Contemporary Coon Songs and Neo-Minstrels: Auto-Tune the News, Antoine Dodson, and the "Bed Intruder Song"
Coon songs and minstrel shows were at the peak of their popularity in the late-nineteenth century. Blackface minstrelsy and coon songs have since fallen out of factor in the United States, and are now looked up on with disdain and embarrassment. In this essay, I argue that the racial structures of the traditional coon song are updated and reiterated through the “Bed Intruder Song,” mirroring the historical constructions of blackface minstrelsy and coon songs in the early twentieth century. This essay outlines a historical overview of coon songs and how these structures relate to Antoine Dodson, the Gregory Brothers and the American audience’s reception of the “Bed Intruder Song.” By analyzing the “Bed Intruder Song” and online media’s reception of the video, this essay aims to illustrate how, in our “post-racial” moment, we’re not so colorblind.
The “Bed Intruder Song” appeared both on YouTube and as an iTunes download, reaching the height of its popularity in August 2010.1 In mid-August, just a few weeks after the meme’s release on YouTube, it debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 and had nearly 14 million views on YouTube (Peters, 2010). The “Bed Intruder Song” was called “not just a meme, it’s music-perhaps the music of our time” (Van Buskirk, 2010). Describing the “Bed Intruder Song” as the music of our time layers the reasons for the song’s popularity on top of the history of race, masquerade, and media in the United States. The Gregory Brothers, masterminds of the popular YouTube series Auto-Tune the News, “songified” a short clip of Antoine Dodson’s appearance on a local Huntsville, Alabama news segment. The Gregory Brothers use the term “songification” to describe taking a non-musical video clip and turning it into a musical song. The Gregory Brothers utilized Auto-Tune on Dodson’s voice and video spliced his image to turn his news interview into a music video and song.
The format of the “Bed Intruder Song” is similar to earlier “songified” videos the Gregory Brothers created. The meme opens with the original news clip of Dodson, a young black man, wearing a black tank top and a red kerchief on his head while standing in front of a brick building, possibly the Lincoln Park projects where his family lived. The original news segment featured Dodson and his sister Kelly narrating the attempted rape that took place in their home and warning the rapist that he would be caught. The “Bed Intruder Song” opens with Dodson in his non-Auto-Tuned voice stating, “Well, obviously, we have a rapist in Lincoln Park” (optional: Timestamp). While Dodson’s image remains the same, a music track drops on the background and his Auto-Tuned voice sings, “He’s climbin’ in your window, he’s snatchin’ your people up, tryna rape ’em, so y’all need to hide your kids, hide your wife,… and hide your husband cuz they’re rapin’ errbody out here” (Gregory Brothers & Dodson, 2010). In the “songification” process, Kelly’s account is all but edited out leaving only one line, where she states, “I was attacked by some idiot in the projects.” The majority of the video features Dodson’s image edited and re-pieced together to produce a continuous song, except for moments where the Gregory Brothers insert their image into the story as news anchors or television pundits in suits. The Gregory Brothers’ voices are never heard throughout the song, just Dodson’s voice appropriated and recycled in his moment of anguish. While the digital format of the “Bed Intruder Song” is unique, the racialized structures of its creation convey it as a contemporary reiteration of a coon song. Historically, blackface minstrelsy and coon songs had a complicated history because of how they offered agency for black musicians at a time when this opportunity was rare.
Historical Overview of Coon Songs
Ragtime coon songs rose to popularity in the late nineteenth century. At this time, American minstrel shows were transitioning from white minstrels in blackface singing buffoonish songs about plantation life to African Americans’ participation in creating a picture of early twentieth century black life (Abbott & Seroff, 2007). African Americans in the South were still performing coon songs through the 1920s while the Harlem Renaissance was growing strength in the North. Coon songs were not solely a production of white musicians giving black performers stereotypical, racist performing roles. African Americans published over 600 coon songs in the early twentieth century, and some sold thousands of copies (Schroeder, 2010).
The period of blackface minstrelsy and coon songs is now looked upon as a shameful smudge in the history of music and performance in the United States. However contemporarily disdainful, there are reasons why performances of coon songs were so popular in America. Lott (1995) argues that the root of minstrel performance was the construction of white responses to blackness. These white presumptions were packaged and sold through coon songs, and black musicians were held hostage by these cultural structures. While white minstrels in blackface paved the way for African Americans to appear on stage, these structures kept black performers in the “coon” roles (Schroeder, 2010). African American performers were expected to blacken their already brown skin so that audiences would accept their performances, as audiences had already been conditioned to expect blackface as a performance standard. These performances centered on a single paradigm: that blacks are content, funny, and inferior-creating a rigid line of difference from the white audience (Pinsker, 2003). Pinsker describes the problematic nature of coon songs and minstrelsy where:
On the ladder of bigotry that goes from “some blacks are shiftless and lazy” (no doubt true for some blacks as well as for some whites) and escalates to “all blacks are shiftless and lazy” and makes its final resting place with “only blacks are shiftless and lazy,” the minstrel show helped to reinforce attitudes of an unearned superiority. After all, if only blacks were shiftless and lazy, this meant, a priori, that no whites where shiftless and lazy, no matter how shiftless and lazy they in fact were. Stereotyping reduces human complexity and social truth to ugly lies. (p. 282)
While minstrel shows and coon songs proliferated horrible stereotyping, a complexity existed in the ways the minstrel form allowed for black musicians’ agency.
African Americans gained access to a main stage because of white audiences’ appetites for coon songs and minstrel acts. A black performer’s ability to reach artistic and economic success was still tied to recreating the imposed standards of racialized coon songs (Abbott & Seroff, 2007). Despite these limitations, coon songs in the early twentieth century were part of a transition where performances of white men in blackface were augmented by vaudeville shows that featured black performers as well as white ones. Additionally, the audiences were changing to include a mix of black and white show attendees. The incorporation of African Americans into audiences shifted the language and levels of signifying that took place onstage.
W.E.B. Du Bois (1903) used the term double consciousnesss to indicate the multiple levels of signifying that took place daily in African American lives. Du Bois defined double consciousness as a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (p. 12). Double consciousness was present in coon songs created and performed by African Americans, where they produced racist caricatures which white audiences could look to and measure their own superiority. But while black performers were providing the simplistic fodder their white audiences desired, many songs and performances had a duality coded beneath the surface aimed at their African American audiences. Within a coon song, black bodies functioned to absorb the pathological expectations of white ideologies. However, for black audiences who understood the subtext of lyrics and satirical behavior, coon songs and minstrel shows offered an opportunity to undermine stereotypes and mock the dominant culture that created them (Schroeder, 2010).
Agency in minstrel and vaudeville acts did not function solely on a black/white binary; Chinese and Chinese American vaudevillians sought to undermine stereotypes using similar strategies to black and white minstrel shows. Chinese and Chinese Americans utilized yellowface to blend aspects of Chinese culture with American stereotypes in order to give white audiences what they paid to see while simultaneously challenging these archetypes. Moon (2004) discusses how caricatures of pidgin English and stories of Chinatowns were mixed with songs in several European languages, Irish and Scottish impersonations, and even Chinese and Chinese Americans in blackface. An example of subverting the dominant culture is found in the performances of Lee Tung Foo, also known as Frank Lee, who was a California-born Chinese American. Lee Tung Foo was best known for his impersonations of Scotsmen, which through his vaudeville act illustrated how race was a “performance.”
The coded duality found in minstrelsy and coon songs signifies what Ellison (1964) defines as “changing the joke and slipping the yoke.” The stereotypical blackface caricatures were the identical symbolic masks that both black and white minstrel performers donned. However, Ellison describes the mask African Americans wore as unlike the mask whites wore as a measurement of their own superiority. Instead, black performers wore the mask as a “profound rejection of the image created to usurp his identity” (Ellison, 1964, p. 55). African American minstrels would put on the caricatured mask, shift the joke ever so slightly to create a new meaning altogether, and resist the stereotype projected on their bodies.
Schroeder (2010) echoes Ellison and asks the question, “If blackness was a form of masquerade for white minstrels, could not the inherited stage version of blackness provide a mask for African American performers?” (p. 143). With limited options for black performers, coon songs and minstrel shows offered the cover of a stage and a buffoon’s act to critique the dominant culture, while the performers could remain in favor of mainstream audiences and earn a living. The trickster-like employment of parodies reproduced the racist discourse while signifying a coded contradiction. This signification inserted a meaning opposite its surface level intention into the song. Signifying in African American cultural productions continued past the Jim Crow era and into every version of American popular music.
Speaking Truth Through a Grinning Mask
The “Bed Intruder Song” updates the racial structures of a historical coon song by illustrating Dodson’s donning of the symbolic blackface mask in order have visibility, bring attention to his sister’s attempted rape, and make a profit. Dodson’s actions mirror the history of coon songs, where professional opportunities for black performers and composers were rare. For example, Ernest Hogan wrote the first coon song, “All Coons Look Alike to Me” in 1890. While the song used derogatory language to describe African Americans, the song itself was written by a black man and was immensely popular (Strausbaugh, 2007). Hogan’s use of the ragtime beat spawned a worldwide craze, and the demand for coon songs skyrocketed (Schroeder, 2010). So while the song itself forwarded the negative coon stereotype, it was a vehicle for Hogan to profit as a musician. In a similar fashion, the minstrel show was the primary vehicle for America’s first African American performing artists to find success.
Antoine Dodson became an overnight internet2celebrity because of the immense popularity of the “Bed Intruder Song.” At the height of the song’s popularity, NPR called the video “a perfect storm of race, music, comedy, and celebrity” (Carvin, 2010). A century ago, a minstrel show could have used that same tag line, changing Antoine Dodson for a plantation-dwelling clown. In the present, Dodson was presented with the same quandary African American performers faced. Performers participated in minstrel shows and wrote coon songs for job opportunities as well as for benefits like mobility, good pay, community status, and professional arts training-all skills that would otherwise be unavailable to former slaves and children of former slaves (Schroeder, 2010). Dodson chose to take on his 15 minutes of fame, not to change the discourse on race, but to draw attention to issues important to him while turning enough profit to move his family out of the projects (“Antoine Dodson: Riding YouTube,” 2010). Blogger Jamilah King’s (2010) assessment of Dodson is that he “hasn’t managed to change the dialogue – he’s just inserted himself into it.” Coon songs and minstrel performers faced a similar battle for their image, attempting to alter the minstrel form to insert a humanity that presented African Americans as three-dimensional beings (Hall, 2010).
Coon songs were additionally complex because they served as a form of political activism for young black musicians. In an era of few political outlets for African Americans, musicians used the popular form to challenge racial discourse in the early twentieth century (Schroeder, 2010). These young black musicians were performing an act of double consciousness, speaking a version of their truth through the mask of the buffoon (Strausbaugh, 2007). While Antoine Dodson may appear as a neo-minstrel clown, he is “changing the joke” so that he can bring awareness to the issue of his sister’s attack, as well as champion for rape awareness. When asked in an NPR interview what he hopes to get out of his fan life, he said:
I just hope that I can comfort people, because most of the people that I talk to and interact with, it’s people who have been in similar situations or been a victim of rape. And I just want to comfort them and give them a couple of, you know, ways that I have dealt with the situation. (“Antoine Dodson: Riding YouTube,” 2010)
While his approach may be non-traditional, Dodson “slips the yoke” by controlling his image and presenting the message in a way that gets the most attention. Dodson is the only portion of the media spectacle that wants to talk about the reality of his sister’s rape and not just the humor of his reaction to it.
Dodson is further in control of the media spectacle surrounding his sister’s attack because he was largely the initiating force behind it. Dodson approached the news with his story after police did not take his family’s complaint seriously (Popkin, 2010). He also had past experience with television news interviews; he organized for speed bumps in his neighborhood after a child was hit by a car and killed. His television interview about neighborhood speed bumps went largely unnoticed, so he knew that he needed to create some kind of spectacle in order to get any attention (“Antoine Dodson: Riding YouTube,” 2010). While The Gregory Brothers were the puppet masters behind the construction of the “Bed Intruder Song,” Dodson took control of his image and figured out how to best monetize his celebrity.
Jim Crow, Zip Coon, and Negro Faggot Archetypes
Antoine Dodson’s caricature illustrates that minstrel show and coon song stereotypes have not evaporated completely; instead they are recycled to adapt to contemporary life. A minstrel show typically included a plantation scene, sentimental songs, and comedic acts that relied on characters that embodied the stereotypical traits of typical African Americans (Schroeder, 2010). Two of these well known characters that frequently appeared are Jim Crow, the dancing fool, and Zip Coon, the buffoonish dandy. Old minstrel stereotypes converge on the body of Antoine Dodson in the new media-format YouTube video. Although Antoine Dodson was shown in the “Bed Intruder” video in a tank top and hair wrap, many of his post-“Bed Intruder” media appearances feature him as a dolled-up dandy, sometimes with hair extensions and often wearing large sunglasses and flashy clothes. In an NPR interview, Dodson is asked about being exploited or made fun of through the dissemination of the video and he responded:
I mean, there’s nothing you can do about it. People are going to talk and people are going to say stuff. I’m a joker anyway. Like, me and my family, we play jokes on each other all the time. So, basically, you know, people are going to talk. They can say what they want. It’s not going to change us. (“Antoine Dodson: Riding YouTube,” 2010)
Dodson surrenders to the Zip Coon stereotype by appearing overly primped in his public appearances, and confirms that he is the dandy jokester by highlighting how much he and his family like to play jokes. But like performers in coon songs, Dodson is using his agency and media savvy to keep his perceived audience interested so that he can control his image enough to make a profit out of a less than ideal stereotype.
Another archetype the “Bed Intruder” media spectacle projects onto Dodson’s body is that of the Negro Faggot-the flamboyant, sassy black man (Riggs, 1991). The Negro Faggot draws upon connotations of a deviant Other, one whose homosexuality renders him neither black nor a man. The construction of the Negro Faggot identity still comes from outside projections, much like how white constructions of blackness created minstrel stereotypes. Within the “Bed Intruder” meme, Dodson’s outburst of anger is reinterpreted as a vehicle for laughter because of his unguarded expression. The construction of Dodson’s identity as a Negro Faggot reinforces how making the situation humorous layers intersecting oppressions of homophobia and racism upon his body, and serves it up in a digital media format for consumption.
How the Gregory Brothers Profit from Blackness
Blackness is a cultural invention, not some precious essence installed on black bodies; and for better or worse it was often a product of self-commodification, a way of getting along in a constricted world. Black people, that is to say, not only Lose Weight Exercised a certain amount of control over such practices but perforce sometimes developed them in tandem with white spectators… At the same time, of course, there is no question that white commodification of black bodies structured all of this activity. [Within this complex process] partly shared, partly black cultural practices were circulated as authentically black, with whites profiting…while obstructing the visibility of black performers. (Lott, 1995, p. 39)
Lott’s above quote describes white appropriation of blackness by minstrel performances, yet the same actions still take place in the present. As previously described, blackness is still a cultural invention, one that plays on modern replications of pathological imagery. Images of blackness circulating during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries created socially accepted definitions of race, what Schroeder (2010) calls “scripting racial difference as inferiority” (p. 142). In much of the same fashion, The Gregory Brothers picked up the news clip of Antoine Dodson’s rage at his sister’s attempted rape, and redefined white culture’s reactions to blackness, through the Auto-Tuned form of black popular music.
In the case of the “Bed Intruder Song,” The Gregory Brothers profit off of Antoine Dodson and black culture by offering up their Auto-Tuned product as unique. In an online interview, one of the brothers is quoted saying, “This is just a new, novel way to make music that hasn’t really been done before” (Van Buskirk, 2010), ignoring the history of vocoders in black popular music and largely and obviously within hip hop. The Gregory Brothers discount electro musicians like Zapp and producers like Timbaland when they tout their digital product as authentically unique, profiting off black culture while denying its influence on their creation.
Interviews of The Gregory Brothers frame them as benevolent givers who shared the profits of the “Bed Intruder Song” split down the middle with Antoine Dodson. In one interview where the author called the Brothers “noble,” the Gregory Brothers discussed how their main monetizing strategy was selling the song on iTunes, and how it was their goal to set an industry-wide precedent for “unintentional singers” (Van Buskirk, 2010). As forerunners in this field, the Brothers frame themselves as looking out for the interests of the people who become songified saying, “[W]e’re trying to set precedents by making it so that Antoine, or whoever that artist might be in the future, has a stake not only as an artist but as a co-author of the song” (Van Buskirk, 2010). At the same time, The Gregory Brothers acknowledge their ultimate goal is making a profit, and position themselves as talent hunters in the old model of record labels. The Gregory Brothers described themselves as “act[ing] like an A&R Executive from a record label spotting who is the greatest unsigned talent out there” (“Gregory Brothers Interview,” 2010). Ironically, record labels have a long history of exploiting their unsigned musical finds.
What The Gregory Brothers leave out of their narrative is how they could not monetize the “Bed Intruder Song” on iTunes without Antoine Dodson as a co-writer. Without sharing the profits of the song’s sale, the use of Antoine Dodson’s image and voice without his consent would be exploitative. According to Apple’s iTunes Copyright Claims, Apple terminates accounts of users who “violate others’ intellectual property rights.”3 Essentially, The Gregory Brothers are splitting the profits with Dodson because they have to, or else they would not be able to sell the song. Antoine Dodson’s image and voice are his own intellectual property, and unless he was a co-author of the “Bed Intruder Song,” Dodson would be able to sue for intellectual property theft. What on the surface appears to be looking out for “unintentional singers” is actually a legal constraint and the only way The Gregory Brothers could monetize the “Bed Intruder Song.”
Are The Gregory Brothers a Modern T.D. Rice?
Nineteenth and early twentieth century minstrel acts centered on white responses to blackness (Abbott & Seroff, 2007), and in a similar fashion, The Gregory Brothers’ interest in the original news clip is likely because of its re-articulation of particular ideals of what hegemonic discourse defines as “blackness.” The “Bed Intruder Song” follows a common formula of how race is often portrayed on the internet, where bodies of color are policed along defined borders of ethnicity and mainstream culture (Harewood & Valdivia, 2005). Antoine Dodson and his sister Kelly are examples of how bodies of color online are expected to perform by the often racist, Orientalist rules of the internet. Everett (2008) asserts that digital media have not failed to wipe out the old constructs of racism; rather, digital media have introduced new levels of racial divides and strategies for preserving the framework of whiteness as a norm online. Whiteness in cyberspace operates as the unmarked category upon which difference is constructed, where whiteness never has to acknowledge itself and is the benchmark in social and cultural relations (Lipsitz, 2006). Lipsitz argues that whiteness maintains its dominance by appearing to not be anything in particular.
Within this framework of whiteness in cyberspace, it is particularly important to pay close attention to how The Gregory Brothers insert themselves into Antoine Dodson’s narrative. While Dodson is telling the story of his sister’s attempted rape, The Gregory Brothers place flashes of themselves dancing and singing along in news anchors’ commentary boxes as if they are watching the action, but are not actively engaged or involved.
Figure 1. The Gregory Brothers’ insertion of their bodies into the “Bed Intruder” narrative.
In early twentieth century minstrel acts, white performers who blackened their faces “washed themselves white” by contrasting the buffoonish acts mimicking “blackness” to their real world white privilege (Pinsker, 2003, p. 283). Just as minstrel acts were structured so that white audiences could maintain their own sense of superiority, The Gregory Brothers perform to their audience and juxtapose themselves in suits to contrast with Dodson’s appearance in a tank top and hair wrap. Appearing as news anchors within the “Bed Intruder Song” is an act of washing themselves white, constructing themselves as the unmarked category upon which Antoine Dodson’s difference is constructed. The brothers reinstate their own whiteness by “blacking up” with their use of Auto-Tune, signifying commodification of black popular music, and contrasting themselves within the frame of Dodson’s narrative.
Opinions across the internet have vastly differed in their reception of the “Bed Intruder Song.” Ironically, an NPR article about the rising popularity of the “Bed Intruder Song” stated, “the initial TV news video was racially polarizing, but The Gregory Brothers’ injection of music and humor into it led to a broad public response that’s been surprisingly colorblind” (Carvin, 2010, para. 11). Responses across the internet have indicated otherwise. Writers have drawn upon the tragedy that’s been reinterpreted as a humorous spectacle, and how an attempted rape turned joke became YouTube’s most watched video of 2010 (Memmott, 2010). For example, King (2010) wrote about the meme’s popularity, saying:
The dynamics were largely the same: a black person is put in front of a camera and then endlessly made fun of online…[T]here’s the obvious question of journalistic integrity. If you’re interviewing someone who’s from a historically misrepresented community, do you have a responsibility to portray them in a positive light, especially if your audience is mostly white and see the misrepresentation as the norm? (para. 4)
King’s concern about misrepresentation echoes the same concern that opponents of minstrel acts and coon songs felt. Another writer, Baratunde Thurston, editor for The Onion, also voiced his discomfort at the popularity of The Gregory Brothers’ video. He said,
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. (Mackey, 2010, para. 12)
Thurston touches upon the enjoyment of voyeurism taking place the “Bed Intruder” video. To an internet audience without experience in low-income housing, the video told them that yes, in fact there are criminals running rampant, and in a catchy jingle audiences are told that “they’re rapin’ errbody out here.” The reiteration of negative stereotypes reproduces a defined boundary around what black life is like, supported by the massive popularity of the video.
Can anyone in particular take the blame for the popularity of the “Bed Intruder Song?” The answer is no – one set of actors alone cannot be blamed for this debacle. Instead, the “Bed Intruder Song” draws attention to America’s hegemonic conceptions of racialized bodies and how in our “post-racial” moment we’re not so colorblind. The extreme popularity of the “Bed Intruder Song” illustrates that audiences still have a desire to see black bodies caricatured, with Antoine Dodson absorbing the pathological expectations of white ideologies. The Gregory Brothers played a role in facilitating the “Bed Intruder Song” as a vehicle where they pandered to an internet audience’s insatiable appetite for racial humor. The Brothers sidestep the blame, stating, “I think people who think it’s exploitative are filtering it through their own perceptions” (Gabel & Fanelli, 2010). Finally, Antoine Dodson’s part in this tragedy is much like the conundrum black artists faced participating in blackface minstrel shows and writing and performing coon songs. Dodson allowed his image to be used, knowing if he objected to its use he would have been silenced and lost his chance to make a profit. He summarized his choice, saying, “This is a golden opportunity for us…I’m gonna take it and run with it” (Gabel & Fanelli, 2010).
Referencing black vaudevillian performers, Ellison (1964) says, ” We wear the mask for purposes of aggression as well as defense…the motives hidden behind the mask are as numerous as the ambiguities the mask conceals” (p. 55). We may never know all the reasons why Antoine Dodson has donned the blackface mask. Additionally, all black performance is “always already performative,” because of the dominant discourse on race and the low value assessed to black bodies (Schroeder, 2010, p. 142). Early twentieth century coon songs are an example of this dichotomy. Examining the historical context of coon songs lays a foundation to understand how its nuances appear in contemporary popular music. In the present, hip-hop and imitations of the musical form precariously teeter between artistic expression and a neo-minstrel show. The “Bed Intruder Song” demonstrates how many of the problematic aspects of coon songs reappear in a contemporary context, as well as demonstrating how double consciousness coupled with media savvy allows for unconventional agency. The “Bed Intruder Song” is an appropriate measurement for where we stand as a culture, and what kinds of images satisfy our current media appetite. The convergence of old media coon songs and new media YouTube videos examines internet culture from a critical historical perspective. The Gregory Brothers’ creation and Antoine Dodson’s manipulation of his image give contemporary examples of how an era of minstrel shows and coon songs isn’t that far behind us.
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2 Aligning myself with current trends in internet studies, I use the lower case “i” to spell internet. Baym and Markham (Markham & Baym, 2009) state, “Capitalizing suggests that ‘internet’ is a proper noun and implies either that it is a being… or that it is a specific place… Both metaphors lead to granting the internet agency and power that are better granted to those who develop and use it” (vii).
3Full text of iTunes copyright claim: http://www.apple.com/legal/trademark/claimsofcopyright.html.