burlesque-vaudeville type lip-syncing along with "Trapped" Rocky Horror-style in a club somewhere, I flinch inwardly. The problem with the new "Trapped" chapters is that Kelly is basically doing the same thing, taking an initially funny and weird and exciting concept and running it into the ground, over and over and over. When the first "Trapped" chapters came out, they were a great little cultural phenomenon. I can remember driving around listening waiting anxiously for commercial breaks to end so that I could hear the next chapter. Kelly mixed his comedy, which was there from the beginning, with a tense and personal drama, and when that dramatic aspect disappeared (around the same time the midget showed up), the series lost steam. Kelly can still tell those tight and resonant little stories; "Best Friend" from Double Up is proof of that. He's just chosen not to tell them in "Trapped" anymore. Those first chapters were done with radio in mind; it was months before the video came along. The later chapters, though, would be totally incomprehensible without the accompanying visuals. The initial six-part cycle didn't resolve itself that nicely, but at least it had something resembling an ending. Now, Kelly introduces a new character with almost every episode, and he's left dangling so many plot-points that the whole thing is beginning to look like Lost; he'll never resolve all these conflicts. Now that Kelly himself has played a fat-suited old drunk, a stuttering pimp, and a preening preacher, it's only a matter of time before Kelly shows up in drag; he's working overtime to become Tyler Perry.

These new chapters have had some amazing moments: Will Oldham's inexplicable cameo, Kelly's attempt at an Italian accent, the narrator's cigar being slapped out of his hand. I still love that looped rolling piano run that underscores the whole thing, the intense strings that saw in at the end of every episode, the airy falsetto that Kelly sometimes uses to finish his lines. But I'm concerned that Kelly is going the David Hasselhoff/William Shatner route, allowing his career to essentially one long self-parody. Kelly is finally going to be starting his child-pornography trial soon, and there's at least some chance that he'll be going away for a while, so maybe he's just using the considerable resources at his disposal to go off on some supremely goofy vanity-project experiment, indulging a lifelong passion for poop-jokes and all-tangent narrative. If he's found innocent, though, I hope he turns his attention back to being a first-rate pop-star. As much as I've enjoyed Matt Singer's involvement, it's time for "Trapped in the Closet" to end.

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Voice review: Jon Caramanica on R. Kelly's TP-2.com
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