As summer winds down, I thought I’d throw up a few videos by artists I can always rely on. Two of them–Björk and St. Vincent–have albums coming out next month. Jill Scott is the third artist featured here, and The Light of the Sun has been in personal rotation this summer. I’d include Rihanna’s Avril-sampling “Cheers (Drink to That),” but Rihanna slants her eyes at the 3:11 mark, bringing to mind Miley’s racial insensitivity incident, so I can’t endorse it without a lot more context.
Directed by Terri Timely
“Hear My Call”
The Light of the Sun
Co-directed by Jill Scott
Directed by Michel Gondry
Recently Logan Hill contributed a piece for Vulture on the invigoration of music video production on the Internet following a dry spell for the medium on television. Of course, folks have noted this as YouTube, Vimeo, Vevo, and a host of other clip-sharing sites became ubiquitous alongside MTV’s continued programming choices to inundate their audience with reality shows. The network recently took “Music Television” out of its logo. For a moment, it seemed like DVD collections like Palm Pictures’ Directors Label series would step in and make music videos more available to the public, but clearly the Internet has won, even invigorating the careers of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry.
While I don’t see this move as little more than a shift indicative of how we consume media, I would also like to point out that many of these headline-grabbing Internet sensation music videos are notable for another reason. The scandal and celebrity associated with these big-budget clips center on female pop stars. In the past year, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Shakira, Janelle Monáe, Erykah Badu, and M.I.A. have made garnered attention and controversy with clips inundated with sexual and/or violent imagery that might not fly on post-network television but keep the blogoshere typing, Tweeting, and uploading. Alongside those artists, fringe acts like Peaches, Yo! Majesty, and Gossip — all peopled by queer musicians — have garnered some recognition for their work.
On the surface, the presence female pop stars have in reviving the music video format also recalls MTV’s nascence. Many note that the first clip the network aired was The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” But Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run” followed it, along with a whole host of female pop stars who battled rock acts and hair metal bands for programming supremacy. The Go-Go’s, Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner, Madonna, Janet Jackson, and Eurythmics’ lead singer Annie Lennox all catapulted to stardom during the network’s infancy, as art rock acts like Kate Bush also received some stateside recognition.
While the current stable of video stars seem to subvert conventional femininity by playing with camp and excess, I’m actually inclined to read many of these artists as ultimately normative. Many of the video narratives, regardless of costuming or cultural references, tend to rehash contrived narratives about young women getting rowdy in the club and letting her (hetero)sexual inhibitions run wild. I believe Badu’s “Window Seat” and M.I.A.’s “Born Free” challenge these offerings however, by either making female nudity at once mundane and endangered or by dispensing of the female pop star altogether to focus on government-sanctioned ultraviolence. Monáe’s approach might be the most refreshing as she recontextualizes rock and R&B’s cultural origins within a female body covered up in menswear that’s ready to teach you some new dance steps.
In addition, many of these musical artists are working with established male video directors. Gaga revived the career of Jonas Åkerlund, who originally made a name for himself working with Madonna. While it’s easy to read these directors as auteurs, I’m inclined to point out that some of them have established collaborative relationships with these women across several projects. This also recalls how Gondry came into the cultural lexicon. While we may now think of him as the visionary behind White Stripes videos and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, an Icelandic pop star named Björk selected him to direct his first English-language music video after years working in France. The clip was for “Human Behaviour,” which launched both of their careers in the states.
I’d like to bring up in the current emergence of female pop stars on the Internet is that almost all of them are solo artists taking sole focus on big-budget music videos. While I don’t want to suggest that these women are not musicians, or overlook the fact that Beyoncé tours with an all-female backing band, I find it disheartening that we aren’t seeing as many images of women and girls creating video images as collaborators, whether between female artists and directors, as members of a band, or female artists who collaborate with one another. While Lady Gaga and Beyoncé have been known to work together, as have M.I.A. and Santigold, it would be nice to see more music videos with a group of women or girls as the focus.
Likewise, I also find it frustrating that so many of these big productions have to be so moneyed, most notably Lady Gaga and Beyoncé’s “Telephone.” Perhaps a new group of bands and musical artists in collaboration with one another will also make names for themselves as music videos continue to thrive on the Internet. Who says you need a big budget and an iconic pop star to make a clip for the ages?
Five days ago, Chloe Angyal wrote a piece for Tiger Beatdown entitled “Miley Cyrus < Betty Friedan: On the Search for a Feminist Pop Star.” Springboarding off The Frisky’s Jessica Wakeman’s assessment that Miley Cyrus’s new single and accompanying music video for “Can’t Me Tamed” is empowering for girls, Angyal chided some critics’ need to claim female celebrities who project even the slightest sense of self-empowerment as feminist. She also called into question whether or not feminism and pop culture can ever really go together. As a fan of the site (it’s on my blogroll), I of course read it and RTed (follow me @ms_vz).
I’m right with Angyal on most of this. I had just read Rachel Fudge’s essay “Girl, Unreconstructed: Why Girl Power is Bad for Feminism” that a Girls Rock Camp Austin volunteer forwarded, so I was certainly in the right headspace. The line “It’s tempting, but ultimately misguided, to try to make feminist mountains out of girl power molehills” particularly spoke to me. Also, I was also frustrated by Wakeman’s piece, as it assumed that pop music and MTV were the portals through which all girls take their cues, thus absenting girls who don’t have access, reject these offerings, or perhaps find some middle ground. Also, I thought the clip was a blatant attempt to reinvent a girl pop star into an “adult” artist who equates edge with wearing lingerie and smudged eyeliner.
However, I took issue with some of Angyal’s argument. Kristen at Act Your Age left a great comment outlining the lack of actual girls’ perspectives in feminist criticism. She also pointed out that pop music is still often assumed as the bad object against which punk and riot grrrl fought and superceded, a bias we confront in our work with GRCA by trying to dialog musical genres with one another in our music history workshops. But I thought I’d add a few additional concerns. Originally, I was going to post them as a comment to the article. However, it’s been nearly a week since the article was published — a lifetime in the blogosphere. Plus, I figured I could work through some of these issues here and reassert this blog as a communal space for feminist exchanges about music culture.
1. Angyal’s major critique seems to be less about who gets labeled a feminist role model and more toward who does the labeling. To me, she was lobbing her complaint at writers who want to argue the progressive powers of pop music with minimal consideration for enlightened sexism, capitalism, division of labor, corporate enterprising, branding, media saturation, and taste engineering cultivation. I say “here here.” But then I also do this sort of analysis myself. What’s more, I’d like to think I do it on both sides of the mainstream/underground divide, where the lines continue to blur. I know I don’t have the clout or name recognition of more prominent feminist bloggers, and perhaps I’ll cultivate it with time. But I’m here, and so is this blog.
I think Angyal might also be frustrated with how quick writers are to jump on Tweeting trends and topics that guarantee high SEOs. I may be projecting, as this is something that bothers me and I rebel against. Often, I find myself recalling and revisiting bygone or obscure texts to argue their historical merit or dialog them with the present. If I do write about current popular texts, I don’t have much interest in covering them quickly at the expense of evaluation time. I’m not sold on the idea that trends = cultural relevance any more than I am that Sleater-Kinney is inherently better than Nicki Minaj. While I have upon occasion covered a person or topic that was popular and got me some hits, I only did it when I felt I had critical insights to lend. Thus, it can be frustrating when I get traffic because a bunch of people were Googling Megan Fox, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Taylor Momsen, or Miley Cyrus, as has happened to Kristen. On the one hand, hits are great. But those figures are bloated and misleading and may misrepresent my work, because this blog has only sporadic concern with what’s of the moment. But when it does, I hope I treat it with a consistent critical rigor. After all, there truly is no perfect text.
2. Since there is contention between mainstream and indie culture, I’d like to point out that the matter of identifying as a feminist is just as much a concern in the underground and on the fringes of music culture as it is under the mainstream’s spotlight. As a feminist music geek who tends to root for the underdog, I’m often faced with the reality that many of the artists I love — indeed, many of the artists who pointed me toward feminism — don’t identify as feminists. Björk and PJ Harvey don’t, nor does Patti Smith. Rappers like Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, and many others don’t either, though for reasons that perhaps speak more to racial exclusion, as feminism tends to be a white women’s domain. There are many artists I like whose feminist politics I don’t have a grasp on, including forward-thinking women like Kate Bush, M.I.A., Joanna Newsom, and Janelle Monáe.
There are also artists who do identify as feminist who give me pause. Courtney Love has used feminism to validate her outspoken persona and rail against industry sexism. She has also used it to justify getting plastic surgery, an argument that I take issue with because it obscures class privilege, ingrained beauty standards, and weakens the political potential of choice. Lily Allen has employed the term at times, though her actions and behavior at times suggest that she extols the supposedly feminist virtues of being a brat. Lady Gaga is only starting to claim any identification with feminism. Even confirmed feminists like Sleater-Kinney, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Le Tigre, Gossip, and Yoko Ono — who I admire a great deal for their musical contributions and political convictions — should be subject to scrutiny and considered as individual feminists rather than as a monolithic representation of who a “good” feminist is.
Also, rather than considering pop music as an endpoint or part of a binary, it should be dialoged with other genres and mediums. Recently, Anna at Girls Rock Camp Houston dropped me a line asking about my thoughts on new criticism against Lady Gaga from Mark Dery and Joanna Newsom. As their criticisms questioned her supposed edginess, called out her obvious indebtedness to Madonna, and argued over a lack of musical songcraft, it immediately recalled recent sound bites from Michel Gondry, M.I.A., and Grace Jones deflating the pop star’s artistic inclinations.
I’m of two minds about these detractors’ comments. On the one hand, I still agree. In the year since I first posted about Gaga, I’ve essentially gathered greater nuance for the pop star while still arriving to the same conclusions. Save for a few hits (“Beautiful, Dirty, Rich,” “Bad Romance,” “Monster”), I still think her music is fairly boring and could have much more political bite than it actually does. I thought her American Idol performance of “Alejandro” was overblown. It’s also a fair point to bring up how Gaga lifts from other cultural texts, just as Madonna has throughout her career. And like Amanda Marcotte, I think there are lots of other interesting female musicians doing work we should be following. I mean, is it really a crime not to find Gaga interesting? Does Gaga have to be the female savior of pop music? Can we not look elsewhere? Also, in the cases of Newsom, M.I.A., and Jones, do we have to assume that their criticisms are just examples of female cattiness?
Yet something about these comments smacks of the idealized notion of art vs. commerce, with Gaga imitating one while supposedly embodying the latter. So, I call bullshit, because it’s not like these musicians and this video director don’t also dabble with both. Also, how would they speak of, say, Karen O, another female musician who makes femininity Marilyn Manson grotesque. Would they simply sniff that she did it before Gaga? Would they give her the point because she’s mocked art stars while also being one?
In short, feminism is tricky from all sides. It’s not one thing and it’s never perfect.
3. Finally, I follow commenter Tasha Fierce and take issue with Angyal’s supposition that Betty Friedan is an exemplar of feminism. She penned The Feminine Mystique and founded NOW. She also helped position feminism as a middle-class, college-education, white ladies’ game. She also referred to lesbian separatists as “the lavender menace,” though later recanted. Thus, just as I don’t want Miley Cyrus to be the ambassador for girl power, I don’t believe we should have one (straight, white, middle-class, adult, cisgender, able-bodied) female represent feminism. Let’s encourage discourse, even at the expense of comfort. Consider me a willing participant.
By the way, if you don’t know how I feel about Mia Doi Todd, her voice quenches my thirst like a cool, tall glass of lemonade. If you don’t have any of her albums, what are you waiting for? Are you watching the clip again? . . . I understand.
A little while ago, my friend Alex forwarded me a press release from a rep at Atlantic Records for Charlotte Gainsbourg’s forthcoming album IRM. As a fan, he had wondered if I had considered writing about her, an interest apparently motivated by reading an earlier post I did on Scarlett Johansson. When we saw each other at a mutual friend’s dissertation proposal party, we talked a bit more about it, wherein he basically outlined an entry’s worth of critical inquiry.
1. Like Johansson, Gainsbourg works almost exclusively with men, whether they be film directors like Michel Gondry and Todd Haynes or music producers like Nigel Godrich. Thus, she often occupies something of a muse position for male creative types, perhaps further enforcing masculinist notions of auteurism. Gainsbourg’s previous work with Air and Jarvis Cocker from Pulp and her recent collaborations with Beck on her new album further illustrate the point.
1A. Gainsbourg has occupied this role for some time, as her father is beloved French yé-yé chanteur Serge Gainsbourg, with whom she sang the controversial “Lemon Incest” in 1984 when she was about 13.
1B. Before casting Charlotte as an artistic man’s (or father’s) plaything, I’d point out that her mother British actress-model-artist Jane Birkin, who was pretty liberated in her views on gender, sexuality, and monogamy. However, she may also be cast in something of a muse position. Like her daughter, she’s also worked with Serge and Beck. And like her daughter, who will be representing bestie Nicolas Ghesquière as the spokeswoman for Balenciaga’s new fragrance next February, Birkin inspired numerous fashion trends and clothiers (why yes, she is the namesake for the famous and expensive over-sized Hermès tote.)
Unlike her daughter, Birkin also had a predilection for posing nude on camera, sometimes while in the act of coitus, perhaps with multiple partners. I’ll leave you to Google. I’ll also leave you to speculate if her daughter is relatively modest about her sexuality as a result of having such . . . “open” parents.
2. Thinking about our friend Annie’s post on Rachel McAdams, Gainsbourg is something of a thinking man’s pin-up, a cultural figure already saddled with normative ideals around race, class, gender, and sexuality. Given that she was recently featured with her half-sister Lou Doillon as the archetype for “thin” in Vogue‘s size issue, I’d add body type to the list of norms she represents.
3. Gainsbourg doesn’t sing so much as talk in her songs. She intimates her way through songs in a breathy, sensual monotone, perhaps made more exotic by her British lilt or her occasional dalliances with French.
So, I’ll bring myself into the discussion. I like Gainsbourg but am probably too casual about her work be considered a fan. I’ve listened to 5:55 and IRM a bit, and have seen some of her more recent movies, in which she is often my favorite aspect. While I haven’t seen Antichrist (or any other Lars Von Trier movies) and am nervous about just how wanting it seems to be of a psychoanalytic or auteurist read, her turn as a mother rendered destructive by the death of her son has peaked my curiosity.
In addition, I thought her emotionally mature performance as Clair, Robbie Clark’s long-suffering ex-wife in I’m Not There deserved an Oscar nomination. I also liked her cover of “Just Like a Woman.”
I also liked her quiet, discreet turn as Stéphanie, the protagonist’s disinterested object of affection in Science of Sleep, a movie I otherwise hated. This is perhaps in part because the majority of film-goers at the screening I attended found Gael García Bernal’s Stéphane to be charming, whereas I found him infuriatingly petulant and wanted to smack him with his own disasterology calendar. But I quite liked her. The only parts of her performance that felt disingenuous were when she wears an uncharacteristically skimpy sweater dress to Stéphane’s calendar launch party (which I’m pretty sure was a figment of the protagonist’s puerile imagination) and at the end, when she’s cries about how Stéphane won’t leave her alone. He’s not worth your tears, girl.
Oh, and I enjoy her vocal cameo in Madonna’s “What It Feels Like For a Girl.” Her confrontational monologue about male gender-bending comes from The Cement Garden, a 1993 film adaptation of Ian McEwen’s 1978 novel that was directed by her uncle Andrew Birkin.
But let’s go back to her voice and problematize the idea of whether or not it’s okay for Gainsbourg to talk through her songs. Pitchfork’s Marc Hogan was really critical of 5:55 particularly for this reason, arguing that her vocal style suggests that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I’d counter with two things.
For one, is making such a display of singing really necessary? Phrasing and expressiveness are just as important as vocal range for singers, if not more so to those with more limitations. And isn’t talking through songs how Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Patti Smith developed mythic rock poet status?
For another, um, you could easily make the same argument for any of Gainsbourg’s male collaborators’ work. Something tells me that Jarvis Cocker, Beck, and Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel of Air were probably all influenced by her father’s barely-sung approach to documenting his own erotic misadventures. I only hope they were just as interested working with Charlotte Gainsbourg as they were working with Serge Gainsbourg’s daughter.
That said, it might be easy to overemphasize or project notions of what French sensuality might be onto Gainsbourg and her songs (something her character in I’m Not There bristles at during her first date with her future ex-husband, as well as something Air have gotten a lot of critical mileage on from certain online publications with hipster cache until recently). While her second album was adorned with breathy vocals, acoustic instrumentation, and sumptuous production that may have lent itself well to such an essentialist reading, the lyrics to songs like “The Operation” and “Little Monsters” document both the wonder and terror of bodies and childhood, suggesting what might have drawn Von Trier to cast her in Antichrist. Her new album, which was inspired by working on her latest movie, gives way to more lyrical abstraction, while at the same time emphasizing a harder sound.
In short, Gainsbourg may make male-appointed bedroom music. But that isn’t all that’s going on, if you give a closer listen.
I saw Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are this past Saturday. At the Imax, dudes. With actual children, no less. And then I had a lovely dinner for four that two friends cooked. Austin is a town full of hospitable folk doing their part to drive the long-anticipated feature to the number one draw at the box office. Y’all come.
Now, I’ve been waiting for Jonze’s third feature, based on the classic Maurice Sendak children’s book, to come out for years (I guess on the heels of his video for Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights,” the duo have released We Were Once a Fairytale — thanks for the update, Annie). And while the $600 playsuit threatened to put a damper on the proceedings, dammit if I didn’t choke up every time I saw the trailer. In short, my expectations were susceptible to being dashed.
So I was pleasantly surprised that they pretty much weren’t. My only real complaint is that I actually think the script Jonze and Dave Eggers put together could have been less conventional. That said, the movie does a commendable job bridging a fantastical island of wild things from the protagonist Max’s imagination into some place at once real and unreal — the wild things are faithfully rendered from the book, yet have names like Carol and Alexander. It also does a good job capturing the loose pacing and the seemingly nonsensical ideas that come to life from creative processes. Carol, the leader of the wild things, builds a miniature world that contains all his friends and idealized notions of life with them in a manner at once so precise and makeshift that I couldn’t help but wonder if the diarama was Jonze’s tip of the hat to buddy Michel Gondry. Max orders the wild things to build a fortress that seems impossible to build, until it materializes before our eyes.
Oh, and I can’t believe I saw a big-budget mainstream motion picture where all of the studio logos were defaced by children’s doodlings.
There are startling moments of realism in Max’s fantasy world, as when a real raccoon appears in a wild thing’s belly named Richard or when another wild thing rescues a housecat. There’s also shocking moments of aural and physical violence, both in Max’s real and imagined worlds. A wild thing rips a limb off another, teenage boys dive into the igloo Max lovingly built out of snow in his front yard, Max tells his mother (played by the superlative Catherine Keener) a story about a vampire who loses his fangs while trying to bite through a castle’s walls. Nothing is more violent than our emotions, however, especially when they materialize as shouts of joy and squishy snot pools of angst.
For Max, almost all of these emotions and flights of fancy are the result of his parents’ recent divorce, clearly Jonze’s attempt to process his childhood and his dissolved marriage to Sofia Coppola. Some people may really hate this narrative decision, which is no where addressed in the skeletal source material. I note that Sendak intentionally left the story elliptical and thus would be heartened to see multiple adaptations of this book from a variety of directors, each with their own sense of character motivation and plot. Also, as a product of a broken home who in all likelihood was sitting in a theater with other children and adults who dealt with divorce, I found a tremendous amount of catharsis in watching this lonely boy try — and sometimes fail — to work through his feelings about what once was but can never be again. Speaking for myself, I got through this by drawing murals of mermaids that talked to me, having eight imaginary sisters named Jessica, and running in my backyard alone pretending to be a fairy. So I felt for Max.
Thinking about kids, let me give it up for the crowd with whom I saw this movie. Possibly the only screening I’ve been to where the sound of babies crying actually added to the ambiance, I’m happy to report that the theater I saw this movie in was teeming with kids. And not all white, liberal, hipster kids whose parents like movies that do well in Brooklyn. “Regular” kids, some with bowl haircuts and homemade crowns and Nike running shoes. “Normal” kids who seemed energized by the movie afterwards (as someone who was scared of monsters, I would not have been one of those kids). And most of them seemed to be pretty on-the-ball, problematizing some of the speculations that kids won’t “get” this movie. I’d gladly point out the boy behind us who instantly figured out that two squawking owls were telling a knock-knock joke.
And speaking of on-the-ball kids, I can’t believe lead actor Max Records has only been in a few other things. With that too-cool-for-school name, I do believe that Lance Bangs (aka Lester Bangs’s son, aka Mr. Corin Tucker) discovered him. That said, there isn’t a false moment in his multi-faceted performance. Also, I feel a little weird about this, but he’s a total hottie-to-be, not unlike Emma Watson when she starred in the first few Harry Potter movies.
As for the sounds, two things struck me about this movie that I haven’t fully processed but stay with me long after the initial viewing. One is the score. I’ve been thinking about Karen O and Carter Burwell’s work here for some time. I listened to the soundtrack after Stereogum posted it. On its own, it was pleasant and at times interesting, but seemingly not of a piece. With the visuals, however, the songs Karen O put together with Burwell and as one of the Kids take on new resonance. Her vocals also seem to help us orient and empathize with Max. Using a woman’s voice to identify with a boy protagonist is interesting, and certainly plays with notions of queerness, androgyny, and between-ness. This ambiguity was something that seemed possible in some of the M.I.A. songs used in portions of Slumdog Millionaire that focused on protagonist Jamal’s childhood. It is certainly evident in the construction of Max’s pre-pubescent, slightly degendered, soft boy identity here.
A final thing that interested me that I hadn’t anticipated was the use of voice actors for the wild things. Forrest Whitaker, Catherine O’Hara, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano, and James “Tony Soprano” Gandolfini lent their voices and considerable acting ability to create a whole different sense of aural corporeality and heightened realness to these otherwise fantastical monsters. When Ambrose’s KW tells Max “I’ll eat you up, I love you so” as she bids him goodbye as he returns home from his imaginary travels, I believe it and don’t forget the sound of her words.
Originally, I was going to write about Mama’s Gun, Erykah Badu’s second full-length album, in tandem with PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. The reason for this was two-fold: for one, I got the two albums within a week of one another my senior year as Christmas presents (one of the few perks of having divorced parents) and, for another, both albums are turn-of-the-century declaratives about the complexities and contradictions of women being in and out of love, sometimes thrillingly occupying both positions at once. I also thought, as a neat aside, that it might be useful to think about contemporary female artists’ work across racial and/or generic boundaries.
However, I worry that I’d be doing a disservice to those particularities by glossing over them in what would inevitably be an overgrown post. Furthermore, there are some jarring differences between the two albums that I cannot yet resolve in thinking about them together. Harvey’s “happy” album is largely believed to be about her by-now defunct relationship with hipster auteur and New York die-hard Vincent Gallo; Badu’s “game-changing” album is conclusively about the end of her relationship with OutKast’s André 3000 and possibly the beginning of another one with Common. Harvey’s album finds her brightening her sound after her more experimental, less well-received Is This Desire? (which absolutely will be discussed as a record that made me a feminist once I start recounting my college years). Badu’s album finds her expanding her sound (and perhaps the sound associated with “neo-soul,” however silly a term that became), a project she would continue to do with last year’s mind-blowing, radically political, and tremendously funky, New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War.
Most importantly, for my purposes, while the former speaks more specifically to love’s ability to project, the latter speaks to the embodied, conflicting feelings of a female place in a relationship.
Badu and I had met previously. Baduizm came out in 1997 and I found out about it thanks to Kurt Loder and the good people of MTV News who proclaimed that I would, in fact, hear it from them first. I bought it that summer for my birthday (for what it’s worth, I bought it with Ben Folds Five’s Whatever and Ever Amen — happy birthday to 14-year-old me!). She also made appearances on One Life To Live as herself, and acted in Blues Brothers 2000 and Cider House Rules (which I still have not seen in its entirety, but I know that she does a good job playing a tragic character in what I thought was an otherwise totally boring movie). But I treasured my copy of Baduizm, marvelling that someone could make vintage jazz, R&B, and funk sound so refreshingly hip and contemporary. She had such an interesting and beautiful voice. I loved that the music was coming out of a Texas girl who also spelled her name with a “y” (albeit for far more politically motivated reasons than me; Erykah Badu changed her name to be closer to her Ghanan roots while I became “Alyx” because we were studying Egypt in sixth grade social studies and I thought the spelling looked — ugh, white girl fail — more hieroglyphic).
But this album, which came out during my senior year hit me like a soft, sexy bomb (an apt reappropriation of Tom Breihan’s assessment of D’Angelo’s Voodoo, another pioneer 2000 release that, for some reason, I don’t own. I have, of course, seen the delightfully NSFW video for “Untitled“). I actually heard “Didn’t Ya Know” for the first time at a movie theater in West Palm Beach visiting my dad on Christmas vacation (I think it played before a screening of Cast Away). The Spice Girls’ “Holla” played some time after that, but as J. Dilla’s warm, soulful production wrapped around me and Badu’s at-times wrenching and at-times assured vocal delivery let me know what I’d be spending that Sam Goody gift certificate on.
Speaking of J. Dilla, Badu’s collaborative spirit was also something of an inspiration to me, especially since was able to work with men. Like Björk, who has worked extensively with like-minded dudes like directors Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, as well as producers like Matmos, Mark Bell, and Nellee Hooper, Badu was always able to forge creative spaces with men while still standing her own ground. With The Roots or producer J. Dilla (and later Madlib and 9th Wonder), she was still fully able to articulate her artistic imperatives. When she duets with Stephen Marley on “In Love With You,” she seems to be coming at the song (and its subject matter) as an equal. It should also be noted that she’s got room for the ladies too, working with women like Jill Scott and, on this album, Betty Wright.
One thing I’ve always felt Badu doesn’t get enough credit for as a musician is her loopy yet razor-sharp sense of humor. Anyone who follows fatbellybella on Twitter can tell you Badu is hilarious. But her humor is also evident in her songwriting, which while often confessional will often diffuse potentially maudlin moments with daffy yet incredibly perceptive asides (the bridge to “…& On” recounts memorable moments — in loose rhyme — going with her mom to the laundromat, her first period, learning about oppression at school, watery cereal, hearing herself on the radio, and wearing head wraps). Her self-awareness is also evident — “…& On” makes several direct references to Baduizm‘s breakout hit “On and On,” and “Cleva” mediatates on how she uses her brains and wit to compensate for self-perceived physical deficits, lamenting that her breasts sag when she’s not wearing a bra, bragging that her thrift-store togs look awesome, and stating, upfront, that this is what she looks like without makeup.
Her humor is also in her voice. People tend to focus more on her voice’s supposed “jazziness,” especially early on in her career when critics were clamoring to figure out how most subtly to compare her timbre and tone to the tragic Billie Holiday’s. And while Holiday’s humor also gets obscured from this discussion, if we have to compare Badu’s voice to someone else, I actually think Badu is closer to Blossom Dearie, the recently deceased singer who used her high-pitched coo to utilize a myriad of possibilities, whether it be taking pot-shots at hipsters or singing about unpacking adjectives. I could hear Badu doing both, maybe even in the same song.
What makes Badu’s approach to songwriting interesting is that her sense of humor can turn a song whose subject matter seems silly or inconsequential or rote on the surface into something surprisingly more progressive. Take “Booty,” for example. The song originally seems to be a a diss song directed at a woman whose man has turned his attentions toward Badu. While the woman has a PhD, is more conventionally attractive, is a better cook, boasts a fast-tracked career, and is more financially stable than Badu (at least in this song, as college-educated Erica Wright went to Grambling), Badu still has to fight off her partner’s advances. At first, when Badu says “I don’t want him,” it seems to suggest that this man (and, by association, this woman) are beneath her. Yet, in the bridge (the song has no verses), Badu reveals that her intentions speak toward a kind of female solidarity, albeit one strained by classed circumstantial differences. She doesn’t want this man, not because she has designs on someone else, but because he doesn’t respect his current relationship enough to be honest and make arrangements with his partner. In essence, Badu believes both women need to cut this man loose because they can do better.
She performs a similar feat with “Bag Lady,” which at first seems to be an indictment about women who enter into relationships with too much baggage. What it ends up becoming is an anthem about personal freedom and empowerment, with Badu encouraging the woman to break free from her self-imposed shackles, stressing that self-love will make it better while being backed by a euphoric women’s chorus.
Many would argue that “Green Eyes,” a ten-minute suite that stands as the album’s final song, is its centerpiece. I’d be one to agree, and find it especially astonishing that OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson,” which tells André 3000’s side of their break-up was released but a few months before Mama’s Gun came out (Badu also makes a cameo on the album, singing with her former partner about broken dreams in the chorus of “Humble Mumble”). As Touré discusses in his Rolling Stone review of Mama’s Gun, it’s hard not to read into these musicians’ personal moments that then get projected into their work, with the audience knowing who’s singing (or rapping) to who. You could easily do it with Beyoncé singing about being “Crazy in Love” with Jay-Z, who would then reply that he’s got hip hop and R&B’s “number one girl . . . wearing (his) chain” in “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.” You could also easily do it with Badu’s appearance in the music video for Common’s “The Light,” a song the rapper wrote for her about their (now-defunct) relationship, strengthening the musical association by having J. Dilla steer the production.
But on its own, “Green Eyes” is an epic, discursive, devastating break-up anthem whose power few since have touched (though I think Aeroplane and Kathy Diamond’s “Whispers” comes the closest). It begins with a flirtatious, jazzy lilt wherein Badu claims that her eyes are green, not because she’s jealous that her former lover now has a new partner. Instead, she unconvincingly lies, her eyes are green because she eats a lot of vegetables. After claiming “it don’t have nahhhh-thing to do with your . . . friend,” the music becomes slower and more dirge-like. Her voice and lyrics also become less certain, shakier. She doesn’t know if she loves him anymore, but thinks she might, and is clearly frustrated how love is putting in her in such a tether. From here, she pushes her lover further away in one phrase, claiming to do fine and realizing how angry she is at him for not recognizing her worth, while a few lines later asks if they can make love one last time. Her humor is still there, at times helping her sell the lie of her feelings, while other times confronting her with the truth. She calls herself silly at the thought of her lover being true, stating that she should change her name to “Silly E. Badu.” It’s a joke, but no one — least of all her — is laughing. You know she’ll get through it eventually, but she has to work through her hurt before she moves forward. I know it was a song that helped me work through a broken heart, even if I had to lie face down and sob into the carpet to do it.
But there is plenty of love and lust on this album, acknowledging that women can turn art out of being happy and healthy. “Orange Moon” begins as a stately, romantic ballad to finding someone helped her believe in love, only to erupt into pure, unadulterated about how good/God her lover is (the “God” reference potentially serving as a Five Percenter allusion). “Kiss Me On My Neck (Hesi)” focuses its attentions instead on the more immediate nature of necessary gratification. The inclusion of these songs evince that for women, love and sex are neither mutual nor exclusive concepts. They can be both.
The album also allowed me to think outside of love (and thus myself) to start questioning more political matters and begin to want for more radical action. While Badu may be charming and funny, she’s also a fine, agitated mind. The song that accomplished this most specifically for me was “A.D. 2000,” a song about Amadou Diallo and his brutal murder at the hands of a quartet of trigger-happy police officers. Excepting the Rodney King beating and subsequent hearing, this was the first time I really thought about police brutality (note: Bruce Springsteen also addressed this horrible tragedy in song, to some controversy).
A year later, I would read about Mumia Abu-Jamal. Two and a half years after that, I would start dating a person who got pulled over by a cop for driving the speed limit with the headlights on in a residential area at 10 p.m. while listening to GZA’s Legend of the Liquid Sword. Eight months after that, I would read Assata Shakur‘s profound autobiography. About a year after that, I would read Angela Davis‘s autobiography, stunned that this intelligent, sensitive individual was the same person Ronald Reagan swore would never teach in California. Two years after that, I would get accosted by a cop for jay-walking through a red light at 3 a.m. when it was clear that the officer was more concerned by the nervous young college student of either Middle Eastern or South Asian descent walking three steps in front of me. In all this time in between, I would come to know several people who shared similar stories or worse, whether they were arrested for “obstructing a passageway” during protests or were accosted with racial profiling. I would also read about similar reported items in the news, always sad and horrified and sick and helpless that these kinds of actions still go on.
Badu would continue to be concerned with political issues like religious freedom, institutional racism, the drug trade, poverty, and sexism, and incorporate these matters into her music, which became increasingly more experimental as she matured as an artist. But with the political she always intersected personal issues, whether it was remembering growing up on hip hop records, motherhood, reconciling the fact that she had three babies with as many men, growing older, working within the mainstream, looking for ways to work outside of it, and always thinking about the ways that she fit (or chose not to fit) within it. This album was the start of thinking through these issues for me. I look forward to what Ms. Badu has to say next.