So, Erykah Badu got naked in her new video, the song for which–“Window Seat”–is on her latest album, New Amerykah Part II: Return of the Ankh (release date: March 30, 2010). The video gained notoriety shortly after being made available via YouTube but–as Larry Fitzmaurice noted two days before the album was officially released–the “highlight from her new album” kept “disappearing.” Nevertheless, Badu’s site remains a reliable source for viewing.
It has been reported that she is facing a disorderly conduct charge. According to the Dallas News’ Tanya Eiserer, the “city….feels stripped of its dignity” in reaction to a violation that is likened to a traffic ticket in terms of the appropriate citation. Eiserer also noted Badu’s audience, which quickly grew thanks to “the many versions of the video on YouTube.” She concluded her report with six words: “The fine: $500. The publicity: Priceless.”
I’d like to pose a more solemn interpretation that is particularly relevant in the “Age of Obama”: Badu’s video is a catalyst for the collective memory of the discrimination that inspired the civil rights movement that was openly supported by John F. Kennedy, Jr.
The topics of agency, the black female body, and racism have been analyzed in Ms.blog, racialicious, and Destee Discussion Forum among others. Yet, the mainstream media tends to reduce the coverage to a matter of obscenity or disobedience while the video’s artistic quality is hardly ever addressed. In fact, it was a welcome surprise to see an individual who posted to a public site, Destee Discussion Forum, compare Badu’s video to noted performance artist/photographer Renee Cox’s work.
I am interested in Badu’s video in relation to performance art practices for these reasons:
- At a time in American history that is marked by racial tensions, Badu has chosen to simultaneously recall civil rights history through reference to an emblematic figure, JFK, and her virtual death and resurrection at the end of the video,
- YouTube and voyeurism,
- And the video as a form of protest.
The video begins with text-a shout out to fellow artists Matt and Kim for inspiring the video, and utilizes the long shot film technique. The long shot is a technique that is more likely to be seen in experimental/indie films because it challenges viewers to invest more in their relationship to the subject (Badu). The director’s single take approach to filming creates an effect that corresponds to the “socially conscious”album.
According to filmreference.com:
Although it is easy to confuse long takes with long shots, the terms refer to two different relationships: long takes suggest the duration of a shot, while long shots specify the distance between a figure and the camera.
Following the shout out, the audience hears the tinny sound of a man’s voice while she pulls her car in to Dealey Plaza-the site of JFK’s assassination. The iconic words that preceded his death are presented in a new context. As she prepares to enter the Plaza grounds, the man’s voice optimistically announces:
The President’s car is now turning into Elm Street and it will be only a matter of minutes before he arrives at his Trade Mart. I was on Simmons Freeway earlier and even the freeway was jampacked with spectators waiting their chance to see the President as he made his way toward the Trade Mart.
The iconic words are followed by a frame that says “A Story by Erykah Badu.” She stops to pay the meter before following the same path that Kennedy’s vehicle took on the day that he was assassinated. As she walks through a meandering crowd of onlookers who seem to recognize her, she disrobes in slow motion until the video ends with a gunshot sound effect. As the gunshot is heard, she falls to the ground, completely nude. The camera pans away as her disembodied voice speaks about the need for social change. By concluding her performance in this manner, she places herself in an exceptionally vulnerable position while evoking the memory of a famous death. The reminder has continued to spread quickly as a result of the video’s viral status and the ensuing uproar in Dallas.
My concern is that, so far, Badu’s video performance has been overwhelmingly considered as a case about crossing legal and patriotic boundaries. While her moral compass is being questioned, the actual theme of the video has been all but omitted in popular coverage. Even Chelsea Handler sidestepped the controversy when she interviewed her about it on March 31, 2010, as shown on iHipHop, and quickly jumped to a much more graphic discussion (on Handler’s end) about dating “black” rappers. As the video’s role, a common footnote, in media coverage has altered our perception of what is noteworthy, I cannot help but to relate “Window Seat” as an effort to insert meaning into an abbreviated understanding of American civil rights history.
To be fair, The Dallas News did address the site of Badu’s performance as historically significant but it was summed up as either an ultimately disrespectful action or of a “trivial” bump on the road to important civic issues.
Is public nudity a big deal or not? In addition, what’s so new or exciting about Badu’s video?
In the tradition of performance artists such as Coco Fusco and Ana Mendieta, Badu considers this a “move for women and men and children who feel they weren’t good enough,” and her video stirs up ideas about race, sexuality, power, and death.
As Stefan Zednik observed, death is Coco Fusco’s “main theme” and her performance, titled “Better Yet When Dead,” is a meditation on the “intriguing deaths of famous women and about public reactions to the news.” Fusco’s revelation of fame as the tragic effect of death for Latinas, including Selena, Eva Peron, and Ana Mendieta, corresponds to Badu’s plea for awareness about everyday spiritual and physical attacks that seem to come out of nowhere, and therefore, exude mystery.
In light of another more appropriate comparisons, such as Ana Mendieta’s “People Looking at Blood,” and Badu’s boyfriend’s Tweet in which he compared the birth of their daughter (just days before the release of the album) to “The Color Purple” (a book by womanist writer, Alice Walker), “Window Seat”’s memorial approach to art and dark examination of voyeurism can provide great insights.
Furthermore, in a political climate in which death threats are made to President Obama (and his supporters), Erykah Badu can be better understood as an activist/artist who is willing to broach everyday tragedies that are trivialized as a result of misguided priorities. In her notorious video, she reenacts death. Moments later, the camera moves away, panning the historic site as Badu speaks. As she utters her final words to the audience, she reappears, walking towards the camera and smiling. These are the words that viewers hear as the video ends:
The play it safe are quick to assassinate what they do not understand. They move in packs, ingesting more and more fear with every act of hate on one another. They feel most comfortable in groups-less guilt to swallow. They are us. This is what we have become, afraid to respect the individual. A single personal event or circumstance can move one to change, to love herself, to evolve.