We're All Mad Here: The Institution in Music Videos

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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.

The institution as a recurring theme in pop culture tells us a great deal about how people think about institutions and mental illness, and music videos in particular provide a fascinating glimpse into perceptions of institutionalization and the institution as metaphor. Assembling this post, I pored through numerous videos depicting institutions and institutional life, ranging from the heinous to the fantastic.

I’ll start with one of my favorites; an unofficial music video for Rihanna’s “Disturbia” created by the team at Vestibeats. This particular video is performed in ASL:

Here’s a full description of the “Disturbia” video that I prepared when I was writing at Feministe last summer. There are layers and layers of imagery going on here. The lyrics of “Disturbia” hint at some experiences of mental illness while Khan and her partners depict the turmoil inside the narrator’s brain, with definite themes of institution overlaid, though not necessarily explicit.

The sense of restraint in the lyrics and dance is both internal, mental, the result of pressures from within the narrator’s mind; and external, created by the environment around the narrator. The narrator warns that she is dangerous and out of control, reminding listeners and viewers of a common stereotype about mental illness.

At the same time, though, the lyrics also suggest to me that the narrator is struggling with trying to understand and process what is happening inside her head, a common experience for some of us. And she is also trying to express herself, to put something very large that obviously scares her into words. You might read the ending as a depiction of the character trapped inside her own mind, but it could also be a depiction of her trapped in an institutional setting where she can’t express or explore herself.

Our next feature is “Tightrope,” with Janelle Monáe and Big Boi. Here’s a link to a transcript of the “Tightrope” video along with a short analysis by Annaham.

Janelle Monáe - Tightrope [feat. Big Boi] by Warner-Music

This video is particularly interesting because it touches upon themes about the pathologization of resistance to oppression, something I talked about way back at the beginning of this series. In this video, Janelle sings and dances with the other characters as she tries to escape the arbiters of good and normal behavior in the form of nurses and orderlies who pursue her through the narrative until they finally win at the end, trapping her inside her room. Her creative fire is subdued, and there the video ends.

It is impossible to look at a video featuring a black woman in an institution without thinking about the gendering and racializing of mental illness, for me anyway. This is a sharp look at institutional life and the grinding effect it has on the lives of inmates, where creative expression is suppressed and other people hold all the power. The nurses with the medication carts and the powerful orderlies are the ones who get to decide how, when, and where you express yourself. “Tightrope” is a significant departure from more traditional depictions of institutional life.

Rihanna’s “Madhouse” video (.doc transcript here), plays upon some very familiar themes about institutions and mental illness. We see straitjackets and constraints, a madwoman with wild hair clawing at the bars of a cell and writhing. There’s also a classic depiction of a scary inmate, complete with ominous eye patch and prison garb, blurring the lines between mental institutions and the prison system. Again, in a video featuring a woman of color as the primary protagonist, there are important underlying themes going on here, particularly with that sharp and brutal ending.

While Rihanna may not have intended it, the inclusion of an inmate who could be a patient or a prisoner is also a subtle nod to the fact that prisons in the United States are increasingly being used to house people with mental illness. One consequence of limited mental health services is that sometimes the only way to get care is to go to prison, and even there, access to care can be highly limited. Particularly for mentally ill youth, treatment options can be minimal and parents are sometimes advised to simply surrender their children to law enforcement to get care.

This small sampling of depictions of institutions is merely the tip of the iceberg! Clearly, institutions are a popular theme in music videos.

Related Reading:
The Transcontinental Disability Choir: Disability Chic: Temporary Disability In Lady Gaga’s ‘Paparazzi’
Music Matters: Persona and Performance
Tuning In: Janelle Monáe’s ‘Tightrope’
We’re All Mad Here: Going to the Loony Bin: A Brief History of the Asylum
We’re All Mad Here: Race, Gender, and Mental Illness in Pop Culture

We’re All Mad Here: Joanna is Mad! Isn’t It Romantic?, We’re All Mad Here: Parenting While Crazy

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