Great moments in pop nudity: Erykah Badu, John & Yoko, Tori Amos and more
Erykah Badu did a brave thing/made a shrewd marketing decision when she stripped down to her pixillated altogether for her new "Window Seat" video. However, as the artiste would certainly freely admit, her self-exposure is hardly unprecedented. Badu herself credits Brooklyn indie sweethearts Matt & Kim for inspiring her video. She could have rolled a longer list at the beginning of her clip.
What are your favorite moments in provocative pop flesh-baring? I'm not talking about simple titillation, but about nakedness risked to make a point. Here are some that spring to my mind. Yes, I left out Prince. Tell me what else I should have mentioned. (Warning: Some linked images below might be considered NSFW, but as with Badu, it's all in the name of art!)
John & Yoko, "Two Virgins" album cover: The famous full-frontal shot of the Beatle and his life partner was taken at Ringo Starr's London flat, where the pair were temporarily living, in 1968. "We used the straightest, most unflattering picture just to show that we were human," Lennon later said. In 2001, one of the photos from the session was used in an Absolut vodka ad.
Carolee Schneemann, "Interior Scroll": Maybe it's a stretch to say that this 1975 performance piece, in which the groundbreaking feminist body artist pulled a thin roll full of writing from, yes, her interior, and read from it, is pop. But I think second-wave feminism was the original punk rock, so I'm including it.
Patti Smith, "Easter" album cover: A flimsy nightgown covers Smith's flesh in the Lynn Goldsmith photo on her 1978 album. But she exposes something far less frequently seen among celebrities: armpit hair. She later told Rolling Stone reporter Charles M. Young that she'd hoped to create a photograph that would sexually excite her, because "if I could do it as an experiment, then fifteen-year-old boys could do it, and that would make me very happy."
The Slits, "Cut" album cover: Loincloths. Mud. This exercise in modern primitivism proved both inspiring to young women exploring punk rock, and troubling in terms of race; this trio was made of of white women inspired by reggae, and the image was a bit, well, Tarzan-me-Jane. Still, prototypically gutsy.
Bow Wow Wow, "See Jungle!" album cover: This group, assembled by master pop illusionist Malcolm McLaren, is usually viewed as an exercise in exploitation -- and Exhibit A is the album cover of its debut, which featured a 14-year-old Annabella Lwin posing nude in a re-creation of Manet's painting "Le déjeuner sur l'herbe." Politically suspect or not, the image of the Anglo-Burmese teen in the place of the original's ivory-white model says a lot about race, femininity and exoticism in the land of Empire.
Madonna, "Sex": Where to start (or stop!) with Madonna? I could cite the cone bras on the "Blonde Ambition" tour, the countless provocative videos, or even her middle-aged smooch with Britney Spears. Yet nothing beats this 1992 coffee-table tome that featured Madge in every taboo-breaking pose she could think of, from interracial couplings with Big Daddy Kane to girl-on-girl bondage action, to one memorable shot of her hitchhiking in flagrante (hilariously re-created by Village Voice maestro Michael Musto here).
Riot Grrrl: The mid-1990s was an amazing time for women setting the rock club on fire. Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, performing with "SLUT" scrawled across her stomach; Courtney Love putting her leg up on the monitor to show off her (sometimes, lack of) undies; Lynn Breedlove of the queer punk band Tribe 8 in leather pants and no shirt, with a sex toy strapped to her privates. This was sex as confrontation, full stop, and it sure caused a ruckus.
Tori Amos, piglet suckling photograph, "Boys for Pele": My partner in writing the book "Piece by Piece" has always been a daring and honest adventurer at the borders of sex and the psyche, so it was no surprise that she went where few had gone before, posing for a photograph by Cindy Palmano of her breast-feeding a young pig. Talk about raising questions about what it means to be a "natural woman."
Rage Against the Machine, PMRC Protest: At Lollapalooza 1993 in Philadelphia, alt-rock's favorite politicos caused a stir by standing onstage for nearly 15 minutes, naked except for duct tape on their mouths and the letters "PMRC" scrawled across their chests, while feedback buzzed. The protest succeeded in bringing further attention to the censorship efforts of such groups as the Tipper Gore-headed Parents Music Resource Center. It was the clearly purposeful version of what the Red Hot Chili Peppers did with those socks.
Janet Jackson's Rolling Stone magazine cover: One of the sad things about the whole "wardrobe malfunction" episode at the 2004 Superbowl was that Ms. Jackson-if-you're-nasty had been more subtly pushing the limits of sexual expression for years before that. The Herb Ritts photograph of Jackson topless with the hands of her then-partner, René Elizondo, covering her breast said a lot about intimacy and the particular risks a mainstream pop star takes, exposing herself.
In recent years, nudity hasn't caused the stir it did in the past. I can't think of any examples from the 2000s that resonate as strongly as the ones cited above. Of course, there's D'Angelo's "How Does it Feel?" video, but that's 10 years ago now! What am I forgetting?
-- Ann Powers
Top photo: Screenshot of Badu's "Window Seat" video. Credit: www.erykahbadu.com/
Middle photo: Smith's "Easter." Credit: Arista
Bottom photo: Screenshot of the CD booklet for Amos' "Boys for Pele." Credit: Cindy Palmano