Song of the day: Kelis – Caught Out There

Cover of 'Caught Out There' single by Kelis. Black and white head and shoulders shot of Kelis sitting at the bottom of steps and looking to her left. White strip at the top with 'KELIS*' written in pink and the song title in black caps.Caught Out There‘ was Kelis‘s first release from her 1999 debut album Kaleidoscope. The song’s raging anger, with its screaming refrain “I hate you so much right now” was a memorable introduction to Kelis as a performer. As she herself mentioned, albeit in passing, in a Guardian interview over a decade later, “I think it set the tone for my entire life.”

It is probably the declaration at the start of the song that it is “for all the women out there” who have “been lied to by their men” and striking image of Kelis marching in solidarity with other scorned women in the video that has led to it frequently being framed as something of a feminist statement in public consciousness. (One recent YouTube commenter even quips that he was scared by the track when it came out and says he “knew a new wave of feminism was coming. And it wasn’t going to be good for no man”.)

The early buzz around Kelis’s first hit possibly led to her being under pressure to embrace the feminist associations or distance herself from them. As it turned out, she went for the latter. Indeed, I vaguely remember her saying she wasn’t a feminist in a Mixmag interview around the time. Kelis has reiterated this statement a few times over the years since, despite her increasing feminist appeal. (Being pictured with seemingly intentionally greyed hair as a style statement and calling out sexist double standards on assertiveness definitely helps!)

Annoying as it is to see Kelis conflating feminism with “penis envy” and man-hating, I’ve often wondered if some creative women reject the feminist label in an attempt to free themselves from any subsequent moral expectations and responsibilities that tend to come with it. After all, you’re surely less likely to be expected to stress the importance of fair play if you aren’t in the business of advocating fairness anyway. It’s a deeply individualistic approach but I can certainly see the temptation. The problematic implication of violent retribution against the cheater in the video for ‘Caught Out There’ is perhaps a case in point: a feminist woman who condones physical violence that isn’t in self-defence will swiftly be told -by her peers as well as her detractors- that she is being hypocritical. However, the non-feminist woman who kicks off is neither beholden to feminist principles nor officially a threat to the sexist status quo. This arguably leaves her freer to hate and lose her shit (up to a point) or at least pretend to do so in a music video with relative impunity.

The frequently quoted claim that Kelis somehow “captured feminist desires” on Kaleidoscope shows a possible misunderstanding of both Kelis’s intentions with ‘Caught Out There’ and, perhaps tellingly, of feminism as a catch-all for any anger from women towards men. There is nothing inherently feminist about exacting revenge on a man for cheating on you and, while the video for ‘Caught Out There’ at least partly plays on the power of feminist activism, Kelis has never said there is either.

YouTube video summary: An angry Kelis reacts to her boyfriend’s cheating and leads a women’s protest.

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