This week, Billboard is celebrating the music video with a week’s worth of content that looks at the past, present and future of the video, at a time when it seems to be as relevant as ever. Here, we look at one of the most instantly recognizable music videos from the turn of the century, and analyze both the context that led to it becoming so iconic, and why it still feels singular so many years later.
The video for D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” is famously simple: a man, nude as far as the edge of the frame sitting low on his hips, singing so passionately it seems like his inspiration might not be purely musical. A few weeks ago, when you went to watch said video on YouTube (as fans have over 12 million times since it was uploaded in 2009), you would be greeted with a disclaimer to click through: “This video may be inappropriate for some users.”
According to a YouTube spokesperson, the warning was a mistake — the result of “community and machine learning technology used to flag content that may violate our Community Guidelines for human review.” The warning has since been removed, appropriate given that as Stephen Hill, then-senior vice president of music, talent and programming at BET put it at the time, the video “stopped just north of the line where, you know, we would have had issues.”
The video’s erotic intentions were fairly transparent from the beginning, even if in interviews D’Angelo himself initially remained coy about whether he was actually nude (he wasn’t) and what exactly was making him so sweaty (singing and probably a spray bottle). ”We didn’t want an on-screen love interest,” his manager Dominique Trenier told the New York Times shortly after the video’s release. “We wanted him to be able to make contact with whoever was watching it one-on-one.” Paul Hunter, the video’s director, made it more explicit in a 2008 Spin feature. “The idea was, it would feel like he was one-on-one with whoever the woman was,” Hunter said. “We made this video for women.”
The “Untitled” video was not an anomaly. Cultivating D’Angelo’s female fanbase was central to the marketing campaign for the highly anticipated Voodoo, which had been five years in the making (a delay that would soon seem lightening-quick to D’Angelo fans). His debut, Brown Sugar, had featured sexy singles “Brown Sugar” (whose central metaphor could be easily misinterpreted as describing women instead of marijuana) and “Lady”— but D’Angelo himself was performing in hockey jerseys, receding behind the piano. After a few months with a personal trainer and the resulting dramatic physical transformation, he was shirtless on the Voodoo album cover and for most of the promotional photo shoots.
Months before the video was released, D’Angelo was staring out lustily from the cover of Essence — the accompanying story, called “The Soul of a Sex Symbol,” found him extolling the pleasures of performing oral sex. From the November 1999 profile:
“Head. One word. Head…I want to taste it,” he explains of a job he says he loves to do…”Yo, motherf—s may say that s—, but they don’t mean it,” he all but shouts when I ask him about the taboo. “At least, not the n—s I know. I like to go down there. Always have. I like to do it.”
Then came the video, which premiered on BET in December 1999. “Initially, to him, it seemed completely bonkers,” Trenier told Spin. “He didn’t quite get what I was saying. He kept going, ‘What do you mean, ‘naked’?’ ” There was a fluffer of sorts on set, but she didn’t end up doing much — the primary inspiration was allegedly more sacred than profane, despite the subject of the song. “We talked about the Holy Ghost and the church before that take,” D’Angelo related to GQ in 2012. “The veil is the nudity and the sexuality. But what they’re really getting is the spirit.”
At least at first, there was a sort of matter of factness in D’Angelo’s approach to the task of becoming a sex symbol. “I know it’s part of the gig,” he said to the New York Daily News. “If I’m there and I’ve got to do it, I might as well get into it. There’s definitely a sexual side to what I’m trying to express.” But the singer-songwriter wasn’t really prepared for the way the song and video exploded if his comments amid the aftermath are any indication. “I know people think I did that for shock value or something,” he told Jet of the video at the time. “Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to get the people’s attention. But I don’t want the exterior to overshadow the music that’s coming out of me.” By February, “Untitled” had climbed to No. 25 on the Hot 100 — the only single off Voodoo to reach the chart, despite the album’s nearly unanimous critical acclaim — and that September, the clip was nominated for four Video Music Awards, including video of the year.
Suddenly, D’Angelo’s shows — as rapturously reviewed as the album itself thanks to both his all-star backing band, the Soultronics, and his superlative onstage charisma — were destinations for women and gay men screaming “Take it off!” in hopes of catching a glimpse of his now-famous abs; he felt powerless. The strategy to draw in more fans had worked too well, and D’Angelo was getting crushed by the pressure to live up to the video’s fantasy. He would delay shows to do more sit-ups, or sometimes cancel them altogether because he didn’t feel like he could face the crowds.
“Had he known what the repercussions of ‘Untitled’ would’ve been, I don’t think he would’ve done it,” Questlove told Believer Mag in 2003. “‘Untitled’ wasn’t supposed to be his mission statement for Voodoo,” said Trenier in the same Spin feature. “I’m glad the video did what it did, but he and I were both disappointed because, to this day, in the general populace’s memory, he’s the naked dude.” The video haunted him through over a decade of musical dormancy that was dotted with trips to rehab and the occasional mugshot.
But why did D’Angelo feel the impact of his fans’ extramusical adoration so acutely? Intensely attached fans are par for the course for any celebrity, regardless of gender; since Elvis and the Beatles, pop music has drawn in young women whose fandom is usually (accurately or not) attributed to affection.
The answer lies within both his own self-professed shyness, and in the fact that the bar for men in music (and in life) to receive the attention of screaming women and girls is subterranean; they usually don’t even have to put on a clean shirt. So when someone like D’Angelo presents a kind of raw sexuality that flies in the face of everything women are supposed to want (candlelit dinners and chaste kisses), the overwhelming reaction is not exactly surprising. It is exceedingly unusual to have an artist of his talent and charisma choose to present himself specifically to grown women — not teenage girls, or families, or couples.
That’s the part of this video that remains so provocative. Not the suggestion of nudity, or even that there’s sex happening offscreen: the fact that it was designed for women. The vast majority of music videos, even if they aren’t as overtly sexual as “Untitled,” feature a conventionally attractive woman or two in various states of undress; it’s so pervasive that their sexiness has become practically mundane — hardly the stuff of YouTube explicit content warnings. For commercially-minded female artists on-screen seduction is something of a baseline requirement, no matter the intended audience.
But if D’Angelo is going out of his way to appeal to women — to talk about the kind of sex that they might want and present himself as naked and vulnerable because he wants to make them happy — that implies women might actually have some choice in the matter of whether they want to have sex at all. It’s the difference between a demand and a question: How does it feel?
The fact that still so few men choose to become sex symbols — or even just to take a more open, less-gendered approach to including their sexuality in their art — shows the persistence of a double standard that hurts women twice over, in that they are so rarely the targets of the kind of commodified seduction they’re often required to provide whether they’re public figures or not. It also shows the endurance of taboos that mostly stem from retrograde, heteronormative ideas about who can initiate sex and who can enjoy it; taboos amplified by the fact that D’Angelo is black which, thanks to centuries of racial fetishism, adds an additional layer of complexity to the way the “Untitled” video was received.
D’Angelo embodied “…a style of black manhood that was cerebral without being ‘soft,’” as Carol Cooper wrote in Spin for a review of his three-night run at Radio City Music Hall in March 2000. “And by performing songs that infused hip-hop’s aggressive minimalism with Ellingtonian wit and sophistication, he turns the current cliches of pop-soul minstrelsy (and masculinity) inside out.”
Though he insists now the idea that the video spurred his musical hiatus and descent into addiction is overblown, the threat of being perceived as a sex worker — the ultimate in effeminate taboos — still seems to haunt D’Angelo, even though his shirtless days are long over. “One time I got mad when a female threw money at me onstage, and that made me feel fucked-up, and I threw the money back at her,” he said in the GQ profile. In 2000, he had expressed the same sentiment in a Rolling Stone feature: “Sometimes, you know, I feel uncomfortable…Because I’m not a stripper. I’m up there doing something I strongly believe in.” He revisited the topic with Tavis Smiley in 2015, insisting that it wasn’t doing the video, or even the response to it specifically that had upset him: “I kind of felt, for lack of a better word, like a male stripper. Or expected to be that.” Smiley responded, “You felt objectified, which is what women feel every day.” Then D’Angelo started laughing: “I wasn’t mad at that, though.”
Even if D’Angelo didn’t acknowledge the parallels between his own experiences onstage and those of women since time immemorial, Questlove, more or less his constant companion at that point in his career, has made that connection explicit. “In the world of karma, it was sweet poetic justice for any woman that’s ever been sexually harassed, that’s ever had to work twice as hard just to prove she could work like a man,” he told Believer Mag. “He does it because women want it,” he said in the same Rolling Stone profile, “but he really doesn’t want to do it. We do all this preparation to give a balanced show, and he goes out and gets treated like women get treated every day — like a piece of meat.”
The video’s provocations are also simply a result of the kind of charisma few can replicate; Jason Derulo, for example, tried an homage to the famous video in 2016 with results that were especially forgettable both because of its comparative lack of nuance and the fact that it came after D’Angelo himself had already returned from self-imposed exile. With the release of his 2014 album Black Messiah — his first since 2000’s Voodoo — came D’Angelo’s heaviest touring schedule since tentatively returning to the stage a few years prior. But there was always a question: would he perform his most famous song?
“As artists do, he wanted to change something up,” Tina Farris says now, who was out on the road with him for that tour as a manager. “But as fans do, they’re like, ‘What, you’re not doing that song? Are you crazy?’”
And so, he performed it — closing sets with an extended version just like he did right after it came out, having his band members peel away so that he could finish the show solo. However, he was not handing out red roses to the audience afterward this time around. “He’s not ever performing it in that way again — he’s not going to have his shirt off,” Farris adds. “But all you have to do is hear that drum drop, and he’ll get the same amount of applause and the same hysteria as he did without his clothes on. Ultimately it is his voice, and it is because he is who he is. At times I think he thinks it matters, but it absolutely doesn’t.”
As it turns out, the song’s provocations endure because of both the memorable video and the song itself — two unusually straightforward tributes to women’s pleasure in a world still almost exclusively focused on gratifying men.