by David Okamoto. You can hear this commentary here.
In Erykah Badu’s dazzling music video for “Honey” — which can be found here — the Dallas-based singer is seen weaving through the aisles of a record store, methodically rifling through the bins. As she pulls out an album, the covers come to life in fun, faithful recreations that feature Badu spoofing a variety of iconic poses: the seductive drizzle of amber liquid from the Ohio Players’ Honey; the confrontational androgyny of Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing; the screaming disembodied head from Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain; and the cash-flashing cool of Erik B. and Rakim’s Paid in Full, to name but a few.
“Honey” is the first single from Badu’s new CD, New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War. Directed by Chris Robinson, best known for his work with Monica, Alicia Keys and Joss Stone, “Honey” serves as both an imaginative homage to Badu’s ’70s R&B and ’80s hip-hop heroes and, more importantly, a celebration of the enduring appeal of vinyl records and the mom and pop stores that still sell them.
Her timing is perfect. SoundScan reports 990,000 vinyl LPs were sold in 2007, not enough to start a revolution but more than enough to prompt such magazines as Billboard, Wired and Time to herald a renaissance. Major labels are following the lead of the independents and issuing many of their up-and-coming artists on LPs as well as CD – while you can’t find them in every store, you can see them whenever Conan O’Brien and David Letterman are introducing hip, blogger-acclaimed bands like New York’s Vampire Weekend.
But can something experience a renaissance if it never truly went away?
Ever since the mid-’80s dawn of the compact disc, artists have been recreating the sound of dropping phonograph needles and vinyl surface noise to serve as crunchy ambience. Audiophiles still moan about digital music’s lack of warmth compared to vinyl, especially now that the compressed sound of iTunes downloads have become the format of choice. Liz Phair paid tribute to vintage LP artwork in her video for 2003’s “Why Can’t I”, while Billy Bragg lamented selling off his record collection in an unabashedly geeky tune called “Tears of My Tracks”.
Listeners are committed to vinyl records in a way that they never have been with CDs. Vinyl always had to be handled with care – you had to cradle it by the edges, gently brush away the dust and gingerly put the needle in place. Vinyl wasn’t portable, so you couldn’t multitask while listening – you had to sit in front of the speakers, staring at the cover art, reading the lyrics, even memorizing the special thank-yous. As a result, the album cover became a vital part of the listening experience. When people talk about their favorite LPs even today, they may be looking at you – but they are thinking about the picture on the cover.
The LP cover is such an indelible image that a new art form called sleeveface has emerged: fans photograph themselves holding album-cover headshots in front of their faces and upload the pictures to sites like flickr.com, where you can find more than 500 poses. Badu’s “Honey” video could be described as sleeveface with a major-label budget – but its loving attention to detail, and references to obscure works by Earth, Wind and Fire, LaBelle, and Minnie Riperton, taps into that special connection that vinyl records inspire, proving Erykah Badu is as much of a fan as she is an artist.
David Okamoto is a content production manager at Yahoo in Dallas and a previous contributor to Rolling Stone, ICE magazine and the Dallas Morning News.