Cee Lo Green’s Amateur Hour

The past Saturday, I saw CeeLo Green perform. CeeLo is a performer I’ve dug on and off since his 2004 album Cee Lo Green is the Soul Machine, and 2012’s The Lady Killer remains one of my recent favorite albums for its powerful neo-soul hooks and rocking horns. His more recent work has been less than spectacular, though—the laughable Christmas album in 2012 (Cee Lo’s Magic Moment) and last year’s Heart Blanche, which I liked well enough but which Pitchfork didn’t even bother to review.

Of course, when I bought the ticket to the show, I had completely forgotten about the rape allegations against CeeLo from 2014. Like many of his followers, that episode soured me on him and his music. At this point, there’s nothing I can really say about the story. Green allegedly slipped a drug (ecstasy) into a woman’s drink during a dinner in 2012; the woman later awoke in Green’s hotel room with no memory of what had happened. Green pled no contest to the charge in 2014 to the charge of supplying the drug,  avoiding jail time. (No rape charges were filed, for lack of evidence.)

What elevated CeeLo into a special class of scumbag was his reaction on Twitter immediately after entering his plea, in which he suggested that it’s not rape if the woman is unconscious. After tweeting that monumentally stupid sentiment, Green deleted the relevant tweets, tweeted a barely-half-assed apology, then deleted those, along with his Twitter account altogether.

CeeLo Green on stage at Amos’ Southend in Charlotte, March 12, 2016

The damage had been done, though. Green was dropped from festival programs; TBS cancelled his reality show. The Love Train tour that CeeLo is currently on seems like nothing so much as a desperate attempt to cling to the quickly diminishing shred of cultural relevance that he still possesses. This much was obvious from the performance that I saw. Green took the stage with his “band,” a group of three backing musicians of little note: a female DJ (her gender will be relevant in a moment), a saxophonist who looked to me to be miming most of his parts as he danced through the artificial fog at the back of the stage, and a drummer/MC who split time between an electronic drum kit and rapping at the front of the stage. Describing the performance as “spare” would be an understatement. Green performed a mix of songs from his most recent album and The Lady Killer, mostly with backing tracks from the albums supporting him. The DJ tried (futilely) to excite the crowd, which was small, excited, and barely responsive to the performance in front of them. Green tried to play his best George Clinton persona, parading royally around the stage, arms spread in victory when he was not singing.

But the performance did not hit at all. There was no flow between songs. The backing tracks seemed lifted straight from the albums, leaving no room for improvisation (which Green was inept at anyway). Very often, Green didn’t even seem to know how the songs were supposed to end, as he stood awkwardly with his microphone. Green’s voice, while not unpleasant, was quite weak—no presence, none of the soul that comes across so powerfully on his recordings.

As I said, I had forgotten about the rape allegation when I bought the ticket; otherwise, I likely wouldn’t have gone. But I spent the better part of Saturday afternoon rereading the news stories and hot takes about Green, and it was therefore hard to not read his performance in light of his crimes—particularly the moment when Green, beginning a sensual love song that I can’t remember, held out his arms and waited for his female DJ to emerge from behind her table and erotically towel him off. This was a rather uncomfortable moment (whose irony seemed lost on most of the audience).

For a little while, I considered the thought that this sort of relatively low-budget tour is the consequence of Green’s promoters and label being unwilling to put much financial weight behind an artist with his unsavory recent history. Why, after all, would a label want to invest in an artist with Green’s much diminished drawing power? So they send him on the road to smallish clubs with a minimal band and obviously too little skill and rehearsal. Green’s sexual crime was being paid back with an under-supported tour.

But halfway through the show, a much more cynical (and, I think, plausible) thought occurred to me. What if the scantness of the tour is not the consequence of the rape allegation? Or, to be more precise, what if I was witnessing a symptom of the multiple standards our society levels against different sorts of criminals? Green’s most recent records were lackluster and not terribly commercially successful. So maybe it’s the case that Green just isn’t a good enough artist to justify continued support through the rape scandal. As repugnant a thought as this is, I find it not at all outside the realm of possibility. We see this sort of double standard all the time; there are even people out there who are willing to defend Dr. Luke against Ke$ha’s allegations of rape. In that case, Sony is obviously in no hurry to drop Dr. Luke, despite substantial public pressure, because he runs a successful label for them. CeeLo Green doesn’t have that financial force behind him, because it’s years since he’s done something that has been musically or financially successful.

To be clear, I have no evidence that this is actually what has happened in CeeLo’s case. But nonetheless, it is the sad truth of the society we live in that artistic (read: financial) merit is far too often used to rationalize away accusations of crimes that people invested in those artists might just not want to believe. Obviously, we should not feel any sympathy for CeeLo; but perhaps we feel too much sympathy for those who do better work than he.

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