This week, soul and jazz singer Erykah Badu made headlines for her controversial new music video for the song “Window Seat.” The video depicts Badu walking around JFK’s assassination site, gradually removing her clothing. Eventually, she ends up completely naked (though censored on YouTube), and [spoiler alert] gets shot.
You can view the video here.
Though ten years ago Badu might have generated headlines simply for putting out a popular song, today the media’s attention has focused squarely on the video’s propriety, and whether it’s irreverent to JFK’s memory. You can read all about it in this MSNBC article, among other places.
What’s so funny about the debate, however, is that it overlooks a couple of vastly more important questions. First, who cares about any of the stuff Badu chose to include in her video (including, sadly, herself)? And, second, how has Badu been let off the hook for making what amounts to a bland rip-off of something much better?
It’s worth noting that Badu has long been a respected artist. She also made a fair amount of money and had several charting hits. On the other hand, and despite periodically putting out some new material, she hasn’t really done much lately worth noting. Of course, stripping in a video was sure to remedy that, but it doesn’t compellingly make the argument that her music is particularly relevant.
The attention being given to JFK’s unwitting role in the controversy is similarly baffling. Though many in the soon-to-be-retired set deify Kennedy, that attitude has always seemed odd to me. Sure, he died, but was he an otherwise exceptional president? His New Frontier is a joke compared to LBJ’s Great Society. (Though Kennedy doesn’t seem to get the recognition he deserves for pursuing American involvement in the glorious conflict known as Vietnam.) And in any case, who gets choked up about James Garfield or William McKinley, Kennedy’s assassinated presidential predecessors? Who questions the reverence artists give to their assassination sites?
The point here isn’t to knock JFK. Rather, it’s to point out that he matters less and less all the time. The Cold War is over. Few people under 40 put Kennedy on a pedestal any more, and few under 30 even think much about him. History matters, of course, but JFK’s relatively short moment in the sun doesn’t have the emotional weight it used to, and it even seems increasingly like just another page from a high school text book.
And now, so does Badu. “Window Seat” references a fading historical figure that’s out of touch with younger listeners, and to top it off Badu ends up nude. It feels like the kind of groping for fame that Toni Braxton tried at the 2001 Grammys when she stole a page from Jennifer Lopez’s 2000 playbook and wore next to nothing. It made headlines, sure, but it also smacked of plagiarism and desperation.
Which brings up the second point: Badu’s surprising — but ultimately fruitless — rip-off of the video for “Lessons Learned,” a song by Brooklyn-based band Matt and Kim.
Matt and Kim’s video came out last year, and was well-received. It appeared on Pitchfork’s best videos of 2009, won an MTV Video Music Award, and generally raised the band’s profile. And, in fairness to Badu, the “Window Seat” video begins with on-screen text citing its inspiration. (You can see Matt & Kim’s original video here.)
Yet somehow, Badu’s later work still comes off as a watered down, pretentious, and bloated mainstream version of what was an innovative work by an up-and-coming band. Like Badu’s video, Matt and Kim’s involves the musicians walking through the street, taking off clothes. In this case, however, the setting is New York City, a place with infinitely more relevance in a post-9/11 world than the hallowed ground of a cold warrior’s death.
As Matt and Kim’s video progresses, it also unfolds much like Badu’s, right up to the tragic ending. What makes it so much more appealing, however, is that the band isn’t trying to cram pocketbook philosophy down viewers’ throats. While Badu’s version gets caught up in the JFK references and indicts the idea of “groupthink,” Matt and Kim leave their video open for interpretation. It’s subtle, timely, and viscerally fun. “Window Seat,” on the other hand, saps all the pleasure out of normally exciting things like the ’60s and nudity.
Ultimately, it’s not surprising that a mainstream artist 10 years past her heyday feels less relevant than an occasionally naked New York indie band. What is disappointing, however, is that the video’s focus — as well as that of the surrounding debate — on baby boomer fetishes makes Badu seem less appealing. It conveys the sense that she needs (but doesn’t have) a comeback, as opposed to just another hit song, and distracts from the suddenly more-deserving-of-attention Matt and Kim.
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