How Lady Gaga Removed Her R. Kelly Collaboration From Streaming Services
On Wednesday night (Jan. 9), Lady Gaga issued an apology for collaborating with R. Kelly on the 2013 single “Do What U Want,” following a week in which Kelly’s history of alleged abuse has been once again brought to light, this time on Lifetime’s recent documentary series Surviving R. Kelly. “What I am hearing about the allegations against R Kelly is absolutely horrifying and indefensible,” Gaga wrote in a note to fans posted to her social media accounts.
She later continued, “I intend to remove this song off of iTunes and other streaming platforms and will not be working with him again.” Less than 24 hours later, the Gaga-Kelly version of “Do What U Want” was no longer able to be streamed or downloaded on several major music platforms, including iTunes, Spotify and Apple Music, and is no longer playable on Gaga’s official YouTube channel. (An alternative version of “Do What U Want” that features Christina Aguilera duetting with Gaga, also recorded in 2013, is still available on digital platforms).
The idea that one of Gaga's singles can be swiftly and thoroughly removed from the Internet at large is a curious one. Upon its release, “Do What U Want,” the second single from her 2013 album Artpop, was a modest hit for Gaga: it has sold 1.2 million downloads to date, according to Nielsen Music, and accrued 92.6 million on-demand U.S. streams. The song, which Gaga and Kelly performed together on Saturday Night Live and at the 2013 American Music Awards, peaked at No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100.
While reps for Gaga did not respond to a request for comment, a source with knowledge of the situation says that Gaga had recently approached her label, Interscope Records, asking for their help in removing “Do What U Want” from iTunes and streaming services, and the label quickly moved to coordinate with the major digital music services in getting the song taken down. The source said that Gaga “wanted to send a message” by removing the song in addition to denouncing the past collaboration.
How can Gaga erase one of her top 20 hits without affecting those still receiving royalties from its streams and downloads? In addition to Kelly as its featured artist, “Do What U Want” has four more credited writers: Gaga, Paul Blair (better known as DJ White Shadow, who also co-produced the song with Gaga), Martin Bresso (a songwriter-producer who records as Tchami) and William Grigahcine (also known as global hitmaker DJ Snake).
Prior to a song being released, co-writers are typically at the whim of the artist recording the song as to whether that track will appear on an album or be selected as a single -- especially when the artist is also listed as a co-writer, as Gaga is on “Do What U Want.” Although it’s extremely rare for an artist to decide to release a song and then un-release it, that same control would apply, and the co-writers would not have a say in what happens to the availability of the record.
It’s also worth noting that “Do What U Want” is credited as a Lady Gaga song featuring R. Kelly, not as a duet between Gaga and Kelly. In instances where the word “featuring” is used, those artists typically are not paid artist royalties for that song, instead being compensated with an upfront fee or by trading favors. Therefore, Kelly is likely not missing out on any royalties as the guest star on the version of “Do What U Want” that has been removed.
Most importantly, Gaga needed the support of Interscope and parent company Universal Music Group in removing “Do What U Want” from digital music services after the label released the song as part of Artpop. Interscope/UMG hypothetically could have blocked the removal of the song since they own Gaga’s masters, but considering that Gaga is one of the label’s flagship artists -- and that few within the industry currently want to align themselves with Kelly and attempt to protect his art -- the label’s decision to help Gaga was undoubtedly a simple one.
Similarly, Blair, Bresso and Grigahcine could protest the removal of the song as co-writers, although their working history with Gaga and the current anti-Kelly public sentiment would make that unlikely. Kelly has not yet spoken out about “Do What U Want” being taken down, nor threatened legal action, although considering the daily onslaught of denouncements that has resulted from Surviving R. Kelly, such action is not expected at this time. (A rep for Kelly did not return Billboard’s request for comment).
Even with its removal from streaming, the Lady Gaga-R. Kelly version of “Do What U Want” has not been erased from existence: the song is still available on the physical edition of Artpop, of which 477,000 copies have been sold on CD and vinyl, per Nielsen Music. Radio stations still have the right to play the version, and users can still upload it to YouTube, although they risk being marked unauthorized content by Interscope.
As more artists grapple with the R. Kelly controversy and their past collaborations with the R&B artist -- on Thursday, Phoenix issued an apology for bringing him out at Coachella in 2013 -- Gaga decided to take a nearly unprecedented step in distancing herself from their shared single. As a result, a top 20 Hot 100 hit is now nowhere to be found online.