On July 28, Antoine Dodson of Huntsville Alabama wrote the summer’s (and possibly the century’s) most unlikely hit song in an interview with local news station WAFF-48, who showed up at his home to cover a story about a man who broke into Dodson’s house and crawled into bed with one of his sisters. Dodson failed to keep the would-be rapist from escaping, though he did scare him off. But he’s now famous for his oratory, not his heroism. Overnight, the news clip became a phenomenon on YouTube.
Dodson’s interview also inspired a flurry of remixes, spoofs, and covers, one of which, by the Gregory Brothers of Auto-Tune the News, reached #89 on Billboard’s Hot 100. The group and Dodson have agreed to share profits from the song’s sales on iTunes. Combined with Dodson’s sales of t-shirts from his website, it’s already been enough to move the Dodsons out of the projects.
Yet for some, this isn’t simply a feel-good story about an openly gay man from the projects capitalizing on the weirdness of internet celebrity culture to help improve his family’s situation. There’s been a substantial amount of criticism about the reasons the news report, and later the song, became internet sensations in the first place. Jason King, a professor of music at NYU, told NPR’s All Things Considered:
It’s catchy. It has a really good hook, but it’s problematic, too. There’s a way in which the aesthetics of black poverty — the way they talk and they speak and they look — sort of becomes this fodder for humor without any interest in the context of the conditions in which people actually live.
And Baratunde Thurston, web editor at The Onion, told NPR that he’s also uncomfortable with the response to the Dodson clip:
As the remix took off, I became increasingly uncomfortable with its separation from the underlying situation. A woman was sexually assaulted and her brother was rightfully upset. People online seemed to be laughing at him and not with him (because he wasn’t laughing), as Dodson fulfilled multiple stereotypes in one short news segment. Watching the wider Web jump on this meme, all but forgetting why Dodson was upset, seemed like a form of “class tourism.” Folks with no exposure to the projects could dip their toes into YouTube and get a taste. […] The creativity unleashed has been amazing, and what mitigates my fears of people minimizing the gravity of the situation is how Antoine himself has responded and taken charge of his own meme.
But it isn’t only the (ostensibly non-black, non-poor) audience’s reception of Dodson that has been called into question. In a piece entitled “The ‘Bed Intruder’ Video, YouTube Fame and Modern Minstrelsy,” Colorlines.com describes how some have likened Dodson’s performance itself to modern minstrelsy, regardless of how the audience views it. The piece claims that the station got a lot of feedback from “presumably black” callers after it aired the piece, saying that putting “people like Dodson” on the air reflects poorly on “the community.”
These reactions pose interesting questions. Can non-poor, non-black audiences ethically laugh at Dodson’s charismatic news interview and endlessly replay Bed Intruder? Or, to put it bluntly, is that just racist? Also: who are these “people like Dodson” that the station’s callers object to? And what, if anything, is it about WAFF-48 giving airtime to Dodson that portrays black people in negative light? Is it unfair to criticize Dodson for “minstrelsy,” when he was just speaking his mind during a time of crisis for his family? And, even if he is taking advantage of people’s stereotypes against poor black people with his t-shirt sales and his promotion of the Bed Intruder song, can anyone really blame him for cashing in?
I’ve asked a lot of questions so far, so I’ll just ask one more. What do you think of Antoine Dodson’s Bed Intruder song becoming a hit?