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My essay will analyze the narrative intentions and storytelling traits of R. Kelly’s fascinating opus magnum Trapped in the Closet (2005-), discussing how the artist’s chosen narrative strategy has shaped both the production and the reception of the series. My (tentative) thesis posits that, beyond the saga’s narrative content and musical qualities, it was in fact R. Kelly’s conscious and deliberate amalgamation of genre conventions that has determined the surprising popularity and cult status Trapped in the Closet has received. The fact that he mixed genre expectations and crafted an entirely innovative and original narrative format not only made the series appealing to an audience much wider than R. Kelly’s usual fan base, but also guaranteed its success in spite of its unimpressive musical qualities and ridiculously melodramatic storyline.

Towards my conclusion, I am also thinking of hypothesizing that, in the context of today’s media-saturated environment and taxonomical view of narrative formats, the principal way to come up with a completely original creative product is by challenging popular conventions of genre and format, and employing a transmedial approach to narrative that would ensure the versatility of the text in our contemporary (some say postmodern) age of cultural convergence.

Trapped in the Closet borrows specific conventions from so many different genres and narrative formats that it is hard enough just to narrow it down to the principal ones and not get caught in a web of cultural legacies. So far, I plan on discussing how Trapped uses the conventions of the soap opera, the music video, the opera and the even the sports commentary. Without a doubt, the chief narrative influence of Kelly’s series is the soap opera – due to its domestic subject matter, overly emotional scenes, heavy reliance on dialogue and structural format (i.e. serial narration, enriched by recurring characters, unresolved conflicts and suspenseful cliffhangers), Trapped in the Closet clearly emulates the principal generic conventions of the soap opera. I was planning to talk about its connection to melodrama as well, but after reading some academic classifications of soap opera and melodrama, I feel that the two genres are too closely connected, and there is too much scholarly disagreement concerning their relationship, so I think I will just discuss the melodramatic features of Trapped in the Closet within the context of its appropriation of soap-opera conventions. I have a similar dilemma in regard to likening it to musical theatre versus opera, and although both these influences would make for an interesting discussion, I believe that the narrative conventions of opera are slightly more relevant and better suited to R. Kelly’s creation than the conventions of the musical. I will then discuss its relationship to the tradition of the music video, and how the serialization of the plot challenges – but does not necessarily undermine – the typical characteristics of the music video. An intriguing detail in this respect (which I will probably not use in my paper, but which has definitely made me think) emerged just by talking to my friends about Trapped in the Closet, as I was telling them about this paper: I came to the interesting conclusion that the people who had never seen it were comparing it to a music video, while the ones that had seen it before were more likely to consider it a television series. And finally, I will also attempt to discuss – wisely or not, I don’t know – the influence of sports commentary on Trapped in the Closet, because the way narration works in the series, by explicitly describing every action that we see on screen (“and he looks towards the closet/ and now he’s going to the closet/ and he’s opening the closet”, etc) is quite similar to the play-by-play commentary that characterizes sports broadcasting.

Other issues I want to explore – but I still have to see how they will fit in with my thesis – is the authorship, the pop culture status and the reception of the show. Given R. Kelly’s Orson-Welles-like involvement in all aspect of the show’s writing and production, and considering his multiple function as author, narrator and character (even autobiographical connotations, since R. Kelly’s middle name is Sylvester), it is interesting to analyze issues of narrative voice and the implied author, as discussed by Chatman and Bordwell. Also, Kelly’s multiple roles as author-narrator-character complicate the evolution of the narrative voice in Trapped in the Closet: while the series started with Kelly’s first-person narration, he had assumed the supplementary role of the cigar-smoking narrator by Chapter 8, and by Chapter 10, the story’s mode changes radically to third-person narration (“Sylvester said” instead of “I said”). While these narrative switches are interesting to analyze, I am having problems accounting for their rationale and evolution, because of the utterly erratic and goofball nature of Kelly’s writing and vision.

I will also discuss the reception of the series, which is not unrelated to the question of authorship. Specifically, what were Kelly’s intentions in designing the storyline and the narrative format of Trapped in the Closet? Drawing on parallels with such pop culture phenomena as Showgirls and the work of Ed Wood, I will discuss the concepts of camp and cult texts, in the context of the series’ reception. Another variable that influenced the reception of the show was its distribution, and I will attempt to prove that its multimedia distribution – on radio, television and the internet – maximized its cultural impact and testifies to the fact that, as mentioned before, a cross-media strategy (or “transmedial” approach, in the words of David Herman) is becoming more and more necessary in the age of cultural convergence.


(excluding the sources we read for this course)

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One Response to “Trapped in the Closet – paper proposal and detailed outline”

  1. This is a great topic, about a text for which we share affection! I think you should explore how the series employs “serial melodrama” in ways that are both like and unlike the soap opera. I’d also recommend looking at the concept of “spreadable media” which Henry Jenkins has offered instead of “viral media” – he’s blogged about it on henryjenkins.org – as it highlights how the reception of such a series can make a significant impact through its dissemination. Also, the concepts of cult and camp have a long scholarly history to explore. Finally, the concept of implied author does seem essential here, as R. Kelly’s star image is so notorious and his presence & commentary frames the entire experience. See http://www.alternatetakes.co.uk/?2006,5,75 as a representative analysis that highlights authorship. Good luck!

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