The complicated case of Antoine Dodson

Meet the most fascinating and problematic pop star of the moment, Antoine Dodson.

If you’re a follower of internet memes, you know the story by now. If not: Antoine, his sister Kelly and her daughter were asleep in their apartment in the Lincoln Park housing project in Huntsville, Alabama. An intruder broke in and sexually assaulted Kelly before Antoine chased him off. The family complained to the housing project authorities, who were unmoved. So on July 28, 2010, the Dodsons took their story to the local news. Here’s the clip:

The video became an instant YouTube sensation. Antoine is a charismatic guy, with a distinctive way of expressing his anger. Many people found him funny for his stereotypical ghetto mannerisms filtered through his flamboyant gayness. It’s a depressingly familiar story: the internet chooses someone to make the object of random large-scale ridicule, then gets bored and moves on.

But then, enter the Gregory Brothers, the prankster musicians behind the hilarious Auto-tune The News videos. The Gregorys have lately been Auto-tuning viral Youtube videos in addition to TV. As Michael Gregory observed, Antoine’s outburst had a strong melody to it. So it seemed like a natural move to do the “Bed Intruder Song.”

This track launched both Antoine and the Gregorys into the pop mainstream. It became YouTube’s most viewed video, with twenty million views as of this writing and no end in sight. The song has been climbing the iTunes charts and even cracked the Billboard top 100, the first web meme to do so. It would be a hugely significant pop artifact for that reason alone. But the fascination and horror of the song only begins there. It’s problematic in a way that the Double Rainbow song isn’t. You couldn’t ask for a more complex set of emotions than the ones that “Bed Intruder” inspires in me.

The case against

Everything about this story sets off my political alarms: a bunch of white Brooklyn hipsters do a parodic take on a horrific tragedy befalling a poor urban black family, using a music style appropriated from black urban culture. My liberal guilt kept me from even listening to the song for the first couple of weeks it was making the rounds. The worst part is at the end where Evan Gregory sings the song accompanying himself on piano in an exaggerated soul singer voice, radiating smug entitlement. That part makes me want to die of embarrassment.

The case for

Antoine Dodson himself told CBS news that while the attention bothered him initially, he now sees it more positively: “A blessing came out of a bad situation, a blessing in disguise.” He hired a lawyer, set up a web site and has been earnestly setting about professionalizing his fame. He seems fine with the song and has it set as his ringtone.

Brooklyn hipsters though they may be, the Gregorys seem like genuinely decent, well-intentioned people. I met Michael on the subway a few months ago, and in our brief conversation he came across as polite, nerdy, self-deprecating, basically like any of my friends. The Gregorys have been doing the right thing by Antoine, splitting all the proceeds from the song fifty-fifty with the Dodsons, and mostly behaving respectfully.

As a piece of music, the song works. It’s the strongest tune the Gregorys have produced so far. It has a great melody, a strong hook, and the emotions come across loud and clear. A friend and collaborator of mine, one of the most adventurous musicians I know, adores the song. I was surprised, because she herself has been the victim of sexual assault. The Dodsons’ situation is terrible, but Antoine is showing a fierce desire to protect his sister. His on-air rant is an expression of love and support. My friend finds the song to be uplifting, and apparently she’s not alone.

The Gregorys have become very adept at self-promotion using YouTube. One of their brightest innovations is to include lyrics and chords to make it easy for people to do remixes and covers, and the internet has responded. Here are the most interesting ones, starting with the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University Marching Band:

Guy with violin:

Guy with shamisen:

DeStorm cover/parody, complete with costume:

I like the Gregorys and am glad they’re breaking through into the mainstream, troubling though I find the circumstances of their breakthrough. And I’m pulling for the Dodsons. Antoine has a web site that includes video of him answering questions from the fans.

Usually internet fame chews up its recipients and spits them out. I hope all this brings the Dodsons some happiness.