Disability Representation in Music (Video), You’re Doing It Right: Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope”

This recent music video from singer-songwriter Janelle Monae is a great example of how not to completely screw up representation(s) of disability. Lyrics are located here.

And a description, courtesy of FWD’s own S.E.:

A black title card reads: ‘The Palace of the Dogs Asylum: Dancing has long been forbidden for its subversive effects on the residents and its tendency to lead to illegal magical practices.’

Two people in tuxedos are seen sitting against a white tiled wall. One is reading a book and the other is playing with a small ball, which eventually drifts up and floats in the air. The reader turns to see it and looks surprised.

Cut to an ominous-looking institution with a sign in front reading: ‘The Palace of the Dogs.’ Bright yellow text reading: ‘Monae and Left Foot: Tight Rope’ overlays the image as bouncy music plays.

Cut to a scene of a nurse pushing a cart full of medications. The scene starts with her feet, in sensible white shoes, and slowly pans up. She is moving down a hallway. As she proceeds, a woman (Janelle Monae) in a tuxedo without a jacket, with her hair in an elaborate sculpted pompadour, peers out the door of her room and then ducks back in. As she closes the door, we cut to her in her room, leaning against the door, and she starts singing.

The video cuts back and forth between the nurse moving down the hall, Monae singing and dancing in front of a mirror, and two ominous figures with mirrors for faces draped in black cloaks, seen from a distance. She eventually puts her jacket on and moves out of her room, softshoeing down the hallway, and other people, also in tuxedos, join
her. They storm into a cafeteria, where a band is playing, led by Big Boi, wearing a peacoat, a scarf, and a snappy hat. Monae jumps up onto a table and starts dancing, while people dance all around her.

As everyone dances, the nurse is seen peering around the corner with an angry expression. The scene cuts to the nurse gesticulating at the black-robed figures, who start to glide down the hallways and into the cafeteria. Monae dances right out of the wall, leaving an imprint of her clothes against the bricks, and ends up in a misty forest in what appears to be afternoon light, where she is pursued by the gliding black figures. Leaves cling to their cloaks. Evading them, she walks through a concrete wall, leaving another impression of her clothes behind, and she winds up in the hall again, where she is escorted by the robed figures. The video cuts back and forth between scenes of her
walking down the hall and the scene in the cafeteria, where music still plays and people still dance.

As she walks, a man in an impeccable suit and top hat walks by and tips his hat to her. She goes back into her room while people dance in the hall. The camera closes in on a table covered in papers and a piece of equipment which looks like a typewriter. She types a few keys, and then touches the papers, which turn out to be blueprints marked with ‘The Palace of the Dogs.’ She sits down on her bed,  rests her chin on her hand, and looks into the camera. The music fades and the scene cuts to black.

I really like what Cripchick has to say about this video: “i love the way that this video A.) critiques psychiatric institutions and B.) shows the ways that institutions/society/ableism polices our whole beautiful creative selves because if unleashed, we are powerful/uncontrollable.”

Additionally, I thought the cloaked figures were an interesting representation of the concept of the looking-glass self; another interpretation might be that they represent Bentham’s panopticon, or the sort of menacing, omipresent societal structure in which we must police ourselves constantly in order to be considered “normal.” Those are just two ways of looking at one aspect of this video, however.

What do you all think?

About Annaham

Annaham (they/them) is a feminist with several disabilities who occasionally updates their personal blog. They currently live in the San Francisco Bay Area with their partner, and an extremely spoiled Yorkie/Pom mix named Sushi. You can reach them by emailing hamdotblog AT gmail dot com.

10 thoughts on “Disability Representation in Music (Video), You’re Doing It Right: Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope”

  1. I just wrote a little about her. But this is by far the best critique of the music video. I was looking at the video more on a societal effect of soul and black music, where the asylum represents the status quo, and the song emits a lot of emulation of what soul and dance “use” to be.

    I see the asylum as kind of a purgatory, where the glass grim reaper figures represent the status quo quelling this type of music, of movement.

    My two cents, but you guys by far made me look at it a different way. Thanks!

  2. Doing it right for SURE! I love the multiple levels of meaning: Showing how cultural differences are pathologised, self-policing within minorities towards people who break the rules, showing how bleak and sad psych hospitals all too often are. Moreover, I love that an artist who’s apparently making music I really dig (never heard of her before today) is apparently awesome.

    I’ve definitely been a gimp too long. I took one look at the pills on the nurse’s cart and thought “extra strength Tylenol.”

  3. Wow! I had completely missed the asylum|mental illness angle of the video! I liked the video because it showed a kind of rebelling against the status quo, but with the angle that cripchick takes, it gives the video a whole new level. Fantastic!

  4. I really like Janelle Monae’s music and already have her first full LP pre-ordered, but I found the video offensive and I was wondering if anyone else has a problem with the use of asylums as symbols of the status quo? I like the general message of the video/song, but equating the inability to express yourself because of the status quo with people dealing with a serious mental illness in a psychiatric hospital really seems a bit exploitative.

    The video seems to suggest that the problems the “residents” face are wholly created by the asylum, and that the dancers are subversively freeing the residents by expressing themselves in a way the residents can’t. Or the residents are freeing themselves by dancing, I wasn’t sure which. I think the intention of the video is that the residents don’t actually have any sort of biological/chemical differences, they’re just people that have been “other”-ed by those in power, but I feel like this treatment of an asylum disregards the fact that a person dealing with mental illness isn’t going to be instantly cured when they break free of the status quo (especially when considering the effects of deinstitutionalism in the US in the 80’s).

    I’d love to hear other people’s opinions about this and I hope I’m not completely misinterpreting things.

  5. I think I have a simpler way of saying what bothered me about the video. I find it problematic when an asylum/mental illness is used as a metaphor for something else because it seems to downplay the reality of a person in an asylum dealing with a serious mental illness. Oppressive psychiatric hospitals with misunderstood/misdiagnosed patients is a stereotypical pop culture icon at this point, and it feels exploitative.

  6. Very interesting commentary, and I enjoyed reading all of the above comments. In my opinion, the asylum is just a backdrop, representing any environment where self-policing and self-disciplining is encouraged to fit a ‘norm’. The asylum could easily be replaced with a business office, wherein conservative, traditional behaviors often result in mediocre thoughts and outcome. I’ve found that I personally thrive in situations that allow me to be my true authentic self…. where creativity is embraced and fresh, new ideas are spawned. If society was filled with people who live structurally confining lives, this world would be as dull and bland as the asylum itself. I’m often challenged to align with the norm and yet produce what everyone has come to expect. It’s a delicate balance.. tipping on the tightrope for sure!

Comments are closed.