Joshua Bell, Erykah Badu, and the Art of Busking Anonymously

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 (Bill Phelps)

Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached “peak celebrity busking.”

Erykah Badu's short, inconsequential stunt in Times Square this week officially puts an end to the fun. Why, it seemed like just yesterday that violinist Joshua Bell—who performs Oct. 24 in Santa Rosa—donned a cap and T-shirt, entered a Washington D.C. subway station and kicked off a string of celebrity busking moments.

First, there was the heartwarming video of Lenny Kravitz joining a New Orleans choir for his hit song “Fly Away.” Innocent enough. Then Paul McCartney “busked” at Covent Garden (meaning: he announced it on Twitter an hour beforehand) with a stage and professional sound system, playing solely new material as a promotion for his new album. Not to be outdone, Tom Jones followed suit, singing in Covent Garden as a promo gimmick for his team on The Voice.

And now we have Erykah Badu, who this week sang in Times Square anonymously and received just $3.60 from passersby. The internet, of course, was all too quick to jump on this so-called injustice and rail against the clueless tourists in Times Square who failed to recognize one of the greatest soul singers of our generation.

Mind you, I love Erykah Badu, but her schtick, and especially the subsequent false internet outrage trumpeted loudly for cheap pageviews, leaves a lousy taste in my mouth. First of all, Badu only sang for four-and-a-half minutes. Do the math, and that's $48 an hour; not bad. Secondly, she didn't perform songs so much as get in people's faces, improvising lines about how she needed money because she didn't want to get a job. That's not exactly sympathy-building material—to say nothing of the fact that Erykah Badu is a very successful singer, certainly not destitute, and declaring herself to be poor is at best tacky, and at worst, insulting to real buskers who don't have a roof over their head.


And that's why Joshua Bell got the whole anonymous-busking thing right back in 2007. Dressing incognito, not announcing it beforehand, not antagonizing people for money, and not doing it as a chintzy promotional stunt for a new album or lousy TV show. Just showing up, opening his case on the ground, playing his violin, and seeing what happens. After 43 minutes, only one person recognized him. He made $32.17. You can read Gene Weingarten's account of the incident in the Washington Post right here.

For his Oct. 25 performance in Santa Rosa with pianist Alessio Bax—a benefit for the Santa Rosa Symphony—expect slightly more recognition when the two perform sonatas for violin and piano by Schubert, Grieg and Prokofiev.

Obviously, expect world-class excellence, too. I saw Joshua Bell with Jean Yves Thibeaud several years ago, and I could barely wrap my mind around his precision, verve, and passion. And even though that concert was held in a luxurious $30 million castle in the Napa Valley, Bell was no reclusive star hiding in his dressing room away from the people. In fact, he hopped off the stage afterwards and casually hung out with the audience, chatting and signing autographs.

It's that aspect—the human connection—that differentiates Bell's original experiment from the glut of recent opportunistic others. (Bell recently reprised his subway appearance in a more formal setting, announced beforehand, to raise awareness for music education in the schools.)

Rather than open the floodgates for more, it's time for celebrities to stop busking on the street until they can get back to purer motives.