So I finally got around to seeing the much-discussed music video for Erykah Badu’s single “Window Seat,” from her new album New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh), which came out yesterday. In it, she is featured walking around a Dallas street, stripping before a gaggle of pedestrians before being shot. The video concludes with the word “GROUPTHINK” oozing in blue letters from her head and a spoken outro. I’ve since seen it several times and can now trail behind the tweets. If you haven’t seen it already, you can check it out here.
First off, I’ll come out and say that I like this music video. I’ve liked the song since I heard Badu perform it with longtime collaborators The Roots on Jimmy Fallon a few weeks back. I’m also really glad people are talking about it. As a long-time fan of her work, it’s about time people acknowledge that she has consistently been at the center of some of the most interesting, challenging, and readable music videos since the start of her career. “Honey” (which she co-directed) is my favorite video of the past few years — it’s overtly political, visually compelling, dense with references, takes a revisionist’s attitude toward music history, and is funny as hell. But she’s had me as a supporter since the first time I saw “On & On” back in 1997.
It’s a little disheartening that people are only now starting to talk about one of her music videos, as I think some of why Badu has been overlooked has to do with our culture’s racialized conceptions of how female musicians are supposed to comport themselves as video subjects across musical genres. White ladies like Björk or Madonna can “elevate” the medium to “art,” but black women — usually packaged as R&B, hip hop, or pop stars — need to be commercially viable. If they’re down with glamour, spectacle, and easy objectification, so much the better.
Badu’s never played that game, and has perhaps been under the radar as a result. I’m not worried about how this renewed attention will impact her career. She’s quite capable of fielding Twitter follower requests. And I’m not certain that it’ll substantially boost opening week sales of her new album. Some folks may buy (or more likely download) out of curiosity, most likely stumbling upon a cerebral listening experience. If they recognize that New Amerykah is a sequel, maybe they’ll investigate and give a listen to its incendiary predecessor. She’s a veteran artist, and her career isn’t about to be compromised by becoming a tweeting trend. But at least the video is taking some of the attention away from Lady Gaga.
Now onto the Coodie Rock-directed clip itself, which has courted controversy for its display of nudity and allusions to the JFK assassination. I will reflect upon some key aspects.
1. The JFK assassination: It’s clear that Badu is conveying a sense of place. President John Kennedy was killed in Dallas in November 1963. Badu was born Erica Wright in the same city in 1971. In the interval, Vice President Lyndon Johnson took office, bringing about considerable gains for racial equality through the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He was also (though not without a heavy conscience) responsible for the escalation of the Vietnam War, which killed or forever altered many young men, many of whom were African American.
While I don’t want to overstate matters, Badu was clearly influenced by the gains and the ongoing struggles of American race relations. This consciousness moved her to change the spelling of her first name and take on the surname “Badu,” which has origins in both Ghanaian and in Arabic languages. It may have influenced her enrollment in Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and Grambling State University. It’s also evident in her lyrics, which often grapples with the dimensions of racial tension and oppression, as well as celebrate the philosophic tenets of the Nation of Islam. Thus I read Dallas as both a site of American political tragedy, the birthplace of Erica Wright, and space out of which Erykah Badu came into being.
2. Badu’s clothing and body: As Natalie Hopkinson reminds in her assessment of “Window Seat,” the black female body is a site of troublesome discourses around race and sexuality. Indeed, this seems to be at the fore of that which Badu is trying to confront her audience. But I think it’s worth discussing what kind of a body being presented, along with the manner with which she sheds her clothes, and the clothes themselves. I believe that doing so points out a myriad of ways that the artist is subverting the process of video-making and her role as a pop star.
While disrobing and nudity are concerns here, let us first pause to consider what clothes Badu is wearing. She is dressed in casual attire — what appears to be a sweatsuit and a head scarf (for more on the subject of head scarves and their utilitarian and aesthetic functions for black women, I highly recommend reading this post from Kristen at Dear Black Woman,).
Furthermore, the way in which Badu takes off her clothing is clearly the cavalier actions of a self-possessed woman. She isn’t engaged with the camera, much less the people around her. She isn’t even engaged with the song, which reflects on her need for freedom and support from her partner and her struggles to acquire it amid conflicts from her relationship, and the struggles to balance her professional life with motherhood.
As for Badu body, I’d like to refer to the tattoo stretched across her shoulders. “Evolving” is clearly what she is doing and her body is a reflection of that. It’s been nearly 13 years since the release of her debut Baduizm. In that time, she’s matured and her physicality has changed as well. At the start of her career, she was slight, gamine. But age and motherhood shaped her figure, which she first alluded to on Mama’s Gun with a song called “Cleva” and later elaborated on with “Me” from Amerykah Part One. In both songs, she explicitly mentions sagging breasts, pot bellies, and the thickening of her legs and backside. As if that isn’t enough candor, she actually tweeted about the birth of her third child in real time last year.
In short, we are not watching a conventional video vixen here. Beyoncé’s washboard abs and Sasha Fierce glare cannot be found. This video’s subject is a woman we don’t often get to see in the medium — a mother and working professional who is imperfect, proud of her imperfections, and unconcerned with returning or engaging with the cinephilic gaze, even as she’s willing to use social media as a marketing tool.
And if the minute or so that Badu languishes in her underwear prompts certain viewers to fetishize her form, the carpet quickly gets pulled out from under them. The much-hyped nudity lasts about five seconds and abruptly ends with gunfire.
One thing I’d like to add about this music video is its inspiration. The clip for “Window Seat” begins with a dedication to Matt & Kim, a Brooklyn-based dance-punk duo who incorporated nudity and guerrilla-style film-making for their “Lessons Learned” video. This music video takes place in Times Square — perhaps an indictment on the commercialization of tourism that may motivate artists to move to lesser-known areas (that they then turn them into tourist destinations is another matter).
Unlike “Window Seat,” Matt & Kim revel in their shared nudity for a considerable period of time. One could argue that their hipster whiteness allows them this moment, as their bodies are seen as less threatening than Badu’s. However, in an interview with Pitchfork, the duo revealed that the police brutality depicted was very real. It seems a lot of fuss over some nudity, but then again naked bodies are never that simple. Thankfully, there are a few brave pop stars who recognize that. I’m so glad Badu is one of them.