The exceedingly NSFW (and I really do mean that) video for The Flaming Lips ‘The First Time’ has been making the rounds for a while now — for those who can’t watch, it features Erykah Badu, who sings on the track, naked in a bathtub with eye makeup that makes her look bruised, and her sister, coated in variou liquids, in shots that show her full frontal nudity:
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It’s an unsettling set of images, but I considered them perhaps more closely than I might have otherwise given Badu’s prior willingness to use her body in her video art. Except it turns out she’s deeply uncomfortable with the video, and alleges that Wayne Coyne produced a video that doesn’t accord with the vision he laid out to her, and released it without getting her approval on either the images or the lyrics in a violation of her contract. In a long Facebook post, she writes:
You showed me a concept of beautiful tasteful imagery( by way of vid text messages). I trusted that. I was mistaken…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 then said u would take my shots ( in clear water/ fully covered parts -seemed harmless enough) and Nayrok’s part ( which I was not present for but saw the photos and a sample scene of cornstarch dripping ) and edit them together along with cosmic, green screen images ( which no one saw) then would show me the edit. Instead, U disrespected me by releasing pics and rough vid on the internet without my approval. (Contract breech )
Coyne’s response has not been precisely illuminating. In a series of posts, he initially tweeted an apology to Badu’s fans who might have been offended by it, saying “We are very sorry if it has offended some of Erykah Badu’s more Conservative audience! The video was intended for mature audiences and is NOT an Erykah Badu statement.. It is a Flaming Lips video!!!” The band as also acknowledged that the video was unapproved and unfinished. But since Badu herself voiced objections, he’s resorted to retweeting affirmations of his work like “Seriously?! http://bit.ly/LyY6gF Erykah Badu should be thankful to @theflaminglips & @waynecoyne for reminding people she’s still around,” rather than addressing Badu’s claims that he violated both his contract with her and her sense of trust.
Women in American entertainment often have to go along to get along, to accommodate just one more request from a director. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to maintain your sense that you own your body under those circumstances, and I’m speaking as a white woman, rather than as a woman of color, who are subject to a different set of demands and historical circumstances. As a person in business, if you make a contract, you should honor it. And as an artist working with another artist on material she finds difficult or uncomfortable, if you want to get a good, usable performance out of that person, it seems like respect should be your first-order operating principal. Hollywood often treats hiring actresses and purchasing limited rights to their bodies as the same thing. If Coyne did, in fact, give Badu the right to sign off on the video before he released it and failed to do so, someone needs to tell him to cut down on the self-congratulation and start thinking more carefully about the right he’s asserted to use black women’s bodies for his own self-aggrandizement.