During the BET awards last month, an enthusiastic Antoine Dodson briefly assumed control of the stage and gave a rousing rendition of his famous single, “The Bed Intruder Song.” Dodson’s glee was apparent from his vivacious grin, and his energy incited cheers and applause from the crowd. Dodson bore his signature handkerchief, similar to the one he wore the day he first made the news. As he grooved to the autotuned vibe provided by a member of the Gregory Brothers—important actors in his meteoric rise to stardom— members of the crowd, which featured revered rappers, actors and entertainers, joined in song and dance. The poignant moment ended after Michael Gregory, perhaps the only white person at the award ceremony, awkwardly introduced his own vocals, after which the two exited the stage to a wave of adulation. The host seemed to articulate the sentiment of the crowd when he added: “For real, I know that was messed up, but they were able to buy their momma a house and get them out the projects with that song.”
Dodson’s immense stardom started less than auspiciously. Indeed, it was a heinous crime that served as the launching board of his fame; the crime, covered by a local news outlet, turned into a viral video and spread accordingly. But to understand the event in full, a quick survey of the origin video might prove useful. The news broadcast begins with two news commentators somberly describing the incident before switching our focus to the victim herself, Kelly Dodson. But the audacious Kelly Dodson doesn’t cower, she snarls instead: “I was attacked by some idiot in the projects,” she begins (before the news program cuts her off). The program continues by featuring evidence of a struggle, which the newscaster describes with journalistic objectivity. We see glimpses of broken wood and shattered glass, clearly the remnants of domestic intrusion.
But then the tension ebbs as the camera introduces Antoine Dodson, who has since eclipsed his sister as the star of the video and the protagonist of the event. He begins, almost with a sense of irony, to warn viewers of a rapist, imploring them to take necessary precautions: hide their kids, hide their wives and their husbands, too. The news resumes, showing images of a forensic squad, who meticulously scan the area and seek to retrieve fingerprints and evidence. The newscaster explains that the culprit has left something behind, allowing Dodson, whose footage has been spliced into the video, to rebuke the attacker over the air by advertising the t-shirt and fingerprints the police now have. After more investigative forensic work, Dodson reappears and warns the culprit that he will be caught, and that he needn’t even confess.
Then enter the Gregory Brothers, a popular band of digital music pranksters who create irresistibly catchy tunes by manipulating news clips; these audio anomalies comprise their “Autotune the News” Youtube series. Deriving inspiration from T-Pain and Lil’ Wayne, they distort vocals from television broadcasts, many of which are posted on YouTube, to create an ethereal and alluring—if sometimes annoying—pitch, lacing the track with an electronic and hip-hop beat. Although it is easily their most famous, the so-called “Bed Intruder Song” is by no means their first project, and their songs do occasionally chart on iTunes.
By my last count, the “Bed Intruder Song” has over 33 million views, which is only likely to increase. The comedic clip closely follows the sequence of the news report, with Dodson’s warning to the audience serving as the chorus: “He’s climbing in your windows, snatching yo’ people up, trying to rape them . . .” But the Gregory Brothers have now superimposed themselves onto the video for comedic effect. We’ve seen this gimmick before: one of the band members dons a goofy, racialized outfit (oversized sunglasses and a baseball cap) while dancing and gesticulating. This type of ludicrousness, a brief clash between or inversion of racial niches, is well established. Dancing grandmothers, white rappers, and even black people in suburbia; the interracial fulfillment of social roles is a phenomenon that America enjoys, and craves.
If you search “Bed Intruder Song” on YouTube, you will quickly encounter more than just the original version; the past few months have seen a surge of covers. There are multiple acoustic versions, one of which features a shamisen (Japanese stringed instrument), an apropos rapping grandmother with autotune, and even a collegiate marching band. The Gregory Brothers have created a venerable Internet meme with a slew of imitators to prove it. And Dodson has financially benefited; he has accumulated enough money to move his family out of public housing. He continues to make some revenue off of entrepreneurial pursuits; his most recent project is a Halloween costume fashioned after his appearance during the newscast. But something is off. The viral video has spread so quickly, its comical energy so palpable, that we are inclined to overlook simple disquieting details, chief amongst which is the attempted rape of the victim.
It’s impossible to definitively ascertain why the video has spread so quickly—might it just be that the clip is objectively funny? We’re laughing because Dodson is just so comical, his demeanor so jocular. But Dodson is not laughing and, indeed, the scene is macabre, almost grotesquely sinister. The remnants of resistance lay strewn, like debris, in the victim’s home—disheveled sheets, broken furniture and perturbed faces. There’s something perverse and naturally absurd about the set up of the scene. The newscasters are not innocent bystanders—they have contributed to the anxiety. It is like so many similar broadcasts: terse sentences, stark facts, evidence of violence and economic want. The conviction that Kelly and Antoine Dodson share, upon further contemplation, rings like a cry of frustration: hide your kids, hide your wives and hide your husbands, because this problem won’t seem to be going away (it might help to learn that Antoine himself was the victim of rape).
Is Dodson’s passion unusual? Perhaps. After all, he’s probably still flustered from the commotion, and he may be subliminally nervous that he’s on television. And, to be frank, Dodson, does have a flashy predisposition (with his newfound fame, the openly gay Dodson has found extravagant ways to decorate himself with gaudy clothing and permed hair). But for Dodson and his family, the matter is resolutely serious. His method of engagement strikes a humorous chord with viewers partly because many of them just aren’t used to it, or because they recognize this type of urban flamboyance from other media.
The “Bed Intruder Song” follows an pattern of racialized internet memes: “Pants on the Ground,” “Leprechaun in Mobile, Alabama” and “News Reporter swallows bug then loses it” are just some examples of the trend. Such videos have amassed an incredible number of views and hordes of people find them amusing. Like the “Bed Intruder Song,” these videos similarly engage highly contentious issues of race—particularly the veracity of stereotypes. The humor lies in the anxiety they provoke through the impression that “real individuals” in (somewhat) unadulterated situations are acting out taboo roles. These videos purport an honesty about black behavior while disguising authorship. Of course, a more-than-cursory analysis will reveal that such videos are at least somewhat deceptive; most all of them are heavily edited. But we are inclined, and not without merit, to view them as sincere glimpses of racial behavior.
Perhaps I’m naïve. I thought we had found a compromise between comedic temptation and social composure—I thought we had found a way to have our cake and eating it too. Consider farcical racial events of the last decade: Dave Chappelle on _Chappelle’s Show_, Tracy Morgan on _30 Rock_, even Eddie Griffith in _Undercover Brother_. We satiated our racial appetite with crass, bold humor concerning the most delicate and dangerous of topics, all the while avoiding the more questionable forms of racial humor (_White Chicks_). These select forms are satirical—indeed, sophisticated. Through exaggerated characters, viewers are able to deconstruct their own outlandish stereotypes and misconceptions. By fulfilling and exaggerating stereotypes, these comedians elucidated the improbability of generalizations and enriched our racial outlook. But Dodson’s video has sullied my beautiful conception of race relations. If nothing else, the song’s popularity suggests that we are much less comfortable with the study of race, and much less sure of our conception of stereotypes, than we had thought.
And what role did the comedians themselves play in creating my illusion of racial maturity? The mainstream comedic recipe has proved misleading, perhaps because it works under incorrect assumptions. We were told that stereotypes were artificial constructions, unfair categorizations composed and engineered by wicked white people. They’re funny, but fictitious. And yet it’s not that simple. Race, culture and behavior overlap in intricate, often confusing ways. Part of engaging race is understanding, respectfully, how people differ in terms of behavior, lifestyle and mindset, as well as what that might mean, given the context. This brand of mainstream humor, and the progressive narrative from which it is derived, reinforces the notion that all people are the same, and we should be shamed to notice any differences—the very sensitivity that comedians exploit when they play the role of exaggerated blackness. Nevertheless, culture exists; and while people aren’t caricatures, they may present themselves in various ways. We should never have denied the validity of diverse human expression.
In any event, the video is funny, so what do we do? Do we stop laughing? Do we reprimand ourselves, and curtail our discriminatory smiles? As a product of flippant white disregard, is the music video patronizing and opportunistic, seeking to benefit at the expense of black dignity? And are we, as spectators . . . racists? But before we resort to self-flagellation, let us consider that laughter is itself, and its unpredictability works to tell us something. We can’t chastise ourselves because the subject matter amuses us—in this way, laughter is innocent. But we aren’t. Most everyone is aware that Dodson’s story is an anomaly, and his appeal an aberration. After all, part of the intrigue is its seemingly inappropriate subject matter: race and rape. The video and the context demand a deeper examination of what we find so intriguing about Dodson (the attack, the song, and the following hysteria). So long as his image continues to circulate through the web, it remains impossible to divorce his fame from the underlying crime, as evidenced by Dodson’s recent promotion of the Sex Offender App for the iPhone—yet another hilarious, but disquieting Dodson appearance. But how could we dissever the two?
Dodson’s video is a public, comedic gala. At all times while viewing the song, we remain cognizant that others are laughing with us—chiefly because most of us watched the video for the first time with a group of friends. Much like the laughter resounding in a movie theater, the chuckling crowd of a televised comedy show, or the laugh track of a sitcom, there are cues which intimate that others are just as amused. The ever-growing play count (shown in big, bold letters below the video), the endless list of semi-anonymous comments, and the numerous imitations, all remind their viewers that their laughter is, in some way, understandable. Its visibility makes laughter a public experience, comprised of catharsis and concern. Humor and anxiety fuel each other; each precarious joke feeds our anticipation for a latent social truth. Only with an optimistic approach, encapsulated in the involuntary laugh, can we digest and deconstruct our misgivings about race, class or violence. And with that optimism, bravery and comfort which laughter affords, we can reevaluate the rigid racial categories that comedians, or autotuners, are quick to transgress.