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.
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.