The music video for The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, by The Flaming Lips featuring Erykah Badu, is a very controversial music video. An unauthorized version of the music video was leaked out onto the Internet by Wayne Coyne, the frontman of the group, without Erykah’s permission. I reacted violently to the video, wrote 3 different blog posts and washed my hands of Erykah Badu. I can usually find the artistic value in anything, but felt that this video went too far, and if this was art, I can defecate in a mason jar and stick a rose and a caterpillar in it and call that art too.
Even though this video is unauthorized, I still think it has some artistic value, and I believe that there may be a message the video communicates that is worth exploring. This video could be controversial social commentary about the sexual exploitation of Black women that think they’re in a loving relationship. This is how I came to this conclusion. The song is a romantic classic penned by one singer/songwriter sung by Roberta Flack. Most people do not realize that the song was actually written back in 1957 by Ewan MacColl, a British writer. The song became a major international hit for Roberta Flack back in 1972, and has become synonymous for everything she stands for as a songwriter. While one can find irony in the fact that the she didn’t actually write the song, one should also take note of the fact that other songs, such as the hit song for The Bodyguard soundtrack that Whitney Houston sang, “I Will Always Love You”, became Whitney Houston’s signature song during the second part of her career. The script for The Bodyguard, was written back in the seventies for Steve McQueen and Diana Ross.
The video has a lot of symbolism. Erykah Badu sits in a bathtub, apparently distraught, but it is not clear why. Usually when you see a woman sitting in a bathtub in a music video is a good thing because that image is a representation that the woman is pampering herself and thinking about how she will make love with her significant other later on that night. In this video, Erykah Badu is torn, and appears to be on the verge of an emotional breakdown.
Viewers are then assaulted by alternating scenes in which two different women, Erykah Badu, and her little sister, Nayrok. We see glitter on Nayrok, then blood, then what appears to be semen, all over her body. Is there a connection between the two women, which are never shown in the same scene together? Is Erykah Badu mourning the rites of passage Nayrok is going through, from a spiritual perspective, is Nayrok’s respect, femininity, being stripped away, is she being dehumanized? Does she know any better is this just what young women do these days, in the name of feminism or some other form of enlightenment? Is the progression, from glitter, to blood, to semen, symbolic of how a Black woman’s spirit is broken over time, through failed relationships and missed starts, culminating in the birth of a new monster without a soul that is willing to do anything to make it through this life, in this society?
One almost wonders if, symbolically, Nayrok is not a younger Erykah Badu (for the purposes of this video). What would Erykah Badu would be like today, sexually, if she were 20 years younger? Is this a representation of how the sexuality of Black women has changed in the 20 years Erykah Badu has been on the music scene? The images are explicit, and degrade the young woman. The images are hypersexual, and speak to how we embrace the shock value of the denigration of Black women.
The equivocation of how deep a Black woman’s love is with what she will allow someone to do with her in the name of sexual exploration appears to be the point here. Erykah Badu probably figured that her fans would get the message, but she went too far, and the message most likely went over their heads. The problem that Erykah Badu seems to face is with how she can still address some of the issues that are going on in the Black community without crossing the lines of decency. This video was an interesting experiment that went wrong. One can only hope that Erykah Badu’s next music video is a bit easier to receive, and does not stir as much controversy as this video does because the controversy that seems cool now will eventually become the undoing of her long career in the industry …