I thought parts were beautiful; parts were silly. Erykah Badu and her sister Nayrok glowing (with glitter or just naturally)? Beautiful. Erykah’s perfectly painted nails sailing rainbows through clear water? Transcendent. Nayrok covered in syrupy blood? A little off-putting. Nayrok coated in milky white? Interesting, when she was in a position of power and sending droplets soaring from her limbs. Close-ups of sticky whiteness on her face? Gratuitous. Ass-slapping? Also gratuitous, and not artistically gratifying. Wayne Coyne waving around a tinfoil cape or whatever that was? Just silly, and not quite in a delightful way.
Like many Flaming Lips endeavors, from gummy fetus flash drives to the intergalactic holiday adventure Christmas on Mars, it’s not entirely clear what’s going on in the video for “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” (which, if you’re not current on Twitter feuds, has sparked a huge one between Lips frontman Wayne Coyne and singer Erykah Badu—read up). Is there a deeper subtext to the colorful-bordering-on-demeaning nudity, or is it all just totally weird and random? Did Wayne truly betray Erykah’s trust by posting the video without her review and approval, or (as continues to be suggested) are the two collaborating on a major(ly successful) publicity stunt?
Erykah and Nayrok are both gorgeous, visually and (in Erykah’s case) aurally as well (I haven’t heard Nayrok’s voice, at least as far as I know). Wayne’s ass, though it doesn’t appear in the video, has been posted on Twitter and is not half bad, for a man in his fifties, and although his voice can’t quite be called beautiful, exactly, it has a very moving, plaintive tone at its best. So, since he’s got such a great ass, why isn’t Wayne the one getting naked in the Face video? Or in the Lips/New Fumes collab, “Girl You’re So Weird,” which also features two naked women of color? Are the women (and not the men) naked because the women are more beautiful, or because they’re being objectified in some way?
I’m not sure. I’d like to think the former. But Badu’s staunch discomfort with the project suggests the latter. Putting women of color in tribal paint and filming them “peeing” on the floor (as in the New Fumes video) suggests the later. Coating a woman (but no men) in simulated blood and semen suggests the latter. And releasing a video without a collaborating artist’s permission and full buy-in doesn’t reek of objectification, exactly, but it does suggest exploitation, or at least that the Lips are not being very careful about their art.
In many ways, that’s typical Lips. While the band members are truly impeccable instrumentalists, part of the Lips’ ongoing appeal has always been the fact that they’re a bit different, a little rough around the edges. They’re from OKC, not NYC. They sing about bugs more often than babes. Whether it’s Wayne’s cracking voice or intense distortion, the Lips are not a band you’d typically associate with perfection. Many of their releases are even created specifically with idiosyncrasies in mind—Zaireeka, for example, a 4-CD set that requires multiple CD players. Every play—even of this recorded music—will be a little different. Intentionally. Necessarily. That type of novelty and randomness, I think, really delights the Lips, who have also recently embarked on a project to press clear vinyl records with small amounts of the artists’ blood (including Erykah’s) inside of them—each one a little (or a lot) different. Though each contains the same music, each will look–and perhaps even play–in different ways thanks to the slightly different bloody contents.
But Erykah Badu is a different type of artist—less rough, more polished, or perhaps rough in a different way—and her vision should be respected, too. If she truly feels the way that she’s expressed online, the Lips owe her not just an apology (which they have already issued) but also a new video—one that emphasizes the glitter and the glam, the beauty and the joy, not the semen and the blood. It’s very difficult to craft highly sexualized imagery and remain artistic, not exploitative, and the Lips may have pushed the line a little too much in this case, even unintentionally. The very fact that Badu specifically says “As a woman I feel violated and underestimated” requires a statement from the Lips addressing this specific sense of violation.
As a longtime fan, I want to hear why the band not only released a video without buy-in from a collaborating artist, but also why that video features sexualized and borderline demeaning images of women (but not men). In another Lips collaboration video (“I’m Working at NASA on Acid,” featuring Lightning Bolt), potentially comparable imagery—of a man with a pink sticky substance on his face—is featured. But in that case, the substance appears to have come from a mask that hid identity (creating a valid reason for destroying the mask and releasing the substance), and the video pauses does not continue until the substance is removed from the man’s face. Until he’s restored, whole and clean, the song can’t go on, whereas troubling imagery doesn’t interrupt the progress of the video featuring Badu. So what does that all mean? As the “Acid” video itself asks, both in the lyrics and in overlaid images, Why?
In response to Erykah’s questioning of the video’s significance, Wayne reportedly said, “It doesn’t mean anything, I just want to make a great video that everyone is going to watch.” It seems he has. But that’s the kind of thing I’d expect from Kesha or LMFAO (and I love shuffling—but I don’t expect to be listening to LMFAO in 10 years, whereas I’ve loved the Lips for at least 15). The Lips, and certainly Badu as well, have a reputation for doing something a little more meaningful—or, if not having meaning, at least searching for such. The “cosmic, green screen images” Badu references in her post sound very much in keeping with Nayrok’s glittering body and the Lips’ searching, outerspace style. I really hope to see a new version of this video (and song) in the future, featuring more abstract imagery and less (seemingly) outright exploitation.
The Lips song “The Impulse” features a line, It seems like nothing’s gonna satisfy your shapeless urges. Part of being an artist is having those shapeless urges, a desire for meaning that is very difficult to truly fulfill. The Lips know about this. They worked on the movie Christmas on Mars for 7 years. They took 4 years to put out At War with the Mystics. But in 2012, it seems like they’ve just been cranking out crazy videos with more regard for amusement than artistry. That’s pretty cool, when your collaborators are in on the joke. But when they’re not, as Erykah does not seem to be, you need to change course.
Of the video released without her approval, Erykah says, “Our art is a reflection of who we are. I have no connection to those images shot in their raw version. I was interested in seeing an amazing edit that would perhaps change or alter my thoughts. Never happened.” An artist involved in the process of creating a song or video deserves to feel connected to it. If that means difficult dialogue, through Twitter, or otherwise, then that difficult dialogue is required. As a collaborator, Erykah deserves to have more say in what the video looks like. Otherwise, it is truly just exploitation of her beauty and her fame to include her (and her sister) in a video she does not believe in.
I randomly stumbled across a Neitzsche quote today. It seems apt.
The most fulfilling human projects appeared inseparable from a degree of torment, the sources of our greatest joys lying awkwardly close to those of our greatest pains… Why? Because no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfillment.
There was no spontaneous mastery in this video. It will take time to achieve the level of mastery that Badu wants in art that represents her. The acceptable levels of mastery may be different for Badu and for the Lips. But because they have agreed to collaborate, they should work together, “awkwardly close” to the pain, to make something they both think is worthwhile.
“The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” concludes:
The first time ever I lay with you
I felt your heart so close to mine
And I knew our joy would fill the earth
And last til the end of time
These simple, peaceful lyrics are evocative of other cosmic Lips joints: I’m sure there’s planets wrapped up with you—I’ve seen them kissing out in the hallway. Let’s hope artistic joy, not a bitter feud, is the lasting outcome here. Wayne, tell the machine you’re not a machine. Erykah, listen. And both of you: make a video you can be proud of. Please?