Around the internet, folks have been buzzing about Erykah Badu's latest video "Window Seat," in which the singer strips naked as she strolls through downtown Dallas. And the reviews, from what I've seen, have been mostly positive, with many people praising Badu for her bravery.
It was riveting to see this black woman's progress down a Dallas street. The gauzy, Zapruder-style filmmaking gave it a languid, dreamlike quality that had the effect of transporting me. Honestly, I, too, wanted to see if she'd go all the way. I wasn't titillated, I was just aware that she was approaching a societal line. Would she actually cross it? My hat's off to her because, seriously, you're not getting me to walk naked down anybody's street.
But then again, I don't have a new album to sell.
We are asked to take this video very seriously. But what's it really about? Is it about freedom of expression? Stripping away pretense? A wake-up call for each of us to be ourselves? Fine. But why the conflation with Kennedy? Because Erykah sees herself on that level. JFK. Badu. Y'all get the connection, right? I don't. When you look at the Matt and Kim video that inspired "Window Seat," you can see that it was fun. They were really trying to see how long they could go before the cops showed up. As is often the case, it's tough to make a message video and do great art, and it's usually the art that suffers.
Erykah tweeted: "funny thing is, the physical nudity is nothing lol . i been naked all along in my words actions and deeds . thats the real vulnerable place".
So there was no real risk for Erykah. And if she's not risking anything emotionally, physically or artistically, then what are we applauding? Holla atcha boy after you rip up the picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live.
The video is an ingenious marketing tool. She even hoped to get arrested during the shoot in order to generate more controversy. So, yes, we're talking about the video, but it's all crass calculation. Why should we respect and laud that?
I'll be honest: I've been sour on Erykah since "Mama's Gun," which I found unlistenable at the time. It didn't help to see her act like a diva at the Essence Music Festival in 2003. From the start of her set, she demanded more energy than the crowd in the Superdome was willing to give. Her response was to become more petulant. Folks wanted to hear "Tyrone". She didn't want to do it. She even insulted some guy in the front row, telling him, "You too old to be at my show." It was like she wanted to take her marbles and go home. It seemed lost on her that the show was running late and people were waiting in anticipation for Chaka and Stevie.
Perhaps not much has changed in all these years. Even the chorus to "Window Seat" is telling:
but I need you to want me
I need you to miss me
I need your attention, yes
I need you next me
I need someone to clap for me
I need your direction
somebody say come back
come back baby come back
I want you to need me
I don't think she's talking to a significant other. I think she's really talking to the audience. She's demanding the validation that only a diva expects and an adoring crowd can give. And the "direction" she's asking for? Translation: Prove to me that you really want me or I really will hop in that hovercraft with Bjork and leave y'all.
I, too, want an artist like Erykah to succeed. Given how women tend to be portrayed in commercial hip hop and R&B--the scorned woman, the big butt and the smile--it's great to see someone who's at once high priestess, earth mother, around the way girl, Harriett Tubman and Angela Davis all rolled into one. See, she's presented herself as this conscious, progressive artist, but maybe it's all a pose, a scam. Erykah knows she's got a wide open field and she plays to that dearth. Perhaps that's why she feels she can start shows 90 minutes late.
It's unfortunate that self-importance oozes from "Window Seat". A rampant ego is at play, and as much as I can't stand it in Kanye, I can't stand it in Erykah, either. Both of them would do well to remember that humility is always a good look.
The video isn't deep. It's clever, but any hoodwinking that's going on is partly our responsibility. As African Americans, we are so hungry to see our images reflected on the screen. Broadly speaking, we accept narrative that either has significant holes (Precious) or work that is so "on the nose" (Tyler Perry) that it's not artful. Case in point is the horrendous voice-over at the end of "Window Seat". I can't know, but I wouldn't be surprised if she or someone in her camp said, "After all, we gotta be sure folks get it."
And that's the problem with putting yourself on a pedestal: You've got to come down and talk to us little people. Unfortunately, that plays into the ways that so much of commercial black music infantilizes audiences, especially black ones. On one hand, I can only imagine the intense pressure she must be under to make this album a commercial success. She's 39 and while that's not old by any stretch of the imagination, she's hardly the new kid on the block. I can only assume that all the people around her are telling her how much she needs this album to be a hit. As is the case with Usher, now 31, who's been directed to recapture the sound he had at 25, there's an implicit and disheartening assumption that the black audience won't grow with an artist.
Believe me, nobody's telling The White Stripes or Radiohead to go back to what they were doing six years ago, just so they can sell more albums.
So, let me see if I've got this video straight: Not original. Calculated. No risk. Hoping to get arrested so that the controversy will gin up sales (she may get her wish here). Oozing ego. Purporting to be about more than it really is.
This video isn't art. It's eye candy.
I can only hope the album offers more in the way of substance.
Follow Rob Fields on Twitter: www.twitter.com/robfields