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R. Country

R. Kelly is now notorious. Are we supposed to have known that he was "famous" first?

12:00 AM, Jun 7, 2002 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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UH-OH! R. Kelly is in big trouble. He's been arrested for having made a dirty video with a 14-year-old girl. From the time I first heard the news on a drive-time talk show until yesterday morning, when I read about it in detail on page 1 of the New York Post, I've been unable to shake the same nagging question:

Who in the hell is R. Kelly?

According to the Post, he was accused of sexual activity with the teenager by the "unheralded rapper Stephanie 'Sparkle' Edwards." Nothing unheralded about R., though! He's a singer-songwriter who has enriched Our Cultural Heritage with "Feelin' On Yo' Booty" and other songs. (Bizarrely, no two news accounts seem to agree on whether his music is rap, rhythm 'n' blues, or soul.) He was previously married to the "pop star Aaliyah," who was decidedly heralded. She was much mourned in the Post and elsewhere when she was killed in a plane crash last winter.

But come to think of it, as Aaliyah's obsequies dragged on, I remember wondering who she was--and finding that no one I knew had ever heard of her, either. I had the same experience a couple years ago when the nation went into mourning over the Mexican singer Selena. Clearly there are famous people who just aren't that famous.

Most devoted readers of obituaries have noted the irony that one often sees there the names of people one had forgotten were alive in the first place. But these stories of R.-Aaliyah-Selena are something stranger still: They announce the end of a run of universal recognition for someone whom nobody recognizes.

Or at least nobody outside of a subculture of aficionados. For Selena's death to get front-page treatment in "Noticias de la Musica Mexicana" would excite no puzzlement--no more, at least, than if R.'s escapades were detailed in the "Booty Times." But why do these people get dragged out of their narrow marketing niches and cast as society-wide VIPs in whom we are all assumed to have taken an interest? It's that the Warholian absurdity has been pushed to its limit, as the media offers 15 minutes of (retrospective) fame to those it merely wants to push to top of the show because they've suffered something gruesome or done something kinky.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.