Monday, June 11, 2012

The Body Artistic and Politic: or, Badu, Flaming Lips and the Artist's Responsibility

The first time I ever saw someone naked in an artistic forum, it was in a performance studies class with Mary Zimmerman. Performance Art, or it might have been Presentational Aesthetics; either way it was one of those classes that was full of college students who'd heard about Metamorphoses and wanted to take a class with the woman, the myth, the legend, Mary Zimmerman. My own knowledge of her work was smaller; Mary was faculty in my department, and I needed some 300-level classes to graduate. Anyway, the first person I ever saw bare all onstage was a good friend of mine. She adapted "Little Red Riding Hood" into a performance, and it lasted maybe a minute and a half. It was more like the Angela Carter "Company of Wolves", ripping-hymen, loss of innocence kind of thing. I remember her body, slender, small, brown, whirling around the room, attached at the hands or wrists to a swath of red fabric. She was startling and demanding in her nakedness. I wanted to play it cool, but it was a big deal. It highlighted my own immaturity; it forced me to think about nakedness not just as something prosaic, necessary for bathing, or inherently sexual, but political, affecting.

I wanted to play it cool because two performances later in class, I took my clothes off, too. Another student and I had been solicited to play seal-women in an adaptation of a bittersweet Icelandic folk tale. I thought I was doing something brave, and all I had to do was sit in a chair and be naked. I was barely on display. Plus, I--the uptight, overly-religious, Midwesterner with absolutely no cool to speak of--was going to disrobe for the sake of art. It's hard to take myself completely seriously now, but back then I was really proud of myself. The story was lovely, the director's request was reasonable, and making myself vulnerable helped me grow.
Since then I have a willingness, to give permission to others to get naked if that's what they think they need to do to make art. But I'm also in touch with the reality that it isn't just a matter of taking your clothes off. There's all this bioenergetic feedback, all this information that our bodies are holding. It isn't easy and it isn't noble.

This week I started following a bit of the Erykah Badu/Flaming Lips kerfuffle: a Lips music video featuring Badu "leaked" last week and has gotten some attention. However it got out there, it features Badu, naked, in a water-filled bathtub singing a reverb-laden cover of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face". (Notice the absence of link.) The first image in the video is a close up of her eye: brown, gazing upward, laced by strands of her hair, under which there is eye makeup that looks for all the world like a purple bruise. The video is full of slo-mo closeups, of Badu's face, sometimes twitching sometimes snarling, of her lips, of bass strings being plucked and vibrating menacingly, of the faces of white men--the Flaming Lips--their eyes rolling back in rock ecstasy, banging or plucking instruments, whipping a silver swath of cloth around, looking edgy and unshaven in their sunglasses and flaming cigarette, and trasported by the music.

Then there's the body of another woman. It took me a long time to learn who it was, because in many ways it looks like Badu, and for a while I thought it was. She stands up in the tub, also naked, but this tub is full of, and she is covered with, gold glitter. She slapps her ass, her shaved vagina, she showers her cheeks with the stuff. She plays in it, revels in it. As the video continues, Badu continues to sing in the tub, mostly curled up, showing nakedness without revealing herself, and this other black woman revels again, this time in tubs of thick dark red liquid (read: "blood") and thick white liquid (read: "semen").
(Sidebar: I love that in the coverage of this video and the ensuing feud between Badu and Flaming Lips band mate Wayne Coyne, that reporters are calling this stuff "red cornstarch" or "cream colored liquid" as if it doesn't read like blood and come. Gimme a break.)

So come to find out the naked black woman scummy with all these various substances is Badu's sister, Nayrok. She's an artist. To hear the pop-culture blogs tell it, she's got no problem with the video, or her role in it. Not so for Badu; she seemed furious. In a true 21st century version of conflict (ir)resolution, she's taken her beef to Twitter, where she unloaded on Coyne, writing things like
"Our art is a reflection of who we are. I have no connection to those images shot in their raw version. I was interested in seeing an amazing edit that would perhaps change or alter my thoughts. Never happened," she says. "You also did the same thing with the song itself which displays crappy 'rough' vocals by me. I let it go, perhaps I was missing something, I thought."
She used words like "uninspired" and "violated" to describe how she felt about this video. I'm one of those women who always takes a woman seriously when they say they feel violated. Violated is a heavy word, not to fuck around with, like embezzlement or rape or pedophile. I feel like it's a word with teeth. You don't just level it at people; you use it because it has a real, significant meaning and when you use it, it has consequences.

The Flaming Lips issued an apology that says things like, " “The video link that was erroneously posted on Pitchfork by the Flaming Lips of the Music Video 'The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face', which features Erykah Badu, is unedited and unapproved. Sorry!!"

Note: any time you see an apology with multiple exclamation marks, assume it's false.

To hear Clash Music tell it, Coyne isn't really taking Badu's comments seriously. After the "apology", he just goaded her on Twitter, saying what seems to me some really insincere and offensive shit, which is, as he probably wants, generating more attention to this video and his music.

So I don't know anything about the Flaming Lips. I feel like they fall into that category of music made by white people that white people listen to, and I'm probably not interested. Not willfully, just ignorantly. A glance at their Wikipedia page looks like I might like it; I go in for that weird, giant spectacle, and I like good music.

But I don't like the way Wayne Coyne is carrying himself with Badu.

Erykak Badu was a hugely formative part of my young black woman identity. I needed her when I was 14, 16 growing up in the white suburbs of Southern Ohio. I needed her when I was 19, 21, one of too few black students at a private university in the Midwest. I needed her desperately when I was living in Southwest Florida and trying to survive the barrage of narrow minds and conservative views pinging through the swamp-thick air. There is some part of my energetic body that vibrates like a tuning fork when I hear her music. Yep. I have to say hippy, flaky stuff like that. The music was and is that important to me. She says things that I have never been able to say but have often thought. She's provocative and honest and soft in some spaces too. As cruel as celebrity is to people, I think it (like much of the world) is more cruel to women of color, and I think she's managed to navigate that cruelty with honesty and an unflinching integrity to her art.

As you can see, she's no stranger to taking her clothes off to make work, too. So what's different about this time? Do I feel like Badu is a kind of sister to me, and I feel a fierce, if irrational, need to protect her from the Internet trolls and the Coyne's of the music industry? Is this just my conservative upbringing rearing its head? Have I never really gotten over taking your clothes off to make art? Or is it the fact that everyone in the video who's not a naked black woman (everyone else) is a white man, fully dressed?

Yes, maybe, probably and yes.

As saturated as we are with the female body, it has power--POWER--in image, in media. The black female body has been a loaded subject/object/identity in this country for hundreds of years. Our ancestors were enslaved, dehumanized, raped and (here comes) violated as a matter of course. We can see the consequence of this behavior in the lifestyles of how we treat each other today. To quote Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God, "De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see." Whether it's Condoleeza Rice or Oprah, Janet Jackson or Michelle Obama, we all seem to have opinions about what black women are wearing, what we're gaining or losing, what we're straightening or letting go natural. Let's not forget about this, either.
Look how happy Swedish culture minister is in this pic, feeding cake to the body of a genital mutilated african cake-woman. Boy, she and all the cohorts around her laughing and snapping pics really look like they're deeply concerned about female circumcision and the toll it takes on women and families around the world.
(Sidebar: I don't know how I feel about it. I believe artists can and should provoke. But to provoke without consideration for what tto do next is just irresponsible: spectacle and emotional vitriol without direction. It does no one good to whip an audience into a tizzy, especially over an issue, if you can't direct them toward a place to get educated and use that tizzy for or against something.)

As immature as I felt in college about nudity in art, I believe in it. I want to make space for it. It can communicate vulnerability, a primal nature, simplicity, purity, bareness, not just shock and sex appeal. So it isn't the nudity in this video that is the hurdle; the hurdle is the disparity, the lack of care, and the power dynamic. Every time a black woman's body occupies the public sphere, it means something, it comments or suggests something. Wish we could be free in our own flesh, but we can't, not yet. So what is Badu suggesting by putting her body in that Flaming Lips video? She's not a victim; she may have been manipulated, or may be disappointed in the final result of the video, and the process might have been crappy, as she says somewhere, but she didn't walk off the set. Is it a commentary on childbirth, as argued in this Washington Post blog? Is it a fetish of the Flaming Lips man-boys, who've only gleefully antagonized Badu since she expressed her (understatement) dissatisfaction with the video? Is it a brilliantly orchestrated puppet show created to generate more buzz for both artists?

It hurt me when I watched it. I thought briefly about Badu and her safety and vulnerability; but I frankly felt my own flesh in a powerful and unpleasant way, more than I was worried about Badu or her sister. I don't know what good the world is done by a video like this. I don't know what is communicated--no, wait, what's communicated is a kind of pornographic fantasy of why black women are/have been fetishised and objectified by men, a kind of bukaki rape fantasy (is this history repeating itself, anybody? any contemporary similarity here to the historical practice of slaves raped by their white masters? anybody?); but what I DON'T know is how the world is improved by this video.

It's likely that I'm naive in believing that the world can and should be improved by the art we put into it. Provocation is great, effective, but not without growth. Otherwise it's just antagonism, and I don't have time for you to act out your fantasies and injuries with me; I'm trying to take care of my own shit. But this may not be the way. Maybe there is so much noise in the world that change doesn't happen in art without shouting louder than anyone else. Maybe to be noticed or respected as an artist you have to get in people's faces, to hurt or disgust them.

But if there was some message that the Flaming Lips, or even Badu, was trying to hand me, I completely missed it. I was too busy feeling hurt and disgusted.


twunch said...

I have so many strong reactions to this post. But they are all knee jerk responses. I have to take some time with all of the source material and really consider what you have said.

Wayne Coyne is an important artist to me. His two albums "The Soft Bulletin" and "Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots" are extraordinary, weird, and truthful and have outlined a lot of the boundaries of where I think popular art should go. I'm troubled by the dismissal of white music for white people but then I'm a white person who values black music so I feel like I'm sitting on a pretty vulnerable perch. I'm going to take an hour tomorrow to look at some of this stuff and see if I can't come up with something more on point.
You're a terrific writer and this is a really provocative post.

twunch said...

So, I spent some time looking at the material and I couldn't find the video in question.
PerezHilton took it down, pitchfork took it down, it's pretty much down everywhere. I didn't try to download it or torrent it but in six or seven minutes of googling I wasn't able to find it. So I can't give a response to a piece of work I didn't see.
It appears to me that while the tone of Coyne's apology might be debatable, he did manage to put the genie back in the bottle with regard to the distribution of the video.
If this was marketing, it was well-done. Huge attention was paid to two not-terribly-commercially-successful artists (both with legions of fans but neither driving the traffic they once did).
With regard to Coyne, his work frequently veers off into dadaist elements- and I believe that sexuality can be explored in non-straightforward ways in music (see Frank Zappa). I didn't see all of his twitter unkindness [put up links!!] so it's difficult to judge that. Twitter is an unfortunate medium for debate as nuance will always be the first casualty of 140 characters.
With regard to Badu, I've always appreciated her voice and her arrangements but she never spoke to me personally. I don't view that as a failing on her part or mine. I loved to looking at the youtube videos of her fans addressing her directly (while searching for the actual video) and seeing how personally they connect with her as an artist and a person. It seemed that these videobloggers used Badu as a personal proxy and were dismayed to see this woman with whom they identified behaving like this.
Lastly, I am concerned that I've been humbugged. If this is a PR event, which it might be, I just spent an hour dealing with the blowback for a video I couldn't judge for myself. I listened to the song and it was adequate. I don't need to hear it again. It seemed precious and staid compared to other Flaming Lips music- nothing compared to Do You Realize or A Spoonful Weighs a Ton. Anytime, I'm spending more time with the secondary reactions to a piece of media than the media itself, I'm concerned I've been had.
Lastly, presuming this isn't a sham, was Badu violated? I don't know. She entered into an agreement to collaborate and part of that collaboration included nudity. That nudity was used in a way she didn't approve of and upon her complaint was removed from mainstream internet sources. Certainly, this is impolite, unprofessional, and potentially legally actionable. I don't think it represents a violation on par with people who actually experience physical violation. I'm not sure the metaphor is fair to them. But then, I don't think that Badu or Coyne are people who use meticulous care before expressing themselves. Both appear to enjoy the role of provocateur. I think they will do well to avoid each other in the future.

twunch said...

And I said lastly twice.
There's another good indicator of going on too long.

Jessica Young said...

Thanks, Twunch. These are so thoughtful.
I also don't know you? I? We? have been humbugged. I appreciate your knowledge of Coyne and the Lips, and I often (unfairly) dismiss music I don't know or understand made by white peole as "white people music". I feel entitled to that kind of narrow-mindedness (not proud of the entitlement or the narrowmindedness, but I'm trying to own it) but it creates for me all kinds of ignorance about work that might be interesting at worst and deeply meaningful at best.
Sexuality is explored in ALL KINDS of ways, in music and in popular culture. I often wonder what will be left for us to do in our bedrooms if we put all of our sexual questions or interests on our screens, blogs and billboards. What are we doing to ourselves and to others, you know?
I appreciate you, brother. You make me think. And I like the way you write.