A Lesson In Artistic Collaboration: Lips, Badu Square Off Over Provocative Video. What’s The Takeaway?

Late yesterday afternoon, a squabble erupted on Twitter (as these things tend to do these days) between recent artistic collaborators Erykah Badu and the Oklahoma City-based band, The Flaming Lips, over a provocative new video that has been circulating the interwebs this week. The video (NSFW), for the Flaming Lips’ new song, “Western Esotericism” (a cover of Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face”), is something of a visual triptych, Badu, naked in a bathtub, her body showered with three materials: glitter, a red liquid that looks like blood, and a white substance that could be glue, but, let’s face it, is supposed to make us think of something else. The video features pull-no-punches full frontal nudity (apparently not Badu’s, but rather her sister’s), and a whole lot of art schoolish, open-ended, arsty  ambiguity. The debate, until now, has been whether or not the video has any value, or whether it is merely an attempt at creating a titillating YouTube wild fire under the guise of faux-artistic expression.

Me? Well, it’s the song arrangement that gets under my skin, more than the visuals (which are what, a symbolic reverse term pregnancy?).

But back to the controversy. I don’t think anyone was overly shocked Badu was associated with the video, especially since her last nudity-driven music video, set in Dealey Plaza, created a similar internet stir. But yesterday, Badu (long)tweeted that she was upset with the Lips video, claiming that she was not involved with the final form the video took and accusing Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne of creating a “poor excuse for shock and nudity that sends a convoluted message that passes as art( to some).” This was after Badu’s management had the video removed from YouTube. Speaking about it to the Dallas Morning News‘ Robert Wilonsky, Badu responds further:

Badu was displeased with many things about the video, chief among them the nude images of her and her sister Nayrock that she says Coyne promised to green-screen more or less out of existence. No such luck: Releasing the video, writes Badu, “is equivalent to putting out a security camera’s images of me changing in the fitting room.”

Or is it? The fact of the matter is both Badu and her sister did strip down for the video shoot, and Badu’s sister’s presence at the shoot indicates that the Lips expressed a desire to show more body in the final version than Badu was willing to provide, hence the familial body double. It also seems like it took Badu a few days to make up her mind about the video after its release. At first, she tweeted about it, asking her Twitter followers for reactions. Badu also tweeted something that we now know came from Coyne: “What if the video has no meaning? Now how do u feel?”

Understandably, Badu didn’t feel very good about Coyne’s attempts at brushing off the video as a meaningless toss-away. In her long twitter response, Badu admits that she ultimately gave Coyne the benefit of the doubt, submitting herself to his (presumed) artistic vision.

You begged me to sit in a tub of that other shit and I said naw. I refused to sit in any liquid that was not water. But Out of RESPECT for you and the artist you ‘appear’ to be, I Didn’t wanna kill your concept , wanted u to at least get it out of your head . After all, u spent your dough on studio , trip to Dallas etc.. Sooo, I invited Nayrok , my lil sis and artist, who is much more liberal ,to be subject of those other disturbing (to me ) scenes . I told u from jump that I believed your concept to be disturbing. But would give your edit a chance.

You showed me a concept of beautiful tasteful imagery( by way of vid text messages) .  I trusted that. I was mistaken.

Mistaken, indeed. But was Badu really taken for a ride? I’m not entirely convinced. Aren’t the conversations that are happening now out in front of the general public precisely the ones that should have happened before Badu climbed in the bathtub? Isn’t part of being an artist knowing how to ask the right questions, and protecting your work and materials — in this case, the bodies of the Badu sisters — from manipulation and co-option?

I suppose therein lies the lesson we can take away from this latest flash in the pan controversy between our too local(ish) pop icons (besides the obvious lesson that selling music these days requires controversy). Asking the difficult questions during the process of artistic collaboration is its own way of showing respect for your collaborator’s artistic vision.

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