If You’ve Seen One Naked Woman Thrashing in a Bathtub, Have You Seen Them All?

Naked Amanda Palmer has replaced Naked Erykah Badu in a fiercely controversy-generating Flaming Lips video. And the whole thing is making me really uncomfortable.

Aug 28, 2012 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

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Erykah Badu in the original clip.

Back in early June, tripout neospacerock weirdos The Flaming Lips released an extreeeemely not-safe-for-work video for a cover of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," a folk song originally written by Ewan MacColl in 1957, but later made a huge hit by Roberta Flack’s 1972 rendition. The Lips’ version was a collaboration between the band and brilliant neo-soul artist Erykah Badu, so expectations were probably pretty high. 

The video’s release (on Vimeo, and then posted by Pitchfork, which meant a bazillion people saw it almost immediately) hit a snag when one day later it was deleted with a statement from the band apologizing for what was termed an "unedited and unapproved" clip, which had apparently gone live before Erykah Badu had gotten a chance to see it. Given that the clip includes Badu writhing naked in a bathtub -- and plenty of full-frontal nudity from her sister, Nayrok, covered in blood, gold glitter, and what appears to be semen -- her irritation is not terribly unexpected.

A good deal of sniping on both sides followed, with Badu taking to Twitter to express her outrage, and Flaming Lips’ frontman Wayne Coyne responding humorously at first, then attempting to both defend the video and take responsibility for the mistake -- which may not have been a mistake at all, considering his later insistence that the video was as they had always intended it to be. 

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Badu's sister, Nayrok, though you might assume differently.

Badu, on the other hand, claimed that she was misled as to what the finished product would look like, and most critically that it was meant to be patently obvious that the woman spattered in blood and semen was NOT her, whereas in the finished product, unless you’re paying close attention, you might not be able to tell. Indeed, if you didn’t know that the bloody woman wasn’t Badu, you probably never would have guessed there were two different women involved, especially considering one of them is covered in face-obscuring bodily fluids. Given that Nayrok only came on board because Badu was uncomfortable with the non-water-based scenes, her annoyance at not getting the chance to approve a final cut seems reasonable. 

But regardless of miscommunication, unclear intent, or honest error, the video was seemingly scrapped altogether when Badu and the Flaming Lips could no longer come to a mutually satisfactory compromise.

Until this weekend, that is! When the Lips released a new version of the video, only this time it’s starring the famously-comfortable-being-naked (and more power to her on the whole shameless nudity front, seriously, I think it's grand) Amanda Palmer. This is very not-worksafe. You were warned.

The Flaming Lips and Amanda Palmer - The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face from Delo Creative on Vimeo.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve never "gotten" The Flaming Lips. I do not actively hate them, but I just don’t understand the appeal. Of course, I also wouldn’t dissuade anyone else’s Lips fanning; they’re Emily’s favorite band and I don’t hold that against her (although I fail to understand how this can be possible in a world in which Morrissey exists).

My point being that I have no personal investment here one way or the other. But the decision to replace Badu in a nearly identical video is making me uneasy for a few reasons.

In Badu’s lengthy Twitter diatribe to Wayne Coyne directly, she claims that when she asked him what the concept meant, he responded, "It doesn't mean anything, I just want to make a great video that everyone is going to watch." All right, not everything has to mean something, and Badu was similarly OK with this, as she went ahead and did the deed.  

However, one small sticking point remains, which is that a naked woman covered in blood and semen already means something, culturally speaking -- in a lack of alternative context, it specifically evokes sexual violence. It’d be great if things were not this way, but you can’t really throw imagery like that out into the world and claim it doesn’t mean anything, even if you are an Artist. Because it does. And if you don’t want it to mean that, you need to change the presentation to make it critical or thoughtful or to provide some kind of alternative perspective.  

To their credit, evidently the Flaming Lips reconsidered the necessity of this allegedly meaningless-but-cool-to-look-at glitter-blood-jizz imagery, because the new Amanda Palmer version features Palmer enjoying a bath in plain old water and nothing else. I’d like to think that the band had reconsidered things, but then I read this MTV interview with Wayne Coyne from late June -- several weeks after the controversy arose -- that gave me pause:

Coyne said Badu "does crazy videos all the time" and implied that she was more likely responding to criticism from her own fans. "The Flaming Lips audience is this wonderful, loving audience that knows a lot about music and is very open to stuff. So the Flaming Lips audience, like me, loves Erykah Badu. And there's a segment of the Erykah Badu audience that I don't think like the kFlaming Lips at all or doesn't even know we exist. And so when they see her doing this thing with us — and Erykah pointed this out: There's a segment of her audience that has ... " he trailed off, trying to find the words. "She doesn't know which way to play it.
[...] "I think for a little while, she was maybe not necessarily completely at ease with that, but she was like, 'You're right, Wayne, it'll be fun.' Obviously, we made the video. But then I believe when the reaction from her audience to her was so vicious, I wanted her to defend herself. She's the only one that can do that."

The reference to Badu’s “crazy videos” is likely about her infamous video for "Window Seat," which Badu filmed "guerilla style" in a single take, with no crew and more importantly no filming permits, and in which Badu walks through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, the site of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, stripping off her clothes in front of astonished tourists before eventually being "shot" herself. 

Coynes’s comment is a little difficult because it would seem to suggest that a woman who takes her clothes off in one video -- one where she is in total control of the resulting footage -- should be willing to do the same without difficulty or delay for any video. It’s true that Badu received an enormous amount of criticism for her "Window Seat" video, and yet she did not feel inclined to take it down, ostensibly because she believed strongly enough in the concept that she thought the controversy was worthwhile. 

Further, Coyne seems to have been disappointed by Badu’s reluctance to defend to her own fans a concept that she did not invent and was apparently, according to Coyne himself, clearly uneasy with from the jump. Certainly, Badu should have said no if she had any doubts, but these comments don’t do the Flaming Lips any favors either. He seems to be suggesting that Badu’s less-loving audience is just dumb about art, you guys! THAT’S the real problem here.

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Amanda Palmer in the redux.

For whatever reason, the Lips are invested enough in this "meaningless" video -- which begs the question why? Is a naked woman in a bathtub so very unique? -- to want to reproduce it, even though Badu actually said she felt "violated" by her experience in it. I’m inclined to think the classy move here would have been to go back to the drawing board, rather than find another woman willing to perform as required, as doing so has the unfortunate effect of implying that the woman in this video is not a unique person but is essentially interchangeable, that so long as she has tits and a snatch she’s willing to show, she could be anybody. She’s not a person; she’s just a body to fill a certain space. That, my friends, is what skeeves me out about it.

(And this is without even touching the deeper social implications of replacing the blood and semen covered body of a black woman with that of a white woman who gets to stay relatively clean throughout. Given that cultural racial stereotypes often deem black women’s sexuality as out of control, and that black women are at higher risk of both rape and murder than white women, there’s a lot to be said about this choice from that perspective as well. I don’t mean to suggest that the Flaming Lips did this on purpose -- in fact, I fully believe they didn’t intend it at all -- but a lack of conscious intent doesn't mean it isn't a problem.)

The choice by the band to stick to this concept so ferociously -- ferociously enough to literally remake it with the same footage of the band but with a different person in the tub -- could be taken as an admirable refusal to see an artistic vision abandoned or compromised. It could also be taken as willful insensitivity to the discomfort and anger of a woman who felt abused and violated by the original version. And it could be both at the same time. Either way, it left me feeling pretty soiled after watching it. But I think I’ll take a shower instead. All this weirdness has put me off baths for a bit.