We are a week into December, and I have just heard about a man and a song that apparently swept the nation this summer and captured the imagination of many thousands of people. This phenomenon is Antoine Dodson, a young black man from Huntsville, Alabama. On July 28th, a local TV station in Huntsville captured Dodson on film in an interview about an intruder who broke into the Dodson home and tried to rape Dodson’s sister. Out of this disturbing content, Dodson’s unique way of expressing himself shines: the almost musical cadence in the way he speaks, the constant motion of his head and limbs as he tells about what happens and then directly addresses the would-be rapist through the camera lens.
Apparently the Dodson interview got passed around on the internet for just a couple of days before the Gregory Brothers made it into a song using the auto tune program and lots of synth. The Bed Intruder song, as it came to be called, launched both Dodson and the Gregory Brothers into the national spotlight.
As I watched the acclaimed “music video” of the bed intruder song for the first time, I felt a mix of guilt and disgust, as it seemed that the song was exploiting the serious subject matter as well as Dodson’s way of talking and flamboyant gestures for entertainment value. I still think this is partly true, but I also recognize that the song, in its own way, honors Dodson’s uniqueness, his resilience, and his personal expression. It does help that it’s very catchy, that half of the iTunes proceeds for the song go to Dodson, and that Dodson has not been dropped back into obscurity and poverty after becoming a sensation. In fact, he has made appearances at various events and award shows, and he has become a celebrity in his own right.
Dodson fans have celebrated that fame, but detractors have also weighed in. Critics complain that Dodson is benefiting from an attempted crime against his sister, and that his rise to fame is nothing more than opportunism. Others have argued that Dodson is reinforcing black stereotypes. My initial guilt after watching the video came from the fact that Dodson and his family live in the projects, that they were captured on film after one member of the family was attacked and nearly raped, and that they were now the subject of a Pop-y, lighthearted, quotable song for the youtube- and Jon Stewart-loving generation. Moreover, I was ashamed at how Dodson’s self expression, his flamboyance and his gestures, had become a source of comedy and entertainment for so many people who knew nothing of his life experience.
Of course, condemning the video, the song, the phenomenon, is also problematic. Who am I to say that Dodson should not be an entertainer, the way that the origin of dance guy is, or Kesha, or Rihanna, or the myriad cute kittens and puppies on youtube are? Saying that people shouldn’t be watching the news clip and the song of Dodson is almost like saying there is something wrong with him, with his lifestyle and background and the way he talks. That’s not how I feel, or, I think, how most viewers feel.
I guess I just hope that youtube fame is not the best thing that ever happens to Antoine Dodson and his family. According to an article by Mike Thomas in the Chicago Sun-Times, Dodson and his family may soon move to Los Angeles and become the subjects of a new reality TV show. I find it hard to believe that this is considered a crowning achievement for many people, but I suppose it makes sense in the context of our celebrity obsessed, voyeuristic pop and media culture. Watching Antoine Dodson talk on local television during an news interview wasn’t enough: now we want to see hours of coverage of Dodson and his family living their “normal” daily life, but with more money and much more fame than they had before. It is, perhaps, the ultimate American Dream.