Erykah Badu Paige Parson/Universal
(Warning: You're going to be introduced to more than a few words that are unfamiliar as you read this. Don't worry, there will be short definitions.)
I don't listen exclusively to NPR on my way to work. I have 15 station pre-sets, and just about all get a listen every morning. I listen to AM talk radio personalities scream at their guests and taunt their callers. I tune in to FM stations to snap my fingers and mumble the wrong lyrics to any number of songs. But I especially like to hear the latest celebrity gossip in the mornings.
It tires and tickles me. The exercise of rolling my eyes or having a good laugh helps get my day started.
The past few mornings, many urban radio hosts have been talking about R&B singer Erykah Badu's new song and video, "Window Seat." The scandal is this: Badu strips off her clothes while strolling and sometimes half-running through Dallas' Dealey Plaza. At the end of the video, there is a rifle shot, and Badu's naked self falls to the ground within feet of where President Kennedy was shot.
OK. Some of you may be asking: Who in the world is she, and why do we care about some Negro woman showing her breasts and "onion" (buttocks) in the streets of Dallas? I'll tell you more about that "onion" later, but first, let me take you through Badu's career.
According to a Wikipedia entry, she was born Erica Abi Wright in South Dallas, Texas. Badu is known for her introspective lyrics, and early in her career, her vocalization was compared to jazz singer Billie Holiday. Her fashion sense is often talked about for being caught up in a time warp — somewhere between a 1960s "Earth mother" — with long flowing dresses — and 1970s "black power movement-esque."
Badu sang more than a few radio hits, such as "On & On" and my personal favorite, "Tyrone." If you've never heard "Tyrone," you've got to pay the iTunes fee and download it. It's a soulful meditation that'll make you lift your chin and gain resolve when you're going through one of those bad boyfriend breakups. Plus, the chorus will make you laugh when you're tired of crying — "I think ya better callllll TyyyRONE and tell him come on, help you get yo shit. You need to callllll TyyyRONE but ya can't use my phone." Really? Love it.
Back to Badu, this latest video and all of her nakedness. There are some people who are calling the video artful, and others question if this is a desperate attempt to get publicity for a career that has been, let's say, flailing.
Her competition is serious. You have many popular, talented female artists with beautiful sonic voices, like Amy Winehouse. She delivers some heartfelt, soul-stirring melodies when her mind is "right" and her DRAMA is limited.
There's also newcomer Melanie Fiona, the young, gorgeous singer out of Canada. (The Tell Me More interview with her is coming soon.) Fiona sings about having no luck with her lover. She's got this begging song called "If It Kills Me," filled with so much emotion it's got me believing she should find a way to stay with the cheating, lying, bastard boyfriend.
Badu needs to write more songs her fans can easily relate to through their own lives and experiences. Maybe she spent too much time away from the music. She was gone from the scene for five years, raising three children, overseeing a clothing line and producing theater.
But she's always been accused of writing songs with "impenetrable" lyrics. In other words, she hasn't been singing any more of the "sister anthems" like "Tyrone." I understand that she doesn't want to give her listeners all the answers in her music. She wants to maintain her mystique — it's part of her "not like the others" appeal. Got it.
Now I want to point out that, personally, I don't mind Badu's nudity. As a matter of fact, I want to shout, YOU LOOK GOOD GIRL! She shows off her slightly sagging breasts, small protruding tummy and very round, not too tight but not too loose bottom. Her body looks like mine — only a smaller version. Now imagine that.
And to answer Tell Me More host Michel Martin's question: What is this about?
To me, Badu's video isn't about her being naked or trying to be provocative. She's an artist, and this neo-soul diva craves attention. And like her lyrics, this video is trying to make a statement, albeit an ambiguous one, because honestly, I don't know what John F. Kennedy's assassination has to do with her stripping in front of folks (and children) she doesn't know.
There's one clue, however.
I asked our intern Danielle Gerson to transcribe Badu's "note" to the viewer at the end of her video. She's lecturing folks who offer criticism to people who like to explore outside of the conventional. She asks that her "haters" (critics) let her "move on to change, to love herself, to EVOLVE."
I get it. Whatever.
But really, Badu, you're the only person who has to feel comfortable and good about the choices YOU make. As Billie's lyrics say, "don't explain." Sing your complicated songs. But write me another "righteous" anthem, and if you want to show your "onion" in another video, do it!