Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Erykah Badu puts it out there. All of it.

At 3.33am last Saturday morning, Erykah Badu premiered the video for her new single Window Seat on her official website, and her new album New Amerykah Part Two (Return Of The Ankh) is released in the US today. UMG has been pulling the video off a few sites, including YouTube, but the clip's viewable on Badu's website as well.

Without an enormous amount of fuss, Erykah Badu has spent much of the last decade planting her flag squarely in the centre of that piece of turf - left-of-centre, post-hip-hop, black female singer/songwriter - that previously appeared to have been Lauryn Hill's to call her own. She still gets bracketed in with that whole neo-soul, coffee shop, headwraps-and-incense clique that emerged in the mid-90s, usually by people who don't realise she's made five albums since breaking through with On And On and the subsequent Baduizm album, but she's gone in a much more interesting direction since then.

The video was shot hit-and-run style and sans permit on St. Patrick's Day in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, TX, the site of John F. Kennedy's assassination. One camera, one take, then run before the cops turn up (you see her feeding the meter at the start because she knew she'd have to come back for the car later). Badu has described the shoot as being simultaneously terrifying and liberating, and although the symbolism may perhaps be a little heavy-handed - if you expose yourself as an artist, you risk being shot down - it's still a pretty daring thing to do whichever way you slice it. Almost immediately, she was criticised for supposedly indulging in the kind of thing that she herself has previously criticised others for (the whole "half-naked video chick" yada-yada) whilst trying to dress it up as some kind of guerilla performance art exercise. Personally, I don't think that argument is even remotely capable of standing up, and I'm sure she's perfectly well aware that most of the talk surrounding the video will deal with the fact she gets her kit off at the end. But come on now - this isn't Lil' Kim's Crush On You. It's not even Alanis Morrisette's Thank You. Erykah is not auditioning for Girls Gone Wild here. And even though the concept of the artist being attacked for daring to express him/herself can seem a bit whiney and self-indulgent in the hands of some, Badu has been on the dirty end of such attacks often enough for her to have an issue or two with the groupthink mentality she criticises at the end of the video. There have been plenty of instances in the past where she's been vilified as a kind of hip-hop Yoko Ono/succubus figure, supposedly emasculating rappers like Common or Andre 3000 and leading them astray (whatever that means), or for dressing herself in pseudo-mystic boho/earth mother/numerology rags early on in her career. Nevertheless, she continues to push the boat out.

Not that there's any connection between the two things other than the one in my mind, compare and contrast with Lady Gaga's Telephone video. Coincidentally, here's another female artist courting controversy, who's not afraid of using the pop video format for something more than the purpose of just selling records. But entertaining as Telephone is, it's unclear what point, if any, Gaga is trying to make other than cramming together a succession of images each more bizarre and surreal than the preceding one. The most obvious conclusion to arrive at is that Telephone is just a well-executed 80s throwback, paying lavish homage to the days of high-concept mini-movies like Michael Jackson's Thriller and Bad videos or Madonna's Like A Prayer. On the other hand, with Window Seat, Badu is almost literally out there on her own, and is arguably taking a far bigger risk in playing around with iconography that continues to have a lot of potency and resonance as far as the American psyche is concerned. It resonates that little bit more when you consider it (unintentionally) arrives only days after those nimrods occupying the furthest lunatic fringe of the American right began to vocalise their belief that the correct response to Barack Obama's attempt at healthcare reform was to assassinate him before they woke up to find a gulag in every town.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into it. Maybe it's because I've grown used to pop stars who aren't interested in giving their audiences anything to think about which doesn't relate to the mythology they create for themselves and expect us to buy into.

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