“Window Seat”: Erykah Badu, Projective Cultural Politics, and the Obama Era

On the afternoon of March 13, 2010, neo-soul singer Erykah Badu walked though Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, the site of John F. Kennedy's 1963 assassination. Rarely meeting the eyes of the people she passed--groups of adolescents, men and women, parents with children--Badu sequentially removed her sunglasses, coat, hooded sweatshirt, shirt, pants, bra, and underwear. When she arrived, nude, at the approximate site of Kennedy's attack, a gunshot rang out and she collapsed as if struck in the back of the head. Filmed in one take, "guerilla style," this event became Badu's soon-to-be-infamous video for "Window Seat," the lead single from her album, New AmErykah Part Two.

The video begins with a radio announcer's description of Kennedy's motorcade, recorded moments before the President was shot, and grainy footage of Badu driving up to the Plaza in a 1965 Lincoln Continental. 1 Once Badu's simulated death has fulfilled the analogy, the video abandons its realist conceit. Blood-like ink spills from Badu's head to form the word "groupthink," and Badu's voiceover drives home the contrast between "groupthink" and the term "evolved," which the viewer has now had occasion to see tattooed on Badu's bare back: "They play it safe, are quick to assassinate what they do not understand. They move in packs, ingesting more and more fear with every act of hate on one another... They are us. This is what we have become. Afraid to respect the individual. A single personal event or circumstance can move one to change. To love herself. To evolve." 2 During this voiceover, the camera pans up to the American flag waving in the blue sky. When it returns to Badu, she is standing and wearing a long beaded wig that covers her body. She smiles at the camera and walks out of its frame.

While my purpose here is to interpret "Window Seat," let me first take a moment to state what may be obvious: this is a confounding work. First, Dallas is Badu's home as well as the site of a national tragedy she both honors and scandalously appropriates. The video frames her as both "from here" (a regular woman walking among tourists) and "other" or otherworldly (stripping, dying, rising from the dead). It's also hard to tell what this spectacle has to do with the song itself. Laid-back, funky, and unusually song-like for this album, "Window Seat" is an ambivalent record of desires for privacy and attention that does not, on the surface, seem like an appropriate score to its guerilla-filmed counterpart. 3 Further, while the video's markers of national citizenship indicate that Badu is making a political statement, it's not clear what that is or what it has to do with JFK. In critical terms, the very elusiveness of Badu's "point" suggests Richard Iton's concept of the "black fantastic" as a viable lens for this work. In his landmark 2008 study, Iton describes the "black fantastic" as a mode through which black popular artists foster "open-ended deliberative activity" by making "subversive... private geographies... available to the public." 4 However, Badu's apparent investment in national iconography--an investment also signaled by her decision to title her last two albums New AmErykah--may affirm, as much as it complicates, the national frame that black fantastic work often resists. 5 Finally, there is Badu's puzzling decision to reach back to Kennedy's assassination in 2010; why might the first major video Badu releases after the election of America's first black president evoke the last one who was killed? 6

In addressing these points, my investments are topical, methodological, disciplinary, and historical. On the most basic level, few scholars apart from Iton have yet engaged Badu's work. 7 Thus, while my analysis here is trained specifically on "Window Seat," I hope to encourage further critical attention to her decade-long (and counting) body of musical and visual production. Methodologically, while the reception of Badu's video-as-phenomenon served to discursively divorce it from the song, I contend that close attention to both the music and its visual counterpart are necessary for analyzing the historically unique form of the music video. In disciplinary terms, I assert that the music video resonates with literary critical concerns and helps us refine contemporary theories of African American cultural politics. Specifically, "Window Seat" provides an opportunity to theorize black female artists' cultural production outside the framework of "resistance," especially in the context of the Obama era.

Here I examine "Window Seat" as a model of contemporary, non-protest-oriented black feminist cultural politics. I call this politics "projective," by which I mean that it is more legible as a performative seizure of power than as a critique of or appeal to power. I argue that Badu's association of herself with JFK helps us read her projective cultural politics through the lens of "presidentialist" power--the idealized ability to transcend political partisanship and institutional bureaucracy which Americans have ascribed to their presidents at least since FDR 8--and that her music video democratizes her own cultural power by casting her in the role of a modern Cynic. According to Michael Hardt's reading of Foucault, the Cynics are bands of militant outsiders who move beyond a critique of power and toward a transformation of social life because they model, without dictating, the possibility of living otherwise. Finally, by offering a model of alternative possibility that is explicitly engaged with presidential iconography, Badu offers a new contextual framework for understanding the visions of black female possibility that artists such as Janelle Monáe and Beyoncé are using the music video to project. In the midst of the long "morning after" which the Obama administration threatens to become, we might see these artists as defying political disillusionment and instead voicing--and especially, visualizing--freedom dreams that the putative promised land of black presidential leadership will not fulfill. 9

"Beam Me Up": Presidentialism and Protest

Erykah Badu was born Erica Wright in 1971. Since her 1997 debut album, Baduizm, she has been known as the "Queen of Neo-Soul," a generic category used to describe and market the "organic" alternatives to mainstream R&B offered by musicians like D'Angelo, Lauryn Hill, and Jill Scott. Badu was acclaimed for her ability to "filter jazz vocals through hip-hop without any fuss or fanfare," 10 and her vocal timbre and minimalist style earned her endless and apt comparisons to Billie Holiday--although her 1997 Live album revealed that she could also wail and perform the vocal calisthenics of an R&B diva when she wanted to (an ability she continues to reserve for her live shows). Wearing towering headwraps or enormous Afro wigs and preaching Five Percenter philosophy to fans, Badu cultivated what Melena Ryzik has called a "neo-soul sex goddess/funky earth mama/black power revolutionary persona." 11 Her music and persona have earned her a devoted following, while also drawing criticisms of self-indulgence. Guardian writer Alexis Petridis, for example, claims that an "apparently perennial theme" of Badu's music is "how wonderful Erykah Badu is," and mocks her for "wheeling out her terrifying secret weapon: interpretative dance" in a bid for yet more attention. 12

After Mama's Gun (2000) and Worldwide Underground (2003), five years passed before Badu released another album. According to her friend and collaborator, Roots drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, her hiatus was part of a broader phenomenon for neo-soul artists like D'Angelo and Lauryn Hill whose careers exploded in the late-90s: "Once we got that first taste of success, I think just the pressure of reacting got to all of us." 13 Badu was scrutinized for her eccentric style, fake dreadlocks, esoteric spiritual beliefs, and high profile rapper-partners. As Thompson puts it, "'Is she real or is she fake, is she pretentious?' She was thrown off." 14 She recovered. Her 2008 release of New AmErykah Part One: 4th World War compelled several music journalists to forego "best of the year" assertions in favor of "best of the decade" ones. Rob Harvilla, for instance, called Part One "the craziest, fieriest, most spellbinding R&B album of the last decade." 15 Even Petridis appreciatively noted that "here was angry, visionary music born out of social tumult" of the "Bush regime." 16 Badu released New AmErykah Part Two: The Return of the Ankh in 2010 (the series is planned as a trilogy). While the relatively modest Part Two was often read as a retreat from Part One's musical experimentation and social engagement, 17 Badu's video for "Window Seat" clearly pushed expressive possibility, albeit to a somewhat inscrutable end. When she released the video through her website on March 27th of last year, it generated the controversy Badu had expected and, in a sense, courted: she was charged with disorderly conduct (to which she pled not guilty); her video was temporarily removed from YouTube; and her most extreme critics called her decision to strip in the presence of children an act of glorified pedophilia. While Badu publicly expressed the hope that some viewers would find her act of self-liberation inspiring, she was not surprised by the backlash against it. In fact, she told an interviewer that the video itself anticipated the response she knew it would provoke: "I knew that would happen, so... I decided to assassinate myself as a gesture. Because it was going to happen anyway. The video is a prediction of what is happening now." 18 Badu staged her own death to simulate the "character assassination" she expected to suffer for her public nudity and, more precisely, for the music video that captured it. 19

Notwithstanding the fact that Badu is a Dallas native and part-time resident who has called Kennedy one of her heroes, 20 her decision to figuratively link Kennedy's assassination with her own imminent defamation can seem like a narcissistic gesture worthy of Petridis's critique. I understand the analogy differently, though. First, since there are countless versions of "JFK," I should clarify that, for my purposes, JFK figures the following: an idealized presidential power to transcend protest politics such as those associated with his administration; a president whose power is enhanced by his death; a shrewd manipulator of the visual mass media; a leader whose assassination is captured on film; the twentieth-century president to whom Obama is most often compared. I elaborate each of these points in what follows to assert that, if New AmErykah Part One protested the Bush administration, "Window Seat" seeks to harness and redistribute the symbolic power of JFK as well as Obama.

Badu's invocation of JFK exploits what Gene Healy calls the U.S. "cult of the Presidency." 21 The phrase describes the notion that the president might single-handedly redeem the nation. It is the result of what Dana Nelson terms "presidentialism": Americans' tendency to metonymically locate all operations of the state in the figure of a single executive leader. 22 Barbara Hinckley points out, "Presidents, factually speaking, do not manage the economy, but it is part of the symbolism of the office that they are singularly responsible for the nation's well-being. We speak of the president's foreign policy or economic policy, collapsing a long and complex policy-making process into the work of a single individual..." 23 Scholars tend to trace this ideology to FDR's presidency, asserting that the New Deal signaled a shift from congressional to presidential government. "In the regime inaugurated by the New Deal," Sean McCann explains,

the president would stand at the head of a system of executive administration, acting in theory as the active voice of the nation as a whole; overcoming the resistance and narrow partisanship of other political institutions; and in so doing working to create a more intimate and democratic relation between the nation and its government. 24

This was a notion that JFK worked to revive, declaring that the nation needed "'a Chief Executive who is the vital center of action in our whole scheme of government,' who could 'summon his national constituency to its final hour.'" 25 For his part, Obama asserted that his "Kenya-to-Kansas" heritage had "seared into [his] genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts," and thus made him the candidate who would not only answer but could embody the long American dream of a "more perfect union." 26

Like Healy, Nelson critiques presidentialism for how it serves to justify demagoguery (especially in wartime), blinds citizens to their own power, and leads people to confuse the mere act of voting for the president with the process of participating in democracy. What is fascinating about Badu's response to this phenomenon is that she does not so much critique presidentialist ideology as she figuratively usurps presidentialist power by putting herself in Kennedy's place. (The video is clear about this exchange: while the opening radio recording of Kennedy's motorcade leads us to expect to see Abraham Zapruder's footage of Kennedy himself, we instead get the cinema-verite shot of Badu driving up to the Plaza. The video represents Kennedy only metaphorically, through Badu's assassination.) Badu's engagement with JFK aligns her with a tradition of American writers who have been more inspired by than resentful toward presidential power. McCann explains that, just as Walt Whitman established an intimate poetic connection with Abraham Lincoln, twentieth-century authors as various as Gertrude Stein, Richard Wright, Allen Ginsberg, and Philip Roth would continue to "see themselves engaged in an implicit dialogue with the chief executive, so much so that the presidency often would become in effect a model and rival for the aims of their own work." 27

The fact that Badu links herself with Kennedy on the basis of his death may seem to compromise whatever power the analogy might promise. However, the opposite is true: as Badu indicates when she stages her own glowing resurrection, Kennedy's death only confirms his authority. Badu's understanding of Kennedy's death as a source of transcendence resonates with her literary predecessors, who collectively imagine that "the true president at once commands the helm of the state and martyrs himself to the nation." 28 Like Whitman's Lincoln, Badu's Kennedy is a figure of "awesome power and humbling vulnerability." 29 This "humbling vulnerability" protects the president's "awesome power" by making it appear not dictatorial but Christ-like (hence, again, Badu's resurrection). In sum, Badu refashions herself into the mythic image of the president who has no one to appeal to but everyone to die for, and whose death only affirms his/her power.

I will return to the analogy between Badu and Kennedy shortly. Here I want to use what I have described as Badu's assumption of presidentialist power to illuminate her cultural politics. I have suggested that Badu's substitution of herself for Kennedy represents her imaginative seizure of the mythic power ascribed to the president. If presidentialist ideology figures the president as, in McCann's words, "[overcoming] the narrow partisanship of other political institutions," we might imagine Badu herself vaulting over and around the institutional and discursive mechanisms of formal politics. (Here I follow Richard Iton in using the term "formal politics" to refer to "electoral processes, policy-making, and [other] institutionalized practices" of the state. 30) My close readings of Badu's song and video will demonstrate that, although Badu's video seems to be making a "political statement," conventionally understood as protest or petition, it is no more a work of protest than is her song. Instead, Badu's video uses the markers of national citizenship to highlight her evasion of the agonistic discourse that structures formal politics in general and protest politics in particular. The point is not simply that Badu expresses desires that exceed what formal political or legal activity might account for. It is that she takes leave of the very discursive structures of petition, permission, and refusal that such politics require. Instead, "Window Seat" advances what Robin D. G. Kelley calls "a politics rooted in desire," 31 and what I term projective cultural politics.

Black writers' critiques of protest-oriented art help us see why Badu's evasion of protest politics matters. As early as 1949, James Baldwin argues that the protest novel merely enforces a Manichean theology that sets (black) sin and degradation against (white) virtue and salvation. 32 Later Black Arts writers like Etheridge Knight and Larry Neal extend Baldwin's critique, suggesting that expressions of black rage or supplication directed to white America simply enforce white supremacist logic; even if one's demands are met, white paternalism is what meets them. 33 This paternalistic response to black protest is reflected in Kennedy's own significant Civil Rights Address of June 1963. Kennedy uses collective pronouns to code his American audience as white even while stressing the moral necessity of treating "our" [black] "fellow Americans" as equals: "The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated." 34 Badu eschews this re-inscription of power by announcing desires that are not requests or demands. Her evocation of Kennedy works then, somewhat paradoxically, to dramatize her departure from the model of civic protest famously associated with his presidency (and famously responsible for pushing him to support the civil rights movement).

To begin, we might consider Badu's request for a window seat in the context of a video that references the civil rights era. Fifty-five years after Rosa Parks sparked a citywide bus boycott in Birmingham, Badu re-spatializes the discourse of black Americans' demands to occupy particular spaces on public transportation. She seeks not a place at the front, but rather a place at the side--one that might relieve her of the hypervisibility that Parks and other activists such as Elizabeth Eckford, Melba Pattillo and the Little Rock Nine experienced as they stood their ground. In what one critic has called her "pipe cleaner of a voice," she sings, "Can I get a window seat? Don't want nobody next to me. I just want a ticket out of town, a look around, and a safe touch down." 35 In a later verse, Badu also calls for vertical movement quite beyond this world: "If anybody speak to Scotty, tell him beam me up."

As this last lyrical example suggests, Badu's song and video assert projective desire, desire without hope of fulfillment--or, more precisely, without hope of fulfillment by anyone other than oneself. The speaker expresses conflicting desires to be left alone, to be a spectacle, to be spectacularly alone. While she wants a flight out of town, she also wants her absence felt when she leaves: "But I need you to want me, need you to miss me, I need your attention..." I hear these desires as simultaneous rather than sequential. For instance, even as Badu calls for a window seat in the refrain, the production synthesizes and doubles her voice for some lines and restores her singular voice for others, so that the refrain oscillates between an ethereal chorus of Badus and her solo sound. Thus, even as the lyrics request solitude, the production voices the alternate desire: to be a conspicuous (not anonymous) member of a chorus or crowd. This double desire is also voiced in the implicit slippage from "can I get a window seat?" to "can I get a witness?" 36 These questions are performative statements more than requests. Request depends on the possibility of fulfillment, but these conflicting simultaneous desires cannot be fulfilled. "Window Seat" thus voices a different order of desire from that of, say, Badu's "Tyrone," in which the speaker advises her lover to call his friend Tyrone to help him move out of her house. There, we can imagine the outcome being that Tyrone does come move the lover out. But here, the telos of expressed desire is not imagined fulfillment.

The song's extraordinary second refrain goes further and substitutes self-fulfillment for appeal. The section of the song is prefaced by the statement that, although the speaker wants to leave, she'll also "need you to want me, need you to miss me, I need your attention..." Badu now proceeds to ventriloquize the voice she wants to hear when she's gone: "Somebody say, 'Come back, come back baby, come back...'" It took a dozen casual listens before I heard this refrain correctly. Missing the "somebody say" tag, I initially thought Badu's speaker was asking someone else to come back. But my mistake reveals what is so unusual about the structure of this address. Most pop choruses express the voice of a centralized narrative consciousness, not the voice of an interlocutor. (This is the case whether they are in first, second, or third person--whether the chorus is "I want you," "Express yourself," "All along the watchtower...") So, in conventional terms, "come back" should be an imperative that Badu is issuing to someone else. Instead, she is singing indirect speech--the would-be call of someone who misses her. Songs in which the refrain is comprised of indirect speech are rare, but some examples are the jazz standard "Nature Boy" ("This he said to me: 'The greatest thing you'll ever learn...'"), and Badu's own "Nature Boy"-esque "Orange Moon" ("And he smiled at me when he turned to me, then he said to me: 'How good it is...'"). 37 However, Badu's use of indirect speech is different still from these examples, since Badu impersonates an imagined voice; the tense of her refrain is subjunctive, not past. What we are hearing, then, is Badu's unexpected and very unusual use of the refrain to fulfill her speaker's desire to hear an imagined voice. In the very section of the song that should make "come back" a request or demand, Badu is neither asking someone to do it nor even, really, asking someone to say it. The "come back" is the call she's calling for--what she wants someone else to say. But in voicing that "come back" for eight bars, she is not so much making an appeal as she is taking the opportunity to sing an entire chorus of the words she wants to hear, to herself.

The video moves the song's complex expression and fulfillment of desire into the arena of national citizenship. If Badu's transgression tantalizes us with the question of what exactly she wants, it also implies that this is the wrong question--or that the only answer could be, More than anyone could give. Her transgression is at once precise in its performance--it is important, if ironic, that she makes sure to pay the parking meter before proceeding to strip in public--and provocatively nonspecific in its aims. That is, Badu does not disrobe in order to protest laws against public nudity. This distinguishes her act from the civil rights-era model of direct civil disobedience, in which the point of violating a law (e.g., sitting at a whites-only lunch counter) is to protest that law (racially segregated service). In contrast, Badu's transgression ostensibly confronts multiple objects, including: personal inhibitions; socially limiting forms of "groupthink"; exclusionary codes of bourgeois morality; physically and psychically harmful racialized standards of female beauty (a point to which I will return). If the video were a group demonstration, it would be one in which several different interest groups show up and threaten to defuse the organizers' main agenda. It is not exactly the abundance of "agendas," however, that makes protest-oriented civil disobedience an inappropriate model for this work. The model is inapt primarily because Badu's performance of multiple desires does not appeal to authority for reform. Indeed, Badu co-opts the power of refusal by staging her own assassination and resurrection. Her self-fulfilling "come back" refrain is thus the lyrical counterpart to Badu's decision to assassinate herself in the video before anyone else can do it. Her refrain subverts petition; her self-assassination preempts refusal.

Uninterested in modes of appeal or resistive protest, the politics of "Window Seat" are not reactive or agonistic but projective. So while Greg Tate is right to say that the video resonates with "[recent] conversations about black female body image-ing that have arisen... because of Michelle Obama, Caster Semenya, [the films] Precious, Avatar, and Good Hair, and [Deborah Willis's recent critical anthology on the "Hottentot Venus"]," 38 I would also specify that Badu contributes to this conversation not by insisting that black is beautiful or by protesting racist standards of beauty. "Window Seat" does seek to expand the music video's representational possibilities for black female artists, but it also strives to redistribute the cultural power that would allow Badu herself to project this alternative possibility in the first place. Badu uses the medium of the music video less to critique power than to democratize the power to project the not-yet-possible.

"They Are Us": Redistributing Projective Power

To see how Badu repurposes the music video to this effect, it's first important to note that there is a sense in which her video is as much about the media event of JFK's assassination as it is about JFK. I have proposed that we read Badu's association of herself with putatively transcendent presidentialist authority as the sign of her evasion of the discursive structures of formal politics in general and protest politics in particular. Therefore, her citation of Kennedy's assassination actually serves to cast her own avoidance of 1960s protest politics into relief. This evasion helps explain why Badu does not cite leaders in the struggle for black rights and self-determination such as Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. Another key facet of Badu's choice of Kennedy, however, is that, unlike these other leaders, JFK's assassination is captured on film. "Window Seat" performs a double substitution, of Badu for JFK and of her own self-made video for Zapruder's: just as Badu evokes JFK without representing him, so does her video evoke Zapruder's film without showing it. But by alluding to that film at the start of the video, Badu prioritizes that media event and encourages us to read her own bound-to-go-viral music video through the lens of the Zapruder phenomenon.

As Dana Nelson writes, "Kennedy offered himself to the U.S. public as a lone and selfless spiritual redeemer for a national fantasy: a quintessential American hero--and a quintessential television hero." 39 One of the greatest ironies of the Kennedy presidency is that the very visual media Kennedy had so savvily manipulated to gain power--and to style himself into a national star whom Norman Mailer would famously compare to Marlon Brando--would also capture and memorialize his ultimate moment of human vulnerability; what's more, the circulation of Zapruder's film would secure Kennedy's beloved, mythic status as no public posturing could have. Badu capitalizes on this irony. By re-enacting the moment when the TV-celebrity president became a televised martyr, she uses the very medium that has helped secure her own star status to advance a representation of herself that is empowered and empowering because profoundly vulnerable. Here, the irony of the video--that Badu is not an elected national leader--becomes precisely the point. This is what enables Badu to redefine and redistribute "presidentialist" power as cultural power.

As a form that has secured her own star status by showcasing her implausible beauty, the music video has served Badu well. However, rather than enforce Badu's glamorous neo-soul mystique, "Window Seat" reframes her as an ordinary woman among regular tourists--albeit one performing an extraordinary act of self-exposure. This move has obvious implications with regard to pop music videos' racialized and gendered rules of representation, according to which women who possess what Mark Anthony Neal terms the "requisite 'lite, brite, and lean' physicality" are hypersexualized, and those who don't are rendered invisible. 40 Badu is well aware of this. As she has stated, "People are uncomfortable with sexuality that's not for male consumption." 41 Comparing her "13 seconds" of nudity with omnipresent music videos in which barely-dressed women seduce the camera, she asked, "Do you think people would have been complaining if I had on high-heels?" 42 When she stages her nude body as neither a sexual commodity nor an asexual source of maternity, Badu rejects two main roles America's sexual economy has historically assigned to black women. (With regard to the second, what's most interesting to me about the Texas parents who accused Badu of "sexually assaulting" their children by exposing them to her body is how that charge reveals the parents' real anger and confusion at Badu's rejection of the mammy script.) 43 ) By declining both the Jezebel and Mammy roles, Badu may indeed perform a spectacular act of self-possession--which is always, for black female artists, an act of self-reclamation. 44 At the same time, however, insofar as there is no prior moment when U.S. citizens have been allowed to walk the streets nude, this is less a taking-back than a projection of what-is-not-yet.

This projective vision is inseparable from--it consists of--Badu's performance of vulnerability. Her resurrection suggests that this performance of vulnerability is what produces Badu's power, just as Zapruder's film helped produce Kennedy's iconic status. "Window Seat" therefore works to overturn the presumption that Badu's pre-existing cultural power (as the "Queen of Neo-Soul") authorizes her to project this vision of alternative possibility. The video instead indicates the reverse: that it is Badu's willingness to project that vision--to be vulnerable in public, to render herself painfully open to scorn--that generates her cultural power. This process begins by reconsidering what counts as "orderly" conduct and why.

The way Badu provokes and empowers this reconsideration suggests she is assuming the role of a modern Cynic, as theorized by Michael Hardt. Hardt describes the Cynics as groups of rebels who "provoke and scandalize society" for about 500 years at the turn of the Common Era by "[daring] to do in public view what 'normal' people do only when hidden"--for example, walk the streets naked. 45 Hardt proposes that they do not simply critique of power but also aim to transform social life because they challenge authority without becoming authorities themselves. On the contrary, Hardt writes, "they invite scorn and ridicule... The militant life of the Cynics does not stand above the lives of others, so to speak, as a vanguard organization, but rather seeks to change social life while being a part of it, exposed to others." 46 As Badu states of the victims of groupthink, "They are us. This is what we have become." Like the Cynics, Badu stages her repudiation of convention on the grounds of everyday life. And while her act is transgressive, its execution is not cavalier. Instead of capturing the empowering ritual through which the star sheds her inhibitions, heedless to the possibility that, in the language of the Texas code on disorderly conduct, "another may be present who will be offended or alarmed by his act," 47 the video documents the far more modest process by which Badu submits herself to the authority, scrutiny, and inevitable judgment of others.

Badu has said she was "petrified" when the filming began, 48 and her facial expression seems to reflect this; her face is characterized by concern more than pleasure throughout her walk. This is one of several ways in which her video departs from its inspiration, the 2009 video for the song "Lessons Learned," by white indie rock artists Matt and Kim. As Matt Johnson told an interviewer about his and Kim Schifino's decision to strip while walking through Times Square, "I've been really stressed out for the last three years... So I was like, 'How are we gonna portray this I-don't-give-a-fuck-anymore attitude?' I thought it would be totally liberating.'" 49 Once fully nude, Matt and Kim appear exhilarated; Badu does not enjoy such a moment. 50 It would have been difficult to do so, given that passersby kept yelling at her. As she related on Twitter, "They were yelling, THIS IS A PUBLIC PLACE : YOU OUGHTA BE ASHAMED : PUT YOUR CLOTHES ON : DAMN GIRL!" 51 While the music video obviously mutes these jeers, Badu's staged assassination figuratively voices them.

Badu clearly, as she put it, "held my head up and kept moving." However, as I have suggested, the tentativeness of her performance profoundly tempers what Ryzik calls her "neo-soul sex goddess/funky earth mama/black power revolutionary persona." Badu's departure from that persona is most extreme at the moment she falls to the ground, her face pixilated as if to obscure her identity as well as her iconicity. It is this relinquishment of power, however, that enables Badu's trickster resurrection. The video therefore shifts the locus of Badu's cultural authority from "black power revolutionary persona" to flesh-and-blood woman vulnerable not only to death but to public derision. By refashioning her cultural power into the image of radical ordinariness, Badu redistributes it to others.

According to Hardt, the Cynics' militancy "is certainly not a rejection of critique," but it adds something to critique: it "aims also at constructing a new life and creating or at least prefiguring a new world." 52 As Badu puts it, "A single personal event or circumstance can move one to change. To love herself. To evolve." Badu's performance in this video ultimately is and is not the generically identified "event or circumstance" that might move others to the self-love on which evolution depends. For this reason, "Window Seat" helps us imagine forms of freedom that will not be granted by anyone but might be collectively accessed and claimed.

"Open Up the Door": Political, Critical, and Musical Contexts

There are several reasons why Badu's projective politics might resonate in a post-civil rights context, when the returns of protest politics can seem nominal at best. Not only has the U.S. government failed or refused to meet any but the most basic civil rights demands (legalized integration and equal opportunity), but this outcome seems to highlight the problem with making demands to begin with: as Baldwin and his Black Arts successors point out, petition can simply re-inscribe black subordination. This is not to frame protest politics as inherently problematic or passé, but to explain what is at stake in theorizing another mode of politics that better elucidates Badu's work.

Theorizing Badu's projective politics in the Obama era allows us to see not only how she eschews the reification of interracial hierarchy, but also how she destabilizes intra-racial power relations. As Erica Edwards's astute work on the fantasy of charismatic black male leadership reveals, even if black vanguard leaders do not encourage ideological and practical conformity among group members, the very performance of black male charisma may disempower black women in particular, while also making it hard to continue a movement once its leaders are gone 53--or, in the case of Obama, once they are firmly in executive office. This problem brings us to the immediate stakes of Badu's projective politics.

Ever since Obama's stellar performance as keynote supporter of John Kerry at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, commentators have compared Obama with JFK more than any other president aside from Lincoln. Points of comparison include: their shared youth, religious/racial minority status, eloquent promises of national unification and regeneration, manipulation of social media, and even the fashion sense of their wives (Jackie O. being the go-to precedent for descriptions of Michelle Obama's trendsetting style). Of particular significance, however, is the notion that JFK is the presidential face of the civil rights movement that ostensibly reaches symbolic fulfillment with the election of the first black president. How Kennedy would come to be the face of a movement that he spent most of his presidency trying to avoid is explained in part by his assassination, which obviously aligns him with assassinated leaders of the era such as Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X. Further, however slow Kennedy was to act on civil rights legislation (and as of this writing, his slowness is matched precisely in Obama's inaction on the right of gay marriage), his eventual submission of what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964 enshrined him as a martyr of the movement who, like Martin Luther King, would not "get there with you." 54 For his own part, Obama was careful to figure himself as the inheritor, not the fulfillment, of King's movement for social justice. In his victory speech on the night of November 4, 2008, he declared, "We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America..., I promise you, we as a people will get there." 55 At the same time, however, his allusion to Sam Cooke's classic 1963 song signaled that the change Cooke and his generation had looked forward to had indeed arrived: "It's been a long time coming, but tonight... change has come to America." 56

Three years later, "Window Seat" reads as a performance in which Badu presciently and provocatively positions herself, not Obama, as the rightful heiress of Kennedy's power and even King's legacy. She now appears to harness the symbolism of the American presidency in order to dramatize her own power to imagine changes that have not yet come to America. At a moment when what Iton terms a post-civil rights "exhaustion with politics" 57 manifests as a more specific Obama-era disillusionment with electoral politics, Badu's video seems to express an energized exasperation with America's over-investment in executive leadership, even as she uses this investment to figure new forms of personal and social autonomy. So while I would not exactly claim that Badu's video is, at its origin, born of post-Obama disenchantment, I believe it now reads as an extraordinary response to such malaise. An exchange Jenny Eliscu cites in her 2010 Rolling Stone profile on Badu seems telling, in this regard. When Badu's friend, Kyle Goen, makes a joke about George Bush,

Badu mutters, 'I don't even know why we get mad at George Bush. For what?' Goen starts to answer, and she interrupts, 'Yeah, but why? They're doing a job that was written for them to do. They're following a script. We need a new bowlin' alley--a whole new setup, a whole new thing. It's not just the individual. The next leader is gonna do the same thing, in a truth disguise." The conversation turns to Obama, though no one mentions the president by name. 'I expected the war in Iraq to end,' Goen says, trying to reason with her. 'I expected Guantánamo Bay to close.' 'That's delusional,' Badu says. 'The man said he was against these things!' he responds. Badu gets frustrated. 'He's a politician.' 58

Notwithstanding Badu's apparent disenchantment with presidential leadership and desire for "a whole new thing," it is important to consider how Badu's work in "Window Seat," as I have analyzed it, resonates with Obama's own "power to the people" "script." As Obama stressed when accepting the Democratic nomination, "History teaches us... that at defining moments like this one, the change we need doesn't come from Washington. Change comes to Washington. Change happens because the American people demand it--because they rise up and insist on new ideas and new leadership, a new politics for a new time." 59 This is not a revolutionary story. On the contrary, it is the narrative through which James Morone analyzes the entire development of U.S. politics, arguing that Americans' perennial "democratic wish" that "somehow power will be seized from the government and vested in the people themselves" dialectically results in the expansion of bureaucratic institutions. 60 In Morone's terms, Obama's campaign statement that "what the naysayers don't understand is that this election has never been about me. It's been about you" is simply the exciting preface to the sobering version of the same point, which he would make at his Inauguration: "what is required of us now is a new era of responsibility." 61 What is especially important about Badu, however, is that she refuses to mistake electoral politics for radical politics. A Cynic who refuses cynicism, she takes Obama at his word: if the Obama era is not about Obama but about everyday people, she offers a vision of what it might mean to actually believe this.

The distinction between electoral politics and Badu's cultural politics is crucial. Without such a distinction, it may seem that, in stripping away conventionally recognized forms of politics, Badu also projects a vision that is paradoxically bereft of power. However, the power of government officials is necessarily of a different order than that which Badu symbolically seizes and redistributes. Power is not immutable; its meaning depends on context, and thus it changes as it changes hands. The power I am locating in "Window Seat" is precisely the power to redetermine where power is located. This means redetermining the forms that politics can take--revising conventional notions of what counts as political work, and who counts as a political subject who can do that work.

As is apparent from the recent Occupy protests, "everyday people" may indeed assume their own power to redefine the forms of politics. One way they may do this is by performatively proposing that the decision not to articulate a specific agenda constitutes a form of political "speech" in its own right. I have noted that the very act of making demands may enforce the petitioner's disenfranchisement by ratifying extant social hierarchies. It is also the case that the refusal to make demands can disrupt those hierarchies insofar as it marks a refusal to legitimate those in positions of formal political power. Moreover, as Angela Davis has recently pointed out, the protestors' claim to be "the 99%" reconfigures the traditional subjects of protest politics. Instead of a self-identified minority that petitions a majority for rights, here a self-identified majority challenges a group it linguistically figures as the minority, the mere 1%. 62 Resisting verbally articulated agendas and claiming majority representative status, the Occupy movement expands our sense of the forms that politics can take. Indeed, as Judith Butler has argued, it may even constitute a form of "ephemeral" politics whose staying power consists precisely in its potential for repetition or transposition: "Just because a form of politics seems to be ephemeral does not mean it cannot be repeated endlessly." 63

"Window Seat," of course, is a very different event than the Occupy movement--not least because, as I have stressed, its expressive mode is not protest. The point of the comparison is to concretize the claim that an event can expand our understanding of what qualifies as legitimate or meaningful political work. This is what "Window Seat" does. Further, if "Window Seat" expands on what counts as politics in a general sense, it also expands ideas within black cultural studies about the forms progressive cultural politics can take. Namely, Badu's claim to national citizenship offers a variation on Iton's notion of the "black fantastic," to which point I want to turn now. A key text in African American Studies, Iton's In Search of the Black Fantastic ascribes the persistent investment in black popular culture after 1965--a moment when long-overdue African American political representation might lead one to expect a diminished need for black cultural representation--to the fact that black popular artists continue to voice concerns and possibilities that formal politics seldom admits. 64 These concerns regard class, gender, and sexual difference within the "black community," as well as diasporic identifications that can destabilize the nation-state that is the locus of formal politics. This last point is especially important: while Iton focuses on U.S. art and politics, he stresses the potential of black popular culture to disrupt the "intrinsically antiblack" logic that founds and grounds national citizenship. 65

"Window Seat" exemplifies what Iton describes as the capacity of black popular culture to "[extend] the public... [through] transgressive interiorities." 66 However, what makes "Window Seat" particularly legible as cultural politics is Badu's decision to stage the video for this meditative, ambivalent song at a site of national significance; to allude to the assassination of an American president; to juxtapose her critique of "groupthink" against a shot of the American flag; and to call the album on which this song appears New AmErykah. Rather than exposing Badu's investment in a national identity that she does not understand to be implicated in her triple marginalization as a black female artist, "Window Seat" opens up possibilities for considering "black fantastic" art that is as concerned with national identity as it is with other forms of affiliation. When Badu stages "Window Seat" in her hometown and uses her video to imaginatively seize and transform presidentialist power, she stakes a claim to national citizenship. It is her challenging claim to that citizenship, however troubled that status or insufficient its returns, that makes Badu a black fantastic artist who is also what Ralph Ellison called a "vindictively American" one. 67 A "vindictively American" stance does not idealize U.S. citizenship. But neither does it see that citizenship as utterly compromised by its origins in racial capitalism, any more than Ellison or Badu would see modern African American identity as entirely compromised by its genesis in the slave trade. If the forms of politics and power can change, as "Window Seat" implies they can, then so too can the meaning of the nation itself.

Taking seriously Badu's relationship to the nation and to executive leadership in particular also gives us a way of reading the work of other envelope-pushing black female pop stars of the moment such as Janelle Monáe, Beyoncé, and Nicki Minaj. 68 Like Badu, these artists are "extending the public" through "transgressive interiorities," although they are currently staging their outsized visions of possibility in imagined or generic spaces: in the asylum-turned-dance club of Monáe's "Tightrope" (2010); the hallucinogenic studio set of Minaj's "Super Bass" (2011); the desert landscape of Beyoncé's "Run the World (Girls)" (2011). I am not suggesting that each of these artists offers a wholly progressive vision. Nor am I claiming that the Obama administration is a cause of these cultural productions. Instead, I am contending that the status of the spectacle of these black female performers can be read differently against the backdrop of this administration. For example, in the face of complacent and paternalistic claims that black Americans of the Obama era have "arrived," we might see these artists as reimagining fantastic forms of black female mobility. We might also consider how Michelle Obama's own hypervisible "representative" status may be opening new possibilities for black female artists by diminishing their burden of representing black womanhood, including the more specific onus of "reading as" African American: witness Rihanna's new emphasis on her Caribbean heritage, as well as the shape-shifting identity performances of Indian/Afro-Trinidadian Minaj. In short, while the impulse to read every contemporary cultural phenomenon through the lens of the Obama presidency is one worth checking, his presidency does offer cultural critics a fascinating new context against which to apprehend black female artists' projective visions.

At the same time, Badu's own performance of power through emotional, physical, and sexual vulnerability in "Window Seat" distinguishes this work from the video productions--as opposed to the vocal performances--of other contemporary black female artists I have cited. Videos by Beyoncé, Monáe, Minaj, and Rihanna clearly exploit the capital of the "big three" U.S. recording companies that distribute these artists' music. 69 Badu, while she is no less "connected" to the industry, has generally favored a much lower-budget aesthetic. 70 "Window Seat," of course, is a do-it-yourself affair. In her similarly modest video for "Out My Mind Just in Time" (2011), Badu performs a floor-based modern dance in the shadows before a disorienting camera that moves as she moves. Compared with the videos of her contemporaries, Badu's recent works are disarmingly down to earth. This visual aesthetic more closely aligns Badu with her (pre-video) soul counterparts, whose power was often ascribed to their performance of "raw" emotion or human vulnerability: Nina Simone, James Brown, Mavis Staples, Marvin Gaye. Unlike these artists, all of whom lent voices of protest to the civil rights movement, Badu reserves the power not to protest, although she too is committed to projecting alternative possibilities for national and global belonging. In "Window Seat," Badu's work takes up James Brown's 1969 declaration--"I don't want nobody to give me nothing. But open up the door, and I'll get it myself"--except that Badu imagines the door is already open.

Setting Badu on a continuum with such artistic predecessors, we might see her work as less revolutionary than retro-evolutionary. This concept describes the closing vision of her "evolved" self in the video. Risen and smiling, body covered by long braids and face fringed with bright beads, Badu walks toward the camera and out of its frame like a specter of the 60s. 71 As Marlo David points out, the term "neo-soul" itself signals a movement both forward and back: "Neo-soul is new--innovative, different, unique--but also rooted in the black 'soul' aesthetic of the recent past." The "black 'soul' aesthetic," if it means anything to "Window Seat," means a sustained commitment to asking how black power might now be performed in the age of Obama. I have argued that Badu answers this question by generating a new form of projective politics that imagines the power one wants is already hers to seize and redistribute. Such a politics is crucial because, as Robin Kelley reminds us, "unless we have the space to imagine and a vision of what it means fully to realize our humanity, all the protests and demonstrations in the world won't bring about our liberation." 72

Given this retro-evolutionary continuum, it seems fitting that the first word of "Window Seat" is "so," a word that both takes up and extends a prior conversation. In the first line of "Window Seat," it functions both as a casual in medias res introduction and, in its next iteration, as an intensifier: "So, presently I'm standing here right now you're so demanding." 73 The first "so" orients one in time; the next intensifies a condition of being in it. Badu's unusual octave jump from the initial "so" up to the word "presently" also asks us to consider what it means to be intensely in time. By leaping to the "pres" and descending the scale on the rest of the word, Badu accents the first syllable of "presently." This bends the word "present," accenting its beginning, stressing present as mere prelude. As Nathaniel Mackey has suggested with regard to jazz improvisation, the song "[insists] that the given is only a beginning." 74 By repurposing the music video to redistribute her own cultural power, Badu affirms visionary possibilities that Obama cannot fulfill and that she herself cannot predict. This is what it means to be an artist working at the edge of the present.

Emily Lordi is an assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her book-in-progress (Rutgers University Press) re-examines the work of African American writers such as Richard Wright and Nikki Giovanni through their engagements with the material practices of black female vocalists like Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin. Her next book will be a cultural history of the concept of "soul." She adds in acknowledgment: Special thanks to Courtney Thorsson, Anthony Reed, Amy Hungerford, and the reader at Post45.

Works Cited

Badu, Erykah. "Window Seat." New AmErykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh. Universal/Motown, 2010.

_____. "Window Seat: A Story by Erykah Badu." Dir. Erykah Badu; Co-dir. Coodie & Chike; Prod. Kareem Johnson. Creative Control, 2010. "Badu in the buff: New music video makes waves." The Grio, March 30, 2010. http://www.thegrio.com/entertainment/badu-in-the-buff-new-music-video-makes-waves.php.

Baldwin, James. "Everybody's Protest Novel." 1949. Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984. 13-23.

Brooks, Daphne. "'All That You Can't Leave Behind': Black Female Soul Singing and the Politics of Surrogation in the Age of Catastrophe." Meridians 8.1 (2007): 180-204.

Butler, Judith. "Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street." Lecture at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, November 17, 2011.

David, Marlo. "Afrofuturism and Post-Soul Possibility in Black Popular Music." African American Review 41.4 (Winter 2007): 695-707.

Davis, Angela. "The 99%: A Community of Resistance." The Guardian, November 15, 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/nov/15/99-percent-community-resistance.

Dombal, Ryan. "Director's Cut: Matt and Kim's 'Lessons Learned.'" Pitchfork, April 30, 2009. http://pitchfork.com/news/35215-directors-cut-matt-and-kims-lessons-learned.

Duke, Alan. "Police: No Complaints about Erykah Badu's Nude Walk." Los Angeles Wave, March 29, 2010. http://www.wavenewspapers.com/entertainment/89378802.html.

Edwards, Erica R. "The Aesthetics of Charisma in the New 'King'dom." New Black Magazine, January 23, 2008. http://www.thenewblackmagazine.com/view.aspx?index=1174.

_____. "Gendered Violence in Black Leadership's Gothic Tale." Callaloo 31.4 (Fall 2008): 1084-1102. Eliscu, Jenny. "The Soul and Science of Erykah Badu." Rolling Stone. April 15, 2010 (Issue 1102): 50-53.

Graham, Maryemma, and Amritjit Singh, eds. Conversations with Ralph Ellison. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.

Hardt, Michael. "The Militancy of Theory." The South Atlantic Quarterly 110:1 (Winter 2011): 19-35.

Harvilla, Rob. "Erykah Badu." Houston Press, June 9, 2010. http://www.houstonpress.com/2010-06-10/music/erykah-badu.

Healy, Gene. The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power. Washington, D. C.: Cato Institute, 2008.

Hilliard, Chloé. "Arts and Craft." Vibe, June/July 2010. http://www.vibe.com/content/erykah-badu-junejuly-cover-story.

Huak, Hunter. "Badu speaks out about 'Window Seat' video." Dallas News, March 20, 2010. http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/ent/stories/0330quickbadu.1f733ed77.html

Iton, Richard. In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics & Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Kelley, Robin D. G. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Boston: Beacon Press, 2002. Kennedy, John F. "Report to the American People on Civil Rights." Washington, D.C. 11 June 1963.

King, Jason. "When Autobiography Becomes Soul: Erykah Badu and the Cultural Politics of Black Feminism." Women & Performance 10.1-2 (1999): 211-243.

Kreps, Daniel. "Erykah Badu's 'Window Seat' Video Inspired by Matt & Kim, Kennedy Assassination." Rolling Stone, March 29, 2010. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/erykah-badus-window-seat-video-inspired-by-matt-kim-kennedy-assassination-20100329.

Lewis, Miles Marshall. Review of Baduizm, by Erykah Badu. Rolling Stone, January 30, 1997. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/baduizm-19970130.

Mackey, Nathaniel. Paracritical Hinge: Essays, Talks, Notes, Interviews. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005.

Matt and Kim. "Lessons Learned." Dir. Taylor Cohen and Otto Arsenault. Fvmmo Films, 2009.

McCann, Sean. A Pinnacle of Feeling: American Literature and Presidential Government. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

Morone, James. The Democratic Wish: Popular Participation and the Limits of American Government. 1990. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Nagourney, Adam. "Obama Elected President as Racial Barrier Falls." New York Times, November 4, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/05/us/politics/05elect.html.

Neal, Larry. "The Black Arts Movement." 1968. In The Black Aesthetic, ed. Addison Gayle, Jr. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1972: 257-274.

Neal, Mark Anthony. Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Nelson, Dana. Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Obama, Barack. Acceptance speech at Democratic National Convention. Denver, CO, August 28, 2008.

_____. "A More Perfect Union." Philadelphia, PA, March 18, 2008.

_____. Inaugural Address. Washington, D.C., January 20, 2009.

Petridis, Alexis. Review of New AmErykah Part Two by Erykah Badu. The Guardian, April 1, 2010. http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/apr/01/erykah-badu-new-amerykah-part-two.

Ryzik, Melena. "The Mind of a One-Woman Multitude." New York Times, March 2, 2008, Arts and Leisure section, 1.

Tate, Greg. "GT's FB Window Seat Thread." Coon Bidness 1 (2010): 7-8. Texas Penal Code, Title 9 ("Offenses Against Public Order and Decency"), Chapter 42 ("Disorderly Conduct and Related Offenses"). http://www.statutes.legis.state.tx.us/docs/PE/htm/PE.42.htm.

Tucker, Ken. "Erykah Badu explains her notorious music video on 'The Wanda Sykes Show.'" Entertainment Weekly, April 4, 2010. http://watching-tv.ew.com/2010/04/04/erykah-badu-wanda-sykes.

Erykah Badu at the 2009 JazzReggae Festival at UCLA.


  1. #1 The video's opening credits cite Matt and Kim, the white indie-rock duo whose 2009 video inspired Badu's own. In their video for the song "Lessons Learned," Matt and Kim strip while walking through Times Square and then pause on a street corner and ostensibly wait for the police to come arrest them. The cops come, the musicians escape, and Kim disappears into/is hit by a bus.[]
  2. #2 The term "groupthink" was coined by William Whyte in a 1952 article in Fortune magazine. Whyte was particularly concerned that the homogenized thought fostered by American corporate culture would impede capitalist innovation. Subsequent theorists such as psychologist Irving Janis would consider the social consequences of groupthink and later, its benefits as a mode of consensus building. Badu herself has defined groupthink as "the unwritten rule that I will not express my true opinion if it opposes those I love and fear" (qtd. in "Badu in the buff: New music video makes waves," The Grio, March 30, 2010).[]
  3. #3 The production of the "Window Seat" video reflects the apparent disconnect between the song and the film. The recorded song runs for almost five minutes, while Badu's walk through the Plaza took less than two. The playback of the video had to be slowed down considerably to synch them up, resulting in a semi-slow motion video that looks eerie and dreamlike. (Cf. Chloé Hilliard, "Arts and Craft," Vibe, June/July 2010.) Despite the seemingly uneasy fit between song and video, I treat them as reciprocally illuminating texts. We might think of the interdependence between sound and sight in terms of Badu's album title: although we hear "America," we need to see how Badu spells "AmErykah" to get the pun. With regard to the song and the video, the militarized "rat-tat-tat" drum beat with which the song begins acquires an ominous resonance when paired with a video that ends with a gunshot.[]
  4. #4 Richard Iton, In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 16.[]
  5. #5 Ibid. Iton in fact suggests that "there is an autodiasporic dimension to all cultural expressions, given their resistance to simply reproducing national frames" (258).[]
  6. #6 Badu released one other video between Obama's election and "Window Seat": she released "Jump Up in the Air and Stay There" (feat. Lil Wayne) on her website on February 12, 2010. The single was not included on New AmErykah Part Two.[]
  7. #7 Important exceptions include Jason King's "When Autobiography Becomes Soul: Erykah Badu and the Cultural Politics of Black Feminism," Women & Performance 10.1-2 (1999): 211-243, and Marlo David's "Afrofuturism and Post-Soul Possibility in Black Popular Music," African American Review 41.4 (Winter 2007): 695-707. King argues that Badu fruitfully "redirect[s] familiar traditions of black female autobiography" (212), but also "discursively reproduce[s] structures of heteronormativity and patriarchy" (236). David argues that "Badu articulates the generative function of neo-soul identity in the post-soul" by performing "in the gaps between essentialized blackness and post-soul possibility to project forward into future blackness" (705).[]
  8. #8 Throughout this essay, I use the term "presidentialist," instead of the more common "presidential," to refer to the mythic power ascribed to the modern American president. I draw this term from Dana Nelson's analysis of "presidentialism," as I explain in what follows.[]
  9. #9 The phrase "freedom dreams" alludes to Robin D. G. Kelley's invaluable Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002).[]
  10. #10 Miles Marshall Lewis, Review of Baduizm, by Erykah Badu, Rolling Stone, January 30, 1997.[]
  11. #11 Melena Ryzik, "The Mind of a One-Woman Multitude," New York Times, March 2, 2008, Arts and Leisure section, 1.[]
  12. #12 Alexis Petridis, Review of New AmErykah Part Two, by Erykah Badu, The Guardian, April 1, 2010.[]
  13. #13 Qtd. in Ryzik, "The Mind of a One-Woman Multitude."[]
  14. #14 Ibid.[]
  15. #15 Rob Harvilla, "Erykah Badu," Houston Press, June 9, 2010.[]
  16. #16 Petridis, Review of New AmErykah Part Two.[]
  17. #17 Cf., e.g., Harvilla, "Erykah Badu."[]
  18. #18 Hunter Huak, "Badu speaks out about 'Window Seat' video," Dallas News, March 20, 2010.[]
  19. #19 The phrase is Badu's, cf. Huak, "Badu speaks out."[]
  20. #20 As Badu told host Wanda Sykes, "My point was grossly misunderstood all over America. JFK is one of my heroes, one of the nation's heroes. [Kennedy] was a revolutionary; he was not afraid to butt heads with America, and I was not afraid to show America my butt-naked truth" (Qtd. in Ken Tucker, "Erykah Badu explains her notorious music video on 'The Wanda Sykes Show,'" Entertainment Weekly, April 4, 2010. What is fascinating about this exchange is how Badu slips out of the discursive structure of accusation and self-defense. While it seems that Badu is going to counter the charge of unpatriotism by asserting reverent citizenship, her joke subverts the dialectic altogether. I am suggesting that this evasion of agonistic discourse is central to Badu's project in "Window Seat."[]
  21. #21 Gene Healy, The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power (Washington, D. C.: Cato Institute, 2008).[]
  22. #22 Dana Nelson, Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 5.[]
  23. #23 Qtd. in Ibid., 66.[]
  24. #24 Sean McCann, A Pinnacle of Feeling: American Literature and Presidential Government (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 94.[]
  25. #25 Ibid., 144.[]
  26. #26 Barack Obama, "A More Perfect Union," Philadelphia, PA, March 18, 2008. [Full text.][]
  27. #27 McCann, A Pinnacle of Feeling, x-xi.[]
  28. #28 Ibid., 182.[]
  29. #29 Ibid., xii.[]
  30. #30 Iton, In Search of the Black Fantastic, 291.[]
  31. #31 Kelley, Freedom Dreams, 6.[]
  32. #32 James Baldwin, "Everybody's Protest Novel" (1949), Notes of a Native Son (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984), 13-23.[]
  33. #33 See Larry Neal, "The Black Arts Movement" (1968), in The Black Aesthetic, ed. Addison Gayle, Jr. (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1972), 257-274.[]
  34. #34 John F. Kennedy, "Report to the American People on Civil Rights," Washington, D.C., June 11, 1963. [Full text.][]
  35. #35 Ryzik, "Mind of a One-Woman Multitude."[]
  36. #36 In keeping with the distinction between petition and projection I want to make here, we might recognize that the black vernacular makes "Can I get a witness" less tentative than performative: it signals an expectation that what is requested will be received.[]
  37. #37 Thanks to all the respondents of my informal facebook poll for providing examples of pop songs that feature indirect speech.[]
  38. #38 Greg Tate, Facebook "Window Seat" thread, March, 2010. The book to which Tate refers is Black Venus 2010: They Called Her "Hottentot," ed. Deborah Willis (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010). Tate has published some of this thread as "GT's FB Window Seat Thread," Coon Bidness 1 (2010): 7-8.[]
  39. #39 Nelson, Bad for Democracy, 56.[]
  40. #40 Mark Anthony Neal, Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic (New York: Routledge, 2002), 156. Neal discusses the problems that "plus-sized" female vocalists such as Jill Scott and Martha Wash have faced in the music video industry, 161-2.[]
  41. #41 Qtd. in Hilliard, "Arts and Craft."[]
  42. #42 Ibid. This past summer, Badu released a video that combined a remixed version of "Window Seat" (featuring Rick Ross) and the song "Turn Me Away (Get MuNNY)." This video seems designed to expose an economy of representation in which "Window Seat" is considered scandalous, while music videos objectifying women and glorifying violence are not. The new video begins with a newscaster's account of "Erykah Badu's controversial performance" in Dealey Plaza. "Days later," according to the intertitle, Rick Ross picks Badu up from jail; she is still wearing the long beaded wig she wears at the end of "Window Seat," and is now clothed in an oversized shirt. Badu changes into black leather pants and stilettos as they drive to a Check Cashing store to the tune of "Get MuNNY." They cover their faces with nylon, exit the car, and walk off camera, at which point two gunshots sound and leave the story "to be continued." The video did not generate controversy.[]
  43. #43 A commenter on the Texas code on indecent exposure represents this line of argument: "What about the children who were forced to see Erica Badu [sic] on the street bearing all [sic]? What about the parents' rights to protect their children from vulgar behavior?" ('Teri,' in Comments, March 31, 2010, 1:13 PM).[]
  44. #44 Given Badu's violation of unwritten codes regarding whose bodies deserve to be seen in popular music videos and how those bodies should be staged, it is fitting that the charge of disorderly conduct would arise not from Badu's act of disrobing in public but from the video that documented it. According to Dallas police corporal Janice Crowther, because no witness called to report the incident in time for the police to "[catch] Ms. Badu in the act" of stripping, the court could not charge her with indecent exposure. (Crowther is quoted in Alan Duke, "Police: No Complaints about Erykah Badu's Nude Walk," Los Angeles Wave, March 29, 2010.) []
  45. #45 Hardt, "The Militancy of Theory," The South Atlantic Quarterly 110:1 (Winter 2011), 30.[]
  46. #46 Ibid., 33.[]
  47. #47 Texas Penal Code, Title 9 ("Offenses Against Public Order and Decency"), Chapter 42 ("Disorderly Conduct and Related Offenses), item 10.[]
  48. #48 Erykah Badu, Twitter status, March 27, 2010, http://twitter.com/#!/fatbellybella/status/11167202903.[]
  49. #49 Qtd. in Ryan Dombal, "Director's Cut: Matt and Kim's 'Lessons Learned,'" Pitchfork, April 30, 2009, http://pitchfork.com/news/35215-directors-cut-matt-and-kims-lessons-learned.[]
  50. #50 Matt and Kim's experience with the NYPD constitutes another significant difference between their project and Badu's. According to Kim Schifino, "The most successful part of the day was that nobody got arrested. We just kept saying we were doing a mayonnaise commercial." (Her co-director Taylor Cohen explains, "There's nothing less sexy than mayonnaise.") As Cohen states, "While we were shooting we were just like, 'We got permits!' and most of the cops backed off... If we just wrote 'Yes, I have a permit' on a napkin, that probably would've been OK... After the take, one cop was genuinely concerned. He was like, 'Did I mess up the shot?'..." (Ibid.) []
  51. #51 Qtd. in Daniel Kreps, "Erykah Badu's 'Window Seat' Video Inspired by Matt & Kim, Kennedy Assassination," Rolling Stone, March 29, 2010.[]
  52. #52 Hardt, "The Militancy of Theory," 33.[]
  53. #53 See Erica Edwards, "The Aesthetics of Charisma in the New 'King'dom," New Black Magazine, January 23, 2008; "Gendered Violence in Black Leadership's Gothic Tale," Callaloo 31.4 (Fall 2008): 1084-1102. I look forward to Edwards's Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership (forthcoming, University of Minnesota Press).[]
  54. #54 I refer to King's last sermon, delivered in Memphis, Tennessee, the night before his assassination of April 4, 1968. King closes the speech by stating, "I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land."[]
  55. #55 Obama's victory speech is quoted in Adam Nagourney, "Obama Elected President as Racial Barrier Falls," New York Times, November 4, 2008.[]
  56. #56 Ibid.[]
  57. #57 Iton, Black Fantastic, 290.[]
  58. #58 Qtd. in Jenny Eliscu, "The Soul and Science of Erykah Badu," Rolling Stone, April 2010 (Issue 1102): 50-53.[]
  59. #59 Obama, acceptance speech at Democratic National Convention, Denver, CO, August 28, 2008. [Full text.][]
  60. #60 James Morone, The Democratic Wish: Popular Participation and the Limits of American Government (1990; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 5.[]
  61. #61 Obama, Inaugural Address, Washington, D.C., January 20, 2009. [Full text.][]
  62. #62 Angela Davis, "The 99%: A Community of Resistance," The Guardian, November 15, 2011.[]
  63. #63 Butler, "Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street" (lecture, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, November 17, 2011). Butler's comments more generally inform my reflections here.[]
  64. #64 Iton, Black Fantastic, 4-6.[]
  65. #65 Ibid., 197.[]
  66. #66 Ibid., 287.[]
  67. #67 The phrase comes from Ellison's 1958 letter to Time magazine qtd. in Conversations with Ralph Ellison, ed. Maryemma Graham and Amritjit Singh (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995), 65.[]
  68. #68 For an extraordinary analysis of Beyoncé's work, especially her 2006 album B'Day, see Daphne Brooks, "'All That You Can't Leave Behind': Black Female Soul Singing and the Politics of Surrogation in the Age of Catastrophe," Meridians 8.1 (2007): 180-204.[]
  69. #69 Beyoncé's present label is Columbia, which is owned by Sony Music Entertainment. Monáe's label, Bad Boy Records, is manufactured and distributed by Atlantic, a subsidiary of Warner Music Group. Minaj's label, Young Money Entertainment, is distributed by Universal Republic Records, which is owned by Universal Music Group. Rihanna's label, Def Jam, as well as Badu's label, Universal Motown, are also owned by UMG.[]
  70. #70 Even Monáe's modest video for "Cold War" (2010), which departs from her elaborately beautiful visions of robotic futurity, is more obviously stylized than Badu's recent work.[]
  71. #71 I owe this idea to composer/pianist/scholar Courtney Bryan--cf. Greg Tate's "Window Seat" facebook thread.[]
  72. #72 Kelley, Freedom Dreams, 198.[]
  73. #73 In a parallel verse, Badu uses the introductory "so" as an intensifier: "So out my mind I'm rockin back and forth like Lightnin Hopkins..."[]
  74. #74 Nathaniel Mackey, Paracritical Hinge: Essays, Talks, Notes, Interviews (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), 9.[]