By now most music fans have undoubtedly seen Erykah Badu’s latest not-safe-for-work music video, a cover of Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” in which she once again bears all.
The track features the psychedelic rock band Flaming Lips, and the video further complicates what we thought we knew about Badu, who in the late 1990s playfully told an audience: “Keep in mind that I’m an artist and I’m serious about my [expletive].”
The video features both Badu and her sister in full nudity, and while this is not new territory for the Dallas-born singer, it’s obvious that she’s comfortable with her body in a way that we haven’t seen before. Indeed, the five-minute work displays a sense of play and pleasure with the black female body that’s indulgent, unapologetic and ultimately liberating.
But it’s also problematic. There’s a naivete or bravado on the part of Badu to not consider the consequences of performing in a racialized and politicized sphere where black artists are held to different standards.
As often happens with such controversial media, Badu has backed away from the video, saying in an open letter that the Flaming Lips sloppily released the “tasteless, meaningless, shock motivated video” and that it was released “unedited” and “unapproved.”
“As a human I am disgusted with your what appears to be desperation and poor execution. And disregard for others,” she said. “As a director I am unimpressed. As a sociologist I understand your type. As your fellow artist I am uninspired. As a woman I feel violated and underestimated.”
Whatever the circumstances of the video, we live in a society that still fetishizes the black body, making outside-the-box video concepts like this one not without controversy. Liberation of the female body is an ongoing battle. Remember Vanessa Williams ,who was stripped of her Miss America title in the 1980s after nude pictues of her appeared in Penthouse? Or even the ruckus that Badu caused with her first foray into nudity on a Dallas street corner years ago?
Badu may well be a modern-day Josephine Baker minus the banana skirts, pushing the envelope, following her muse and in the process collectively spinning all of our heads — what any good artist ought to do.
But my concern is that video reduces Badu’s catalog to gimmicky, sensational and more absurdist props to showcase what a decade or more ago came effortlessly. Gone are the days of “Orange Moon” or any of the songs from her sophomore album, “Mama’s Gun,” that catapulted Badu as the reigning queen of the flowering Neo-Soul Movement.
With Badu’s “First Time” the viewer is left wondering what just happened. The intense thrusts of a guitar playing in the background, Erykah Badu repeating the first time I saw your face in a bathtub, recalling a birth scene giving the song a radically different interpretation than Roberta Flack’s.
Real talk: Not everyone will see the video as an homage to childbirth (check out Badu’s Twitter feed.) The camera moves from Badu in the tub playing with her multicolored polished fingers and toes under water to panning on a fully naked body covered in glitter, then splattered with red (and later cream) colored liquid evoking playful erotic scenes (jiggling gluts, hands rubbing naked breasts, and icing-like substance drizzling around a mouth.)
Because it’s Erykah Badu, I want desperately to view all of her work as pointing to some big idea but must admit that this was a challenge at moments — a moment which seemed to have begun with her last album.
The video actually does, perhaps not enough, rise to the level of art. Badu makes a statement about the oneness of the erotic and creation, that maybe childbirth isn’t something that happens at the moment of labor, that it happens at the moment of an orgasm which seems to be artistically conflated into one guitar pulsing orgasmic video.
My only worry now is how on earth will she one-up this video? Visually how do you out-do full nudity? If you’re asking the same questions, you’re probably exactly where Ms. Badu wants you — jaw wide open, scratching your head.
Abdul Ali writes about culture from Washington. Follow him on Twitter .
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