Psychiatric Hospitals and Music Videos: Part 1
After reading Anna’s recent post on Janelle Monae’s ‘Tightrope’ video and how it “is a great example of how not to completely screw up representation(s) of disability,” I started remembering other music videos set in psychiatric hospitals. And then I started watching all these music videos!
One of the earliest I remember is Melissa Etheridge’s ‘Come to My Window.’
In the video (lyrics here), Juliette Lewis is in a bare room with a cot-like bed and a barred window. She wears a white tank top and white srub pants and has a white bandage around her left wrist. She paces, climbs, cries, scrawls on the walls and the floor. Intercut are shots of Etheridge, singing with an acoustic guitar and an old fashioned microphone. At times, the song stops and Lewis speaks/screams the lyrics in the bare room. At the end of the video the bandage comes off Lewis’ wrist and there is no cut or scar.
I feel kind of neutral about that one – I think the ending can be read either as “she was never crazy the whole time!” or as “she’s healing and going to be ok!” and both are somewhat problematic. But neither is it overtly offensive. For that, you have to look for N’Sync’s video for “I Drive Myself Crazy” (I bet you can guess where they’re going with this…)
The video (lyrics here) has segments of each of the band members with their girlfriends and then breaking up with them – inter cut with scenes of them in a psychiatric hospital, acting as stereotypically “crazy” as is possible. (Although wearing satin pajamas, inexplicably.) Clearly meant by the band to be a lighthearted and humorous video, the “joke” is that losing the girlfriend has been so traumatic that the band members have been rendered “crazy.”
Another video featuring psychiatric commitment as a result of losing a romantic partner is Missy Elliot’s “Teary Eyed.”
In the video (lyrics here), Missy Elliot breaks up with a boyfriend, follows him to a building where he is with a new girlfriend, and slashes the tires on his car, causing a horrible accident that kills him. She is sentenced in a court and goes to jail and then presumably to an institution for the “criminally insane.” There are several scenes in a stereotypical padded room, where Missy and sometimes backup dancers wear and dance in straitjackets. While this video certainly brings more seriousness to the subject, it’s hard to argue that it’s portrayal of people with mental illness was any more positive or accurate.
A video I have much more mixed emotions about is Bjork’s video for Violently Happy:
The song (lyrics here) is about the wild and overwhelming emotional exuberance that can go along with love and has long been a favorite of mine. But the video – featuring Bjork and other dancers shown individually in a stark padded room – seems to depict that emotion through the imagery of a psych hospital. I’m not entirely sure how to read this video – is it mocking or endorsing equating of the flush of love with psychiatric disorder? Why is everyone cutting or shaving their hair? – but overall it leaves me with a vaguely icky feeling. (Precise language, I know.)
I had to take a little break after watching those four. All of which depicted almost cartoonishly stereotypical “mental institutions,” with bare cots, padded rooms, and straitjackets. All of them drew parallels between psychiatric hospitalization and jail – the room in Ethridge’s video was bare like a jail cell with bars on the wall, the N’Sync boys were kept in line by guards, and both Bjork and Missy Elliot were straitjacketed in padded cells, Elliot having been sentenced there for her crimes. But none of this directly relates to any actual mental illnesses or disabilities. Instead, the videos co-opt the symbols and accessories to illustrate the extremity and depth of the singer’s emotions. And in all the videos it’s the same emotion being felt so extremely and deeply – love.
Thus concludes Part 1 of Psychiatric Hospitals and Music Videos! Check out Part 2 to see if these patterns continue!