Periodically, I’d like to focus the attention of this blog on music videos. People tend not to watch them on television anymore. However, digital technology and communication has challenged where and how we view television for a long time, allowing us to download, stream, and share with others. Music videos have that sort of currency. And the release of a music video is still an event, if recent fodder over Erykah Badu’s “Window Seat” and Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” are any indication.
One music video that I’d like more attention paid to is the clip for Janelle Monáe’s “Tightrope,” which was directed by Wendy Morgan. I’ve been a fan since I read about her opening for No Doubt. She’s been recording since 2005, worked with OutKast on Idlewild, and continues to have a professional relationship with Big Boi. She and Solange Knowles have also worked with indie acts like Of Montreal, perhaps because they don’t want their race to dictate their sound or segregate their audience. I love Monáe’s singular retro sound, which recalls early Motown and new wave in equal measure and swipes hooks from unexpected places like Sesame Street. I also think her look is iconic.
Most female pop stars seem to abide by normative definitions of femininity (even indie retro soul singers like Sharon Jones wear dresses), so I love that Monáe has cultivated such a simple yet clearly androgynous look built around menswear. It may be easy to read her look as abiding by white definitions of proper attire. However, I think that while she’s clearly setting herself apart from more conventionally feminine pop stars like Beyoncé and Katy Perry, she’s also putting herself in a larger sociohistoric context with her style.
Monáe’s pompadour recalls rockabilly culture and its fascination with black culture. The broad shoulders, tails, and saddle shoes remind me of Little Richard taking what he learned from church in Macon to teen audiences that were beginning the slow process of integration. When I see skinny ties, narrow-cut suits, and cropped fades, I remember Grace Jones. When I see her don a tuxedo, I recall Motown’s move to assimilate their black artists to white audiences by putting the Miracles in coordinated formal wear shortly after the passing of the Civil Rights Act. I also think of how relaxed Michael Jackson looks on the cover of Off the Wall. Plus, I haven’t seen someone rock a pair of highwaters this well since the King of Pop. And she does it without socks.
I feel it necessary to set up Monáe’s style because it is a focal point of this music video, which features the singer performing an intricate routine with three men and one woman in matching suits. But there are other noteworthy aspects to the clip. It takes place in an asylum called the Palace of the Dogs with an African American nurse doling out medication. Pills are perhaps used for the purposes of mind control, though it should be noted that the nurse is the only employee that we see. In the clip, Monáe saunters through the halls and brings her band together to entertain a crowd of hip patients dressed in black turtlenecks. It’s clear that Monáe is also in treatment at this clinic. She is also haunted by two Grim Reapers who have mirrors for faces, bringing to mind Maya Deren’s 1943 short Meshes of the Afternoon. Toward the end of the clip, Monáe briefly escapes to a wooded area before being returned to the institution by her attendants
Monáe’s formal attire is perhaps not what one associates with mental institution patients. Furthermore, her dancing is a deliberate act of rebellion that defies the asylum’s mandate against dancing. According to the disclaimer that accompanies the clip, dancing is forbidden because of its supposed subversive effects on residents, which may cause illegal magical practices. I cannot help but read this as an indictment against racial policing that can occur as a result of stereotyping. African Americans are essentialized for, among a variety of other things, being inherently good dancers. While assuming all black people are “naturally” coordinated and rhythmically attuned is wrong, enforcing a rule that prevents willing black people from dancing hardly seems the solution.
While race should not just be commented upon when media texts involve people of color, it should be noted that, with the possible exception of the Grim Reapers, everyone is the clip is black. Perhaps this is meant to be an acknowledgment of racial segregation and that even in a supposedly post-racial America, people are still guided by situations or circumstances often predetermined by society according to race. To that end, it’s possible that the asylum stands in for another institution that oppresses people of color: prison.
I think this metaphor should be extended to the song, which is about dealing with various internal and external pressures and persevering. It’s also interesting that this is the single for her upcoming album The ArchAndroid, which will incorporate two pieces from her previous EP, Metropolis Suite I of IV: The Chase. The EP is a concept piece about alter ego Cindy Mayweather, an android made in the future to further the purposes of social stratification. In The ArchAndroid, Mayweather becomes a messiah.
In short, “Tightrope” is a music video from a cerebral female artist we should all be hearing and watching. All these layers of meaning and you can dance to it too? That’s how I like my pop music.