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!

11 thoughts on “Psychiatric Hospitals and Music Videos: Part 1

  1. Thank you for this. I’m very interested in the depiction of psychiatric hospitals in popular culture. The idea that the woman in the first video wasn’t mentally ill is of particular note when you consider the way institutions were used during certain periods to keep women out of sight or to punish women. The story of the sculptor Camille Claudel comes to mind or the very questionable hospitalization and lobotomy of the painter Sigrid Hjerten. I hope that you will continue this series- maybe do something on the depiction of psychiatric hospitals in movies or TV shows?

    Anyway, great post, really interesting!


  2. I was *threatened* with the “padded room” but I never saw it, and I never saw a straitjacket.

    However, it was very jail like. We didn’t have barred windows, we had a diamond metal grate design between two pieces of glass (16 stories up).

    And a jerk acting as therapist (but definitely NOT one) said his other job was at a prison, and if we didn’t shape up, he’d see us there.

    This was for ADOLESCENTS (struggling with depression, anger issues, etc) 12/13-17.

    I can’t watch the videos, but the idea of a psych ward as prison is too familiar for me. Also, my dad – being a jerk – was like “I know that place, I’ve had to take kids up there straight from my cop car.”

    It is disability related – how we’re treated.

  3. Sadly I can’t watch videos at the moment, but:

    Instead, the videos co-opt the symbols and accessories to illustrate the extremity and depth of the singer’s emotions.

    it’s interesting how it’s portrayed that people with mental illness have the same emotions and responses as people without mental illness, only more intensified and less controlled. That doesn’t really reflect my experiences with MI. I can’t quite put my finger on why it’s bugging me. Thoughts?

  4. Thanks for this. I can’t see videos, but it’s sure interesting to read about the depction of psychiatric hospital sin them.

  5. I really like Skin’s ‘Nothing But’ video (you can find it on youtube) — It does use the hospital backdrop as a way to express extreme emotion, but it feels empowering, even if it’s not so much about disability/mental illness. I’d like to see your writeup, if you’re planning on including it in part 2.

  6. I happened to see the N’Sync video again recently and wanted to throw things at the television. I have very vague memories of it from the first time around, mainly revolving around the satin pajamas, but oh god I hadn’t remembered the rest of it. SO TERRIBAD.

  7. @Nomie – to be fair, it’d be pretty TERRIBAD even without the psych setting. 😉 i cannot believe justin’s hair!!!

  8. Thanks for a great post! I am not sure if you are soliciting recommendations of more videos to discuss for part 2 of the series, but I immediately thought of Basket Case by Green Day.

  9. lilpocketninja – it’s more fake images of what a mental illness is, that we’re so out of control when we’re in love (as if love makes anyone act “normal”), therefor, we’re out of control the rest of the time. (It could also be playing with the stereotype of “manic” or ADD or who knows what else. Media psychiatry is… um.. worse than Justin’s hair?)

  10. I’m always both fascinated and repelled by these sorts of videos. The pop-culture take on institutionalization is always so trivializing, as though the whole thing is just a brief “break” rather than a space where one is confined, sometimes voluntarily, and sometimes against one’s will.

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