As marketing tactics go, Erykah Badu's clip for her new single, Window Seat, is nothing less than genius.
As art, however, it's more problematic.
The furor it whipped up in the days after its March 27 premiere did more to promote her latest album, New Amerykah Part II (Return of the Ankh), than any interviews or photo shoots ever could. Badu's video, filmed without permits on St. Patrick's Day in downtown Dallas, is provocative from its opening moments. While not part of the song on the album, the video version of Window Seat incorporates snippets of the radio broadcast from Nov. 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was murdered on Elm Street.
It's a direct shot across the bow of the city's self-image, as Dallas has long struggled to escape the shadow of that horrible day. Her usage of Dealey Plaza is deliberate, but that decision carries with it a bitter sting felt more keenly close to home. (Badu spent most of the March 26 weekend on her Twitter feed, defending and explaining her choices.)
As a Dallas native, Badu is well aware of the role the JFK assassination plays in the city's identity. It's far too early to tell, but most local musicians seemed to react with a shrug. The brazen act of incorporating a presidential murder into a piece of art struck nerves in the wider community, many of whom either don't follow or don't care about Badu's career.
Yet, for as many people fuming about Badu's riff on an assassination theme -- the video ends with her sprawled out on the sidewalk, the word "groupthink" bleeding from her head -- there are just as many outraged over the fact that she staged this shoot in broad daylight, when children were present. This is where Badu hasn't been able to explain away her motivations. "[T]here were children there. [I] prayed they wouldn't b traumatized ...," Badu wrote on her Twitter feed March 28.
While I think artistic acts such as these should, in theory, be encouraged, there's no denying that her shooting the video guerrilla-style carried with it some risks. (The city of Dallas fired off a press release in the days after Window Seat's release, grumbling that "the production company that produced this video never contacted the City to seek the proper permits.")
Co-opting a public space is selfish, no matter the intentions. Some pundits are screaming about a double standard and the idea that Badu's fame is more or less absolving her. It's certainly valid: If I tried walking nude down Elm Street, I'd be tossed in jail faster than you can blink.
Whatever high-minded aspirations Badu had, the video seems a calculated attempt to grab hold of the zeitgeist for a few days. Which it has. And catapult an artist whose last album sold 354,000 copies, into a realm typically dominated by Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber.
How people are reacting to it says a lot more about them than it does Badu.