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Virtual Death as Protest: Erykah Badu’s “Window Seat”

April 15, 2010

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:

  1. 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,
  2. YouTube and voyeurism,
  3. 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.

Better Yet When Dead.  Performance Installation.  Premiere: YYZ in Toronto, presented at the Festival Internacional de Arte de Medellin. 1997.  Photo courtesy of www.thing.net.

Coco Fusco. Better Yet When Dead. 1997. Courtesy of http://www.thing.net.

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.

Still image of "Window Seat" video/{2010.  Dallas, Texas. Courtesy of.www.sohh.com

Still image of "Window Seat" video. 2010. Courtesy of http://www.sohh.com



9 Comments
  1. April 20, 2010 1:30 pm

    I don’t think there was a purpose for Erykah Badu getting naked in Dallas or on the latest video. Public nudity is a big deal. So things should be private as of you being naked in the public eye. I agree that Erykah Badu place herself in a exceptionally vulnerable positon by marking the tragic death of the famous President Kennedy in Dallas. She should have been given a fine and banned from making concert’s in Texas if not given jailed time. I do understand that Erykah Badu is an artist but she could have expressed herself in a totally different manner.

  2. Maria Guzman permalink*
    April 20, 2010 3:07 pm

    Hi Tangie,

    Do you think that she was disrespectful to herself or the image of women in general? Is all nudity in art unacceptable? If so, what does that say about the overwhelming amount of nudity in popular culture and art history? What did you think of Ana Mendieta’s work-what is she trying to express in that performance?

    Maria

  3. April 20, 2010 6:13 pm

    It’s interesting because the first version of this video I saw (and at the time, I didn’t realize it was a ‘version’) was the one that was in reversed motion. For me, when I watched the original forward version, I thought it lost a lot of the power it had because it really did seem to become a generic person-slowly-walks-and-strips music video. When it was rolling backward the message actually changed… rather than creating a kind of parallel metaphor, I took it more as a statement of reflection rather than of protest.

  4. Maria Guzman permalink*
    April 20, 2010 7:51 pm

    Hi Kyle,

    Good point! I actually saw the other version first, and only realized it after writing the initial draft for this video version. In retrospect, it could be interpreted as a drawn out documentation of empowerment.

    What did the reflective version do to the message in your opinion?

    Maria

  5. April 23, 2010 6:27 pm

    Well, I took it as somebody who was moving on–going through their memories backwards, realizing ‘hey, so this is what that meant’ ala her monologue and then finally pushing forward with her life (as she drives away in seemingly forward motion at the end of the cut). So rather than a piece of protest I took it more as a ‘hmm, so this happened… now what?’

  6. Maria Guzman permalink*
    April 24, 2010 3:54 pm

    That’s a good way of putting it. It seems that her ultimate impact in both video versions was an open-ended and reflective presence, which has been extended through the legal and aesthetic debates.

    One of details that I found more engaging in the non-reverse version had to do with her constantly looking over her shoulder, which is noticeable throughout the walk in the park. Upon viewing the reversed version, I had a sense that was influenced by this initial “reading” of her video-the reversed motion “begins” at her death, and can be interpreted as a more literal resurrection. In fact, the whole reversed motion version can be understood as a long meditation on that.

    Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Kyle!

  7. May 3, 2010 10:39 pm

    Ahhh…the video as a form of protest indeed! Thank you for this posting Maria; I think the points you draw out are right on target. I particularly agree with the idea that media has largely missed the point of this video (and now M.I.A’s Born Free video) because they focus on the spectacle of nudity or violence, in a vacuum. As a result, the larger societal discussion lacks context, depth, and the video’s real power is negated.

    I am a fan of Marvin Gaye and Gil Scott-Heron protest music and I am hoping Badu’s video and album will make music with a message popular again. This cultural moment needs something besides Taylor Swift and Justin Beiber to get people thinking.

    Also, you discuss how this video relates to the Black female body and agency. I find ironic that mainstream media can get so up in arms about Badu’s video, which uses nudity as protest, while largely ignoring the over-sexualized images of black female bodies that populate many hip-hop videos. I believe these kinds of images are the ones that are actually detrimental to society; however, I’m not sure that the less sophisticated or younger viewers can usefully differentiate between Badu’s aesthetic and that of the mainstream hip-hop scene.

    I discussed black female bodies in hip-hop in a previous post: (http://thekabosh.wordpress.com/2010/02/23/ms-fat-booty).

    Thanks agan for the insightful analysis on the Badu video. I will keep following your post.

    The Kabosh
    http://thekabosh.wordpress.com/

  8. Maria Guzman permalink*
    May 5, 2010 11:57 am

    Hi There!

    Thanks for checking this out- I think that we share the same approach to reading culture. It’s an interesting consciousness that revolves around our “everyday” images-they get less meaningful as we copy them to serve different purposes, whether it’s selling a car or promoting a song.

    The topic of agency is such a difficult topic to consider in terms of the actual meaning-many times, female artists’ control of their productions are in danger of either mediation or severe backlash. This is what is happening to Bada and other women who chose not to comply with the more “acceptable” messages-that anyone can be rich (fame as an ultimate life goal) and that women are only companions to the “real” history of most anything.

    I love that Badu is not saying to herself, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”, because I think that we’ve all had those moments where we wanted to give up and do just that. I will read your post as soon as I have a moment tomorrow-this sounds great! The subject is of great interest to me, as I focused on this desire (to objectify the black female body) in Modernist + Postmodernist art in grad school. What I learned about it continues to inform my research and I would like to only support artists that don’t practice this. It is tough, though, as many of my favorite hip-hop artists seem to stress the black female body as an object. What are your thoughts on positive representations on this? I think that Q-Tip, LL Cool J (at times), De La Soul, and a few others stand as male alternatives to the usual “Back that Thang Up” treatment of black women. There are more women refusing this in their own self-representation, Missy Elliott being the most visible (famous). Thoughts?

    Maria

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