The music video for “Lessons Learned” by Matt & Kim shows how rewarding the act of asserting your individuality can be. In a spontaneous single-take video shot in Times Square, the couple strips naked in front of tourists and cops before Kim runs into the street and gets hit by a bus. The video has elements of criticism towards the hostility against individualism, but it shies away from any sort of socio-political debate. Instead, it focuses on how good it can feel to assert your independence while still acknowledging the importance of community.
In this post, I discuss the music video for “Window Seat” by Erykah Badu and how it pushes the themes of individuality presented in “Lessons Learned” towards a sincere social commentary.
Analysis II: “Window Seat” by Erykah Badu
“Window Seat” is off Erykah Badu’s fifth studio album, New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, released on March 30, 2010. The single was greeted with critical success, as was the album. The music video, which was directed by Coodie and Chike, premiered several days before the album. It quickly gained significant attention, though mixed reactions. Although many of her fans praised it, the public nudity prompted a backlash and even resulted in charges of disorderly conduct. She pled not guilty but ultimately had to pay a $500 fine and serve six months of probation. Badu got the last laugh, though, because the retaliation actually strengthened her message.
“Window Seat” begins with a direct acknowledgment of Matt & Kim’s video with a title card. At first glance, Badu’s video is almost identical to “Lessons Learned”. It’s done in one take with a single handheld camera in a public place, and also uses slow motion. Badu strips as she walks and dies at the end just like Kim. What sets her video apart is the historic connection to the location, her death at the end, and how the video relates to her lyrics.
Badu chose Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas to shoot the music video. This was the location of the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Badu uses this historical context to infuse a new layer of meaning into her work.
She begins the video with an audio clip of an announcer describing JFK’s journey through the plaza moments before he’s killed. The recording is played as she parks a 1965 Lincoln Continental, a newer model of the car JFK was assassinated in. She likens herself to the president because he is one of the most well-known figures to be murdered for the beliefs he held. His progressive views were not shared by a significant portion of the United States at the time and his Roman Catholic upbringing made him even more of an outlier. JFK was a true individual who stood up for what he believed in and it is sometimes suggested that his assassination was the inevitable conclusion to his independence by those who view him as a martyr. This is the issue that Erykah Badu tackles in the “Window Seat” music video.
Whereas Matt & Kim’s video was a celebration of individuality, Erykah Badu’s video is a critique of the opposite of individuality, what she calls groupthink. Groupthink occurs when the practice of thinking or decision-making is done by a group rather than an individual. It discourages and punishes creativity and individuality. It is not only dangerous to those who want to think for themselves but is also detrimental to the group itself because it leads to close-minded and irrational decisions.
So, while Matt & Kim and Erykah Badu may be performing the same actions, the tone is starkly different. Erykah Badu is determined and serious, but also frightened, while she undresses. She is asserting her individuality by taking her clothes off, but the focus is mainly on the tension between the individual and the group. This means that the bystanders as well as all the people who viewed the video are implicated in the video’s critique as well. This is solidified when, in the outro, she says,
“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 feel most comfortable in groups, less guilt to swallow. They are us. This is what we have become. Afraid to respect the individual. A single person within a circumstance can move one to change. To love herself. To evolve.”
She says that we have all become part of the collective groupthink and that anyone who views her act of expression as immoral is part of the problem. This is why she acts as though she is shot at the end of the video; it is a representation of the inevitable conclusion when someone tries to stray from the group. They try to undermine you, discredit you, and, like JFK, assassinate you.
By faking her assassination in the video she correctly predicts what her critics will try to do. This takes away the power these attacks would have had because she has already shown that they are programmed to do it. In other words, she suggests that only people suffering from groupthink would attack her, so that anyone who attacks her is immediately seen as suffering from groupthink. This delegitimizes their argument because anyone who watched the video before hearing them will be primed to assume these people have essentially been brainwashed to hate her actions and have no real basis for their argument.
This is a very powerful tool. In this case, Badu uses it to protect individuality and all the freedoms that come with it. However, it can also be used in an extremely detrimental way. Donald Trump uses this technique for personal gain with phrases such as “fake news” that preemptively negate his opponents’ criticisms. It’s a very destructive force in his hands. It all depends on how and why you use it.
The word “groupthink” is written in her blue blood after she falls to the ground. The word was inside her head and escapes once she is shot. This signifies that she had to die and be reborn to escape it. The death represents the relinquishment of groupthink, which can be seen as closely connected to ego death. This message is strengthened in the final moment when she is alive again, walking towards the camera with a huge smile on her face. She is finally able to be her true self without fear of judgment, and her expression shows a weight lifted off of her.
The end of the video is a call to action to the viewer. She shows them how scary it can be to express who you are and that you will be met with resistance that could escalate to a form of assassination, either figuratively or literally. Yet she also shows through her rebirth that with high risk comes high reward and that you can never truly be yourself until you strip off the expectations others have of you.
The only time she acknowledges the camera is in the last several seconds as she walks towards it. She is finally able to return the gaze of those watching her. More importantly, it’s a welcoming gaze that invites the viewer to take the same journey she did.
In the music video for “Window Seat”, Erykah Badu criticizes groupthink and how it stifles individuality. The video succeeded in eliciting reactionary responses. Rather than undermining her message, these responses solidified her point that people will always attack those who try to assert their independence. Her rebirth depicts exactly this; although they tried to assassinate her character, this process strengthened her and she arose more alive than ever. She uses this final moment to invite the viewer to break free and assert their independence as well.
Be sure to come back next week for the final installment of the series! I will look at the video for “Balenciaga” by Princess Nokia and how it neatly wraps up the trilogy of individuality-themed videos.
Originally published at https://colinhodgson.com on October 1, 2020.