Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Antoine Dodson’s Bold Speech as Found Text

Rather than dive into the controversy surrounding The Bed Intruder Song, I would like to start by examining the Gregory Brother’s iTune hit as a work of found art. The Gregory Brother’s have repeatedly selected text that is topical in order to create their music: the debate over health care, the regulation of cigarettes, the melting of the polar ice caps, to name a few. The fact that they find their lyrics by watching televised news programs gives me a clue as to the intent of their work.
Imagine a suburban working couple who, after running their kids from one activity to the next, plop down on the couch to watch the evening news. Images flit by their half-closed perception: corporate scandals, nuclear meltdown, drug busts, and rapes. Their level of retention is nil. Though the images create anxiety in them the emotional impact passes once the television is turned off.
We are increasingly inundated with images. The news has become symbolic, a simulated reality that has nothing to do with our daily lives. The television itself is a giant pacifier, a glowing lullaby that makes people drowsy before heading off to bed. As a result, television news reporting has lost its efficacy, its political import, its journalistic edge. Remember the boy who wasn’t in the balloon? What about Charlie Sheen’s goddesses and trolls? The average television watching American is on autopilot, the level of information piles up weekly, with no foreground or background to contextualize it. Our connections to the myriad events, the happenings in our world, get lost in a nonsensical heap.
While television in its early days brought the world closer to its viewer, I would argue that our jaded population now uses the television as a distancing mechanism. Many of us have replaced our subscriptions to the New York Times with TV Guide or YouTube. We have become comfortable with the dumbing down of important issues, the metamorphosis of crime into entertainment. I think of Jon Stewart’s satirical bite on The Daily Show, his claim that Fox News regularly twists information to fit a conservative agenda, the funny way he calls them “the meanest sorority in the world.” The GBs have taken to mocking our counterfeit news musically in their Auto Tune the News series. They question our state of mind: we either laugh at their work as satire or roll our eyes and say that it is meaningless drivel. Our state of perception, our understanding of the GB’s interpretation, dictates how we receive their work.
For found text to qualify as essay it needs to filter through a subjective process and be transmuted by the artist. Like Borges essayed in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” the post-modern idea of found text gives centrality to reader interpretation. Thus I ask myself, have the GBs created something innovative in their juxtaposition? Has their reading and manipulation of the text given it something new?
The format for the song is the local news frame: red and blue stripes displayed quasi-patriotically across the bottom of the screen. The anchor Elizabeth Gentle, Antoine Dodson, Kelly Dodson, and the GB’s as newscasters, flit on and off screen. A split ‘news’ frame shows one brother in dual capacities: on the left he is a serious-looking reporter in the studio, on the right he is a reporter on the street wearing a ridiculous white hat and white sunglasses. Antoine’s portion of the song ends with his voice echoing over the image of a silent and staring Elizabeth Gentle.
For those critics who say Dodson is the only character who is acting ridiculous or funny: an overly serious, piano-playing brother follows. In a farce of a blues singer, he croons like a fool while an advertisement is displayed across the screen, “Subscribe! day. cover? Original.” An arrow points at the word “original” while a talk-show host voice advises the viewer to click on the word, “Watch the original video here if you haven’t already seen it [the news segment] enough.” The implication is that we’ve all seen it enough, a million times over.
I admit that their technique is not subtle. What I like about the video is Antoine Dodson as he was in the original news segment. He is so charismatic, so angry, so witty and lyric, he overshadows the other characters. In the original footage, I can hear a song, a poem, in his speech. He draws out the vowels in certain lines, “hide your kids, hide your wife,” then rushes into a run-on, “and hide your husband because their raping everyone out here.” In front of the cameras he is savvy, he knows what he wishes to convey.
I understand the argument that his portrayal as a black man may be construed as negative, the suspicion that people may be laughing at him rather than with him. As a half Native American and half Chicano woman who grew up on a reservation in Arizona, I am not insensitive to issues of appropriation or instances of unfair stereotypes. I know what it means to have your culture appropriated, but it is important to remember that Dodson is not performing. He is being himself and I would argue that he has nothing to be ashamed of. The GBs are promoting him and he has made them money because he is so (fill in the blank). What is your response to Antoine Dodson?
The Bed Intruder Song controversy reminds me of two stories that made the national news in a suburb of St. Louis in 2009. The first story: a pizza-delivery man, Caucasian, kidnapped several boys and kept them against their will for several years. He was captured and convicted. The boys were freed. It shocked the middle-class community of Kirkwood: they had driven by his apartment on a regular basis. The second Kirkwood story: an irate African American homeowner who was a regular at local events went into a Kirkwood City Council meeting and shot a politician after years of aggravation over some government policy. Kirkwood was up in arms after the City Council shooting. Many people wrote editorials talking about their new distrust of African Americans in their community. Supposedly, the shooting felt like a betrayal of the good will they had shown local African American organizations.
No one, after the pizza man was arrested, professed a fear of pizza men in the aftermath. That is, while many professed a fear of black men in general after the shooting, no one associated the one pizza molester with a larger demographic. Why was one man viewed as an individual while the other was considered representative of an entire ethnic group? I understand the impulse but it hardly seems fair to Antoine Dodson. He should be allowed to act as an individual. It’s too heavy a load to bear, to always be an ambassador, an apologist, a representative for an entire group of people. Dodson has benefitted from this song. He should be allowed to operate independently, to be eloquently angry at the camera, to promise retribution to his sister’s attacker, and to enjoy his monetary success.
I believe that Antoine Dodson has star power, that he acted admirably, and that he has nothing to be embarrassed of regardless of what people might say. I am aware that his song went viral because it made people laugh yet I am uncomfortable, in fact I find it dangerous, to assume that the reason they are laughing is because they are prejudice. I am in control of my own subjective knowing, outside of that it seems important to assume the best in others until the worst is proven. To do otherwise is to undermine the possibility of civility among ethnic groups in the U.S. before any sort of conversation can get off the ground. Perhaps this is naive but I would rather be hopeful than cynical. It is not that I am blind. I just can't live my life always suspicious and defensive; it takes too much energy.
The only people I see who should be embarrassed are the newscasters who interviewed Dodson and claimed, right in front of him, that the humor in the piece had to do with people mocking him. Their suggestion that the song perpetuates stereotypes and makes fun is something they should think about in regard to their own 'entertainment' work. I’m not saying that The Bed Intruder Song deserves to win the Essay Prize this year. I’m not even saying that it is a song I would purchase. I am simply saying that I am happy that Antoine and his family have moved out of the projects as a result of his charisma, his innate musicality, his wit and energy. It’s a bummer that we the viewers have to project our race fears on him as an individual. I hope, as they say, that he laughs all the way to the bank.

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