Erykah Badu at the Granada in January.
Erykah Badu at the Granada in January.
Mike Brooks

What Erykah and Wayne Taught Us About Social Networking

As the dramatic tension of the Erykah Badu-Wayne Coyne Twitter "feud" escalated last week, I started thinking about the question of collaboration and consent. I spoke with Coyne on Wednesday, May 30 — the day he allegedly tweeted nude photos from the set of the video for "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," which has now been removed from most sites. He mentioned the video would be out on June 1.

He was pleasant and charming in conversation, but I did comment that his social media presence was almost voyeuristic. His reply:

"I'm doing it for our fans. They've given me this life. Our fans are musicians and artists. Seeing people do things is inspiring. Back in 1983, at the Black Flag show, we watched them unload, play, we talked to them, then they loaded up. It wasn't seeing them play. It was: How would they do it? So [Twitter] is just me saying: Here's what I'm doing. It's a relief to artists sometimes, that you can change your mind in the middle of a process. Have ideas, but ideas are thing sin your mind. It's what you do with them that matters."


Erykah Badu

But this isn't Coyne tweeting naked photos of his wife or the Flaming Lips' psychedelic vinyl; it's him telling a fellow artist: Calm down, you're overreacting. I believe psychologists call it gaslighting. Some said that because she'd been naked in "Window Seat," it shouldn't be a big deal. Some called Coyne out as a misogynist. Others winked and said they got the joke: This gaslighting was a genius marketing ploy. But it's what you do with ideas that matters.

So how should we feel about a naked woman in a bathtub full of glitter, blood and "semen"? Titillated? Disgusted? Would we be having the same feelings if it was Coyne fully naked? Which brought me to Badu's long response to Coyne last week:

"When asked what the concept meant after u explained it, u replied, 'it doesn't mean anything, I just want to make a great video that everyone is going to watch.' I understood, because as an artist we all desire that. But we don't all do it at another artist's expense, I attempted to resolve this respectfully by having conversations with u after the release but that too proved to be a poor excuse for art."

Badu has transformed her art. Each album, each project, each phase of her career has been a shade different from the one before. She's constantly changing with each tide, and after a 15-year recording career, right up to her current work with the Cannabinoids, she's managed to stay in control of her image and be creative on her terms.

So have the Flaming Lips, but have you been to a show recently? Or in the last five years? Their shtick has been the same. Sure, it's entertaining; it's an epic live show, one that is completely distracting and engulfing in a good way. Their shows satisfy our desire for spectacle, and, in a way, this feud is an extension of that.

What about the song in the video? This was the reason Coyne talked Badu into collaborating in the first place, and I had high hopes, because it's the most interesting thing the Lips have done in about a decade. But the resulting product, much like the video, seems half-baked. Perhaps once we all calm down, a finished product will emerge that changes the discussion.

Badu had a very measured discussion last week, asking her followers what they thought of the video, how it made them feel. One question stuck with me: What if it meant nothing?

Let's look beyond the are-they-or-aren't-they nature of the matter. These two are artists, yes, and they are performers. And while this whole flame war has certainly made us take the bait, whether we wanted to or not, more important, it's created discourse about the art itself.

We're the Greek chorus, chiming in on the action, and discussing this video in a completely different way because something subversive happened. We're living in an era when we can talk directly to the artists we admire, and possibly change the direction of the conversation.

Badu, back on June 3, wrote this, and it seems to pinpoint what's at the heart of the issue:

"The object of art is to invoke inspiration and create dialogue. To stimulate. Sometimes it can arouse hidden or upfront fears."

By the time you read this piece, hopefully the flames will have died down. Or maybe the two will finally reveal their intentions. But this isn't necessarily about Badu and Coyne. This whole feud leads to a bigger issue, in which the desire to make and control your art and the virtual need for feedback, discourse and gratification are becoming increasingly hard to separate.


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