Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Video review: Erykah Badu's "Window Seat"

I am late to the discussion about Erykah Badu's controversial "Window Seat" video. Frankly, I wasn't sure that I wanted to comment on it at all. By now, several bloggers have covered most of the points I wanted to make. But I keep thinking about the video, which is a sign that I need to put my stream of consciousness down on paper, or bits and bytes, or whatever. So, let me drop a few things on you, like:

...how it's good to see a musical artist actually saying something. I've always liked the idea of Erykah Badu even at times when I haven't been feeling her music. Her work always seems infused with thought and passion and meaning. "Window Seat" has a message. And music with a message seems an anachronism these days. Badu's words about the dangers of "groupthink" are as timely as they are wise:
“They play it safe, are quick to assassinate what they do not understand . . . This is what we have become, afraid to respect the individual. A single person within our circumstance can move one to change.”

I would like to screen this video for all those Tea Partiers, faces contorted into angry rictuses, voices raised in threat, waving hateful messages, all to preserve the status quo. I'd like to, but I doubt they would understand.

...how all naked isn't "nasty." Nudity can be artistic, it can be used to send a message or it can be benign. For those who accuse Badu of doing "some ho shit"* to get attention, I would point out that there is nothing suggestive about the removal of Badu's clothing during her latest video.

What is interesting is that the mere minutes of film where Badu is nude have seemed to cause more momentary furor that the hundreds of videos that denigrate women and the female form, or pander to modern-day hypersexuality. So, Beyonce on all fours in booty shorts gyrating and selling sex in the "Crazy in Love" video. OK. Erykah Badu naked for a few seconds to make a statement about the tyranny of "group think." Not OK.

I'm not coming for Bey; her video was hot. I'm just saying that "Crazy in Love" is exemplary of what we want female popular artists to be--conventionally pretty and repping a femininity and sexuality that is all about the male gaze. That Badu's video is not about either of these things has as much to do with causing outrage as the fact that she shot it in a public place.

*Throughout the must-see doc "Before the Music Dies" (full film below) Badu weighs in, as do others, on the modern music industry's preference for style over, y'know, music. Some see Badu's recent video as hypocritical, considering her disdainful reference in the film to female artists having to do "ho shit" to be successful in today's industry. But I say again--All naked isn't "nasty;" all naked isn't about sex and all naked isn't about the male gaze. We're at a sad place if folks can't tell the difference between showing your ass and selling it.

...how the lack of airbrushing and straightening and slimming almost derailed my enjoyment of the video. "Window Seat" is NOT about Erykah Badu's body--at least in the way that most music videos are about women's bodies. I mean that the video isn't about judging her body and finding it attractive. Nevertheless, I judged. That is, after all, what the beauty industrial complex has trained me to do. And I was made uncomfortable by the "imperfections" in Badu's (pretty damn rockin') body. Her stomach is not concave. Her butt is big and round. Is that cellulite? It took me a while to realize what I was doing, and it made me ashamed. The shame is not just that I have zero room to judge anybody's body, but that, despite my efforts to the contrary, I have been conditioned to find real bodies imperfect and troubling, and airbrushed, distorted bodies "real."

...how the video's Dallas, Dealey Plaza, location seems gratuitous. While I think Badu's overall message is a powerful one, the thread to the Kennedy assassination seems tenuous to me. I guess one can make some sort of association between the forces that took the life of our 35th president and "groupthink," but it seems like what was at work there was something completely different than what Wikipedia describes:

Groupthink is a type of thought exhibited by group members who try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas. Individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking are lost in the pursuit of group cohesiveness, as are the advantages of reasonable balance in choice and thought that might normally be obtained by making decisions as a group.[1] During groupthink, members of the group avoid promoting viewpoints outside the comfort zone of consensus thinking. A variety of motives for this may exist such as a desire to avoid being seen as foolish, or a desire to avoid embarrassing or angering other members of the group. Groupthink may cause groups to make hasty, irrational decisions, where individual doubts are set aside, for fear of upsetting the group’s balance. The term is frequently used pejoratively, with hindsight.

Because the connection between Badu's overarching message and JFK's murder is so murky, it makes the location of her video shoot and the use of radio broadcasts from Nov. 22, 1963, seem shocking for the sake of shock rather than art or meaning.

...how it's awfully rich to be crying "What about the children?" This criticism of Badu's video galls me most--that the handful of children who witnessed Badu's moment of nudity will be grievously scarred. This connects back to the idea that nudity is offensive on its face. I am not saying that Badu was right to shoot her daring video without permit or a closed set, just that the handwringing over it seems beyond reasonable proportion.

I got worked up last night thinking of all the recent news that revealed things that are truly damaging to children. What about not having healthcare? Folks have been fighting against universal healthcare all over my TV of late. What about seeing adults scream "nigger" and "faggot" and "wetback" at those elected to represent the people in government? What about some of those same folks spitting on an ailing man at a protest? What about Constance McMillen, the gay teen in Mississippi, whose school canceled the prom rather than allow her to attend. Think she'll find that scarring? To pretend that the thing we should get really upset about...the thing that stands between a child and a productive adulthood is a flash of boobie is patently absurd.

The children will be alright. The children understand.

(Check out a five-year-old's review of "Window Seat" at Love Isn't Enough.)


beatfreak said...

So much word to this post. I would rather see Erykah's video than the mess that Kiley Williams posted recently.

I do believe that children learn from adults and when adults make a big deal about something, that's when small children come to believe that something bad is happening.

Kelly Hogaboom said...

Oh, and is Erykah's butt "big"? Really? 'cause I think I could fit two of her entire body in mine. Hee hee.

In seriouslness: Tami, lovely post. And this:

..."Crazy in Love" is exemplary of what we want female popular artists to be--conventionally pretty and repping a femininity and sexuality that is all about the male gaze. That Badu's video is not about either of these things has as much to do with causing outrage as the fact that she shot it in a public place.

Right. Thank you. Especially that last sentence.

I have children. I dislike hearing people say "What about the children?" in discussions like these. There is so much intensely damaging shite our children are subjected to routinely and regularly - and need I add, children can survive this stuff pretty amazingly well (even if they shouldn't have to). Badu's nudity is not inherently damaging in any way and I object to those who are trying to say it is.

This is the same culture that spawns a fetishization of sexualized breasts, but often "ew gross!"es breasts when feeding a child. Right. We're so child-centric?

Sorry for the vitriol. I get that way about women's bodies and the repression and hatred heaped upon them.

Wonderful post; thank you.

Erik said...

All I could think about while watching the video was the bravery required to do what she did: on location, live, in public, using lots of long shots. Even before the epilogue after the song ends, it seems obvious to me that she is making some fairly complex points showing her body in public in that way--about nudity as a general art form and, more specifically, about nakedness embodying, literally, a vulnerability that not only was she risking in that very moment, but that anyone with unusual ideas is going to end up risking if they take their ideas to the public in performance, song, or speech.

She displays such ease in her body as it is that I cannot imagine any children in the area being particularly traumatized in seeing it, unless something is going on in their homes that is entirely unrelated to the facts of the video. There is nothing suggestive or remotely aggressive in what she is doing. I sometimes wonder whether those who worry about "the children" are projecting their own unease with bodies in general--in which case, yeah, your children are probably going to have a hard time with something like this. But it has more to do with what you are doing than anything the artist is doing.

Thanks for posting the video. I hadn't seen it yet.

Anonymous said...

Where I live nudity is okay. We can get naked with coworkers and extended family and friends and yes, sometimes even in the streets. Because of living in a country with such different attitude to nudity it's hard for me to understand those who accuse Badu of traumatizing children, let alone those who say she committed a sex crime. Like what she did was anything like masturbating on the bus or lurking in a bush in a trench coat, exposing yourself to joggers.

I'm usually bummed when an artist I like strips in a video, but this controversy about Window Seat makes me think Badu did the right thing.

blind irish pirate said...

Standing ovation - I'm glad you shared and I took a moment to pause and read it, because you pretty much articulated what I've thought but never been able to say.

I love Erykah's body. Even as a white woman, I identified with the realness of it, and how beautiful it still is without all of the crap added to it. I thought, "Wow, look at the dimples in her thighs. I have those. Cool."

This chick has ovaries, for every reason you said.


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