Grimes Takes You to Hell

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One recurring trope in science-fiction is the man-made apocalypse, a gloomy, deserted world that’s inhabited by those unlucky enough to witness the side effects of human error. Sometimes it’s from careless behavior like wastefulness, or the threat of a new technology that spreads fear and eliminates empathy, or even the rise of an anarchal state awash in violence. When discussing her new video for “Go,” Grimes hints at the cause for her nightmare-fuel video with: “In the inferno, people’s actions in life echo eternally,” later adding “We shot a bunch at the Salton Sea, which is basically an apocalyptic wasteland filled with dead fish because of human carelessness, a hallway of bullet holes à la Korn ‘Freak on a Leash.'”

Grimes casts herself as the beleaguered Dante, traveling through a unique layer of hell with Blood Diamonds as a particularly flossy Virgil (chain and all). Unlike the bullet in Korn’s “Freak on a Leash” that pierces through everyday objects to cause disruption and chaos, the bullet holes in Grimes’ video is a nod to violence that’s already occurred. In fact, at this point one functions more as a peep hole that peers into the blacklit, filtered dance that Grimes (Dante?), performs.

The 90s style rave-as-futurism outfits and imagery are reminiscent of Katherine Bigelow’s 1995 film Strange Days, where pre-Millenium Los Angeles is on the verge of chaos in the wake of corrupt cops and new technology that threatens to desensitize citizens to violent imagery. It’s interesting that this particular stylization continues to function as a sign of descent into hellish territory, and at this point I’m not 100% sure why, but I feel like nu-metal might be partially to blame.

Angela Bassett in Strange Days

Angela Bassett in Strange Days

It’s worth noting, especially considering Grimes’ bindi-wearing and somewhat sketchy past of cultural appropriation that “Go” also has pause-worthy racial aspects. Though the dancers in the video could be any race, seeing as how the lighting distorts and some of them are wearing masks, in shots of Grimes dancing and wearing a dress in a way that reads future-exotic by way of vague Asian influence, Grimes creates a future (albeit bleak one), inspired by people of color that doesn’t feel like it needs to specifically reference them. Writing about Grimes’ video for “Genesis” (which had similar problems), Julianne Escobedo Shepard called the practice “attaching vague ethnic allusions to coolness without context.”

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Here’s to a future with less of that.

It’s Hard Out Here For Lily Allen

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In 2008 Katy Perry described herself as a “thinner version of Lily Allen,” a peculiar jab that turned out to be an amalgamation of what caused Allen’s rage at the music industry. In her earlier years with the release of Alright, Still, Allen’s weight and “unconventionality” were talking points (and in some cases, selling points) to an extent that when she lost weight around the time of her follow-up album, It’s Not Me, It’s You, she sarcastically swiped back on her hit “The Fear” with “Everything’s cool as long as I’m getting thinner.”

Allen has always been acutely aware of the shelf-life of women in the music industry, a beauty and youth based package that, inevitably, would leave her behind. In “22,” Allen relates this to non-singers, a catchy pop tune bemoaning the plight of an aging woman. (“It’s sad but it’s true how society says her life is already over.”) It almost seemed like Lily Allen had taken this to heart and was going to retire from music for good, until the announcement earlier this year that she was working on her third album.

And lo, it’s “Hard Out Here” for a bitch.

In Lily Allen’s New Video Probably Went Over Your Head, Kathy Iandoli summarizes the difficulties of Allen’s life following her departure from music:

The years that followed for Lily Allen were pretty brutal. She miscarried more than once, met with tweets from “fans” who said things like “I’m glad your baby died” and other pleasantries. When she finally gave birth (twice), she was called fat a number of times and accused of “falling off.” She changed her name to her married name, Lily Rose Cooper, and was called a kept woman. So she brought it back to the née status and was accused of going through another divorce. It truly is hard out here for a bitch.

The “Hard Out Here” video, a satirical pop culture send-up of music industry misogyny, begins with her manager bemoaning her post-baby weight gain, until a newly-liposucked Allen makes a comeback of sorts in a cartoonishly over-the-top music video. Besides the obvious swipes at Robyn Thicke with lines like “who will tear your butt in two” and the glorious balloon display of “LILY ALLEN HAS A BAGGY PUSSY,” the majority of the video satirizes the self-objectification of young singers, notably Miley Cyrus.

I’ve said this about Miley before, but her sexually liberated front is really a carefully calculated appeal to the most basic straight male fantasies, and I couldn’t help but think of that when Allen’s manager tries to teach her how to twerk in the “Hard Out Here” video. The twerking, along with the white woman (Allen) objectifying her women of color dancers in order to assert her dominant sexuality, seems pretty familiar to anyone who has seen or read anything about Miley Cyrus in the past year. This is an interesting point on Allen’s part, but the execution is very flawed.

Allen’s got a bit of her own internalized misogyny that she’s dealing with, notably in the lines “I don’t need to shake my ass for you because I’ve got a brain,” which I’m sure the many brilliant ass-shakers of the world take issue with. The idea that overt sexuality and liberation are mutually exclusive is just flat-out wrong, and I would counter that with Rihanna’s “Pour It Up” video.

Allen’s use of women of color backup dancers as a Miley slam mostly ends up feeling awkwardly racist. The close-up shots of butts twerking and bottles popping aren’t something that Miley invented (duh), and in fact, it’s her appropriation of those signifiers that got people talking about Miley to begin with. There’s a lot to critique about how young women singers are marketed, and at points Allen is spot on (The part where she makes a dancer pose for Polaroids, a la Terry Richardson, is fucking brilliant), but at some point she ends up perpetuating sexist views of what, exactly, makes a woman empowered.

Sports, Music, and the Cocky Black Male

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[I’d like to welcome another guest post, this time by Jaime-Paul Falcon, who can be found at the Dallas Observer, among other places.]

With forty-six seconds left in the second quarter of Sunday’s game in Detroit, Dez Bryant made the catch of the year. Down 7-3, Tony Romo took a snap, dropped back, and fired a back shoulder fade to a covered Bryant, who leaped into the air, reached behind himself, trapped the ball with one had, corralled it against his helmet, and managed to stay in-bounds as a second defender came charging at him in hopes of laying a blow that would dislodge the ball from Bryant’s hand. Note that I say hand, singular. It’s a play few people can make, a play that Dez Bryant makes look almost routine, a play that was overshadowed by his actions later in the game.

Twice on Sunday, Fox cameras cut to an emotional Bryant yelling aggressively at his teammates. Reports from the Cowboys camp say that Bryant was just trying to pump his teammates up; Bryant himself said he was yelling encouragement, however, much of the media chose to run with the story as yet another example of Bryant’s immaturity.

Ex-Ravens coach Brian Billick remarked on Bryant’s argument with Tight End Jason Witten, chiding Bryant for “…pulling his spoiled-child routine again.” Within minutes, social media, especially amongst the people in Dallas, the state of Texas, the US, and that weird land where anyone can say what they want, erupted in outrage over Bryant’s behavior, with many commenters being taken aback that Bryant would dare shout at Witten.

The language of the outrage is similar to how Kanye West is discussed both by culture critics and the general public. West is constantly derided for what’s seen as an extreme ego run wild, and much like Bryant, it feels like the criticism is levied so heavily because of the color of his skin.

Director Spike Lee once discussed how he never felt more uncomfortable during film then while watching one of the Rocky films. He noted how general excitement over the film turned dark when Rocky made his charge against Apollo Creed – Lee said he felt that it wasn’t the audience rooting for the underdog, it was the audience rooting for the brash African-American athlete getting his comeuppance. The director has made a career of holding up a mirror to audiences to show that society is uncomfortable with the success of the young blackmale, and therefore does everything it can do to attack them, and bring them down. Anything young black men do is automatically magnified and scrutinized to death, because of society’s need to keep the status-quo, to keep people of color in their place. So when people so gleefully attack any missteps by Bryant or West, they’re not saying, “Look at this guy being an idiot!” They’re shaking their heads scoffing, “Who does this guy think he is?”

And it’s not as if others aren’t pointing this out. After Sunday’s criticism started to amass, Grantland’s Chris Ryan took to the site’s Monday recap of NFL events to write about how maligned Dez is. He listed six points, ranging from an incident where NFL GM questioned Bryant over whether his mother was a prostitute, to Bryant’s banning from a posh Dallas-area mall for his fashion choices. During this time period, former Texas Ranger Josh Hamilton was having publicized relapses with his drug and alcohol addictions, and the support in the Dallas area for Hamilton was almost universal; the scorn for Bryant, almost the same.

In a piece published last week, Flaunt Magazine editor E. Ryan Ellis made an aside noting that in college, Bryant was suspended by the NCAA for part of a season for having dinner with his mentor Deion Sanders. Current Texas A&M quarterback, Johnny Manziel, received just a one game suspension for allegedly receiving payments for autographs.

These pieces are comparable to an essay on Kanye written by Kiese Laymon, in which Laymon discusses Kanye’s social impact with his step-grandfather in Mississippi, his friends in New York, a cab driver, and finally, a class at Columbia. While rightfully critiquing West for his feminist failures, Laymon contextualizes his place in the world as a voice for the modern young black man – one who scares the modern white man.

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In his review of West’s latest album Yeezus for the New Yorker, music critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote of the artist, “Why are so many people fond of being mad at Kanye West? Is it his lack of control, his self-absorption, his boastfulness? Complaining about a surfeit of ego in a celebrity performer is like going to Barcelona and bitching that the locals eat dinner too late.” It’s a brilliant opener to a review-turned critique of how we as an audience, and more so as a public, view Wests’ work based on the audacity of his antics and less on the merits of his work. Sounds pretty familiar to how Dez Bryant is being treated at the moment, doesn’t it? In fact, it’s one and the same. This critical reaction has not improved since Muhammad Ali was maligned by the white press in the 1960s and 1970s.

Ali was far above his peers in both talent (Bryant) and his ability to divide people over his comments (West). As he aged, matured, and moved away from the fire of his youthful antics, Ali eventually became loved by the his critics, the public, his country, and the world. Time will tell if either 24 yer-old Bryant or West will be able to reach the heights of adoration like Ali, while not succumbing to the lows they’re constantly brought down to.

An example of someone who did not survive this sort of criticism raised his head on Sunday to defend Bryant’s actions. The much-maligned ex-NFL receiver Terrell Owens was run out of the league when his antics were deemed too detrimental to teams when compared to his on field production. Owens, who has been out of the NFL since failing to catch on with the Seattle Seahawks in 2012, raised the question if there was a double standard with Dez Bryant’s antics, and New England quarterback Tom Brady’s much publicized sideline tantrums with teammates earlier this year. Speaking with Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman, Owens summed it up simply: “Why is Tom Brady showing passion when he screams at players, but Dez is out of control?” I don’t want to say it, but I do wonder if race plays a part in the double standard. Why is Brady treated one way, and Dez another?” Salient points from someone who went through something very similar.

Time will tell if these things will change; West is still dealing with blowback from his post-Twitter rant appearance on Jimmy Kimmel, and has suffered criticism from his extravagant proposal to fiancé Kim Kardashian. The week of endless stories concerning Bryant’s behavior just kicked off, and one has to wonder how the media storm will affect his play this coming Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings. However, one thing is for sure; in the wake of a weekend dominated by Halloween costumes that not only featured the racist use of blackface, but also the decision by a couple of young adults to go as Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, it feels like we’re not that removed from the days of racial strife that existed 50 years ago. It just feels like we’ve found different ways to couch the indignant language, and found different figures to attack.

Race, Gender, and Fan Harassment

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In a widely-republished and quoted article by Lauren Mayberry of CHVRCHES titled I Will Not Accept Online Misogyny, we’re given a wearying glimpse into the type of sexually explicit messages directed at Mayberry, the only female member of CHVRCHES. Despite the “YOU TELL ‘EM, GIRL!!” collective reaction of the Internet, Mayberry’s piece is less an excoriating screed against fan misogyny, and more of a tepid plea for it to cease. “I identify as a feminist but subscribe to the pretty basic definition of a feminist as ‘someone who seeks equality between the sexes'” Mayberry hedges, “I am now, and have always been, in bands with smart, supportive guys, and have many amazing men in my life as family and friends. For that I am incredibly grateful.”

She goes on to ask “Would you condone this behaviour if it was directed at your mother/sister/daughter/wife/girlfriend?”, the go-to response to men who lack the capacity to sympathize with women with whom they have no relation. Mayberry’s piece is important, but almost every point is underscored with “This isn’t too much to ask!” and “No, I don’t hate men!” It says a lot that Mayberry felt it necessary to qualify that.

For the most part, Mayberry’s plight with fan harassment is being taken seriously. It’s so familiar for women (especially if you are the only woman in a band) to receive gendered and creepy solicitations that, while they are no longer surprising, it’s not a stretch to believe that it’s a problem. The contrast to this is an article that was published on the same day as Mayberry’s Guardian piece, posted at Gawker titled Danny Brown Admits That His Onstage Blowjob Wasn’t Sexual Assault.

For those that don’t remember, earlier this year rapper Danny Brown’s show in Minneapolis made headlines when a fan pulled down his pants and began to perform oral sex. Danny’s tourmate, Kitty, wrote in Vice that Brown was sexually assaulted, adding “It’s obvious that the reason nobody cares is because a girl did it to a boy.” Brown himself remained relatively quiet about the matter, until Pitchfork quoted him as saying “I look back at it and see that it takes two to tango. As much as it was [the young woman at the concert’s] fault, it was my fault, too.”

In conjunction with a quote from Complex where Danny says “It shouldn’t be a big deal. I just felt embarrassed because I wasn’t all the way hard yet,” the Gawker piece gleefully jumps to the (implied obvious) conclusion that Danny Brown wasn’t sexually assaulted. But why is it so hard to believe that a man could be sexually assaulted, or even that he would have trouble admitting it if he was?

“Everyone wants the option of blaming it on Danny, because people can’t accept the fact that a white girl raped a black dude in front of a bunch of people” writes Kitty, getting to the crux of the racial and gender dynamics of the incident and how that shaped the public’s reaction. Masculinity, and the perceived invulnerability of black men are the reasons why Kitty’s piece was met with widespread skepticism, and the gleeful I-Told-You-So taunts from Gawker illuminate the fact that if we are so unwilling to consider the possibility that Brown was assaulted, there’s no reason to think that it would even be an option for him to come clean about it.

Brown’s situation is just as much about fan entitlement as Mayberry’s. Both Brown and Mayberry were put in sexual situations that they did not ask to be a part of, but only Mayberry can be the victim. Female victimhood is expected because of publicly-scorned-yet-widely-practiced behaviors, and therefore inevitable. A man, especially a black man, being the victim of sexual assault challenges gender existentialist views of strength and power. As Gawker illustrates, people don’t want to let go of those views.

Work, Bitch: The Increasingly ‘Gay-Friendly’ Marketing of Pop Stars

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[Guest Post by Michelle Ofiwe. Read more from her at The Doorknocker]

Like most of her career post 2009, Britney Spears’ newest single “Work Bitch” has the Internet fumbling to make up its mind. The four minute collision of disco beats and autotune has been swirling around in the whirlwind of media blogs, pop culture commentators and less-than-psyched fans. Somewhere underneath Spears’ candied British accent, you can hear the ambiguousness of millions of fans hoping for some small semblance of a comeback across the varied, scary space of the Internet.

In the aftermath of its release, the single has drawn some criticism over its thinly veiled attempt at “gay marketing,”—a term that not-so-neatly refers to the hunt for the hundreds upon thousands of (sometimes corporate, sometimes not) dollars squirreled away in the pockets of the elite of the queer community. The most interesting criticism yet comes from queer rapper Mykki Blanco:

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To be honest, Blanco isn’t mistaken. Spears’ single features bumping house beats, chic references to the slang of New York’s ball culture (the title alone is a reference to RuPaul, one of the more recognizable members of the LGBTQ community. This has spawned rumors about a potential vocal feature from the diva herself), and chants to “work! work! work!” among other cultural signifiers. Spears’ sings about parties in France and the life of luxury that awaits you if you’d just “work, bitch!” In a way, it strikes a huge resemblance to the glam-cheesy music of drag culture, complete with a bassline and plenty of inspirational sass. At first glance, Spears’ single doesn’t seem very culture-vulture(ish) because such signifiers have phased into the mainstream with the help of networks like LogoTV and shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, which draws in straight and queer viewers alike.  A track like “Work Bitch!” is just another recognition of the queer community (specifically, gay men as the originators of the slang and the culture) consumers within a market.

Yet, one of the main avenues to tap into this market is limited to things like the “gay marketing” Blanco describes above. In the midst of Spears’ track, vodka banners at Pride parades and “gay districts,” is the idea that the connection to the community must come from a celebration of one’s sexual identity. The “design to keep [gay men] rolling on ecstasy till 6am” is a problematic but lucrative venture hell-bent on sneaking its way into gay clubs, where LGBTQ socialization and unionization is considered to occur the most. Play a song in the club and maybe someone somewhere won’t think you (or your artist) is a homophobe or otherwise intolerant to the “gay lifestyle,” and you  might just make a profit. If it seems shallow, it’s because it is, and because certain ideas and tenements central to the queer community has changed.

Gay marketing is a thing because some recognize their own buying power. Take, for example, queer/sex columnist Dan Savage’s extremely popular boycott of Russian vodka in protest of Russia’s anti-LGBTQ policies. Although the “movement” has been proven to have little to no effect on Russia’s economy or its LGBTQ community, it is perhaps one of the biggest displays of the buying power of gay, white men and a sharp divide from the older days of radical protests within the community as a whole.

Historically, politics’ intersections with class are not new, but buying power has an interesting background when it comes to extending the political reach of otherwise marginalized communities. Money has also been an effective way to relate a message to a particular mainstream group or oppressor, whether by boycotts or “buycotts.”  Thus, it’s no coincidence that the dollar votes of gay white males are having a huge effect on the representation outside and within the community and especially within the media. The recent strides in queer representation in media (Modern Family, Glee) and their subsequent popularity is a huge example of how a little “gay” goes a long way. The music industry is taking notice.

Spears’ single exists because of this shift in economic power, and because of the unbalanced buying power within the queer community that puts the direction of its issues, ideals, likes/wants/needs in the hands of gay, white (rich) men. It is possible that queers of color may enjoy Spears’ single, but Spears’ main target is, of course, those with the money to buy her single, spin her hits and show up to her concerts. They are the queers who have made enough money to shimmy up next to her in a party in France and scream the slang of young Black and Latino queers in the hood. For all intents and purposes, they are the queers who have “worked.”

The other important shift that makes Spears’ single possible is a racial one. The appropriation of the styles, language and even the music generated and popularized among young, poor queers of color has slowly infiltrated the consciousness of white queers—specifically white gay men—through either the media or just organically. Because gay, white males get to behave as a link between straight people (and the media they produce) and queer community, and simultaneously as the source of all pop culture related to the community, then it’ll be easy to understand how Britney Spears’ might find her way to the slang she throws out so easily on the track. As it stands, most of the queer community benefits from the ball culture and other subcultures created and inhabited by these queers of color who very rarely find themselves in the same spotlight or with the same credit as Spears’ does.

Spears is not the only pop diva guilty of this, of course, and Blanco’s claim can be made about many popular female artists whose fanbases include gay men or queers in general. “Work Bitch” is another notch in what can very much be termed as “gay marketing,” but the ideas and game plan that make it possible have been in effect for many years, and will likely be for many years after. What we need to consider is both the strength and the direction of the new buying power of the queer community, and what message such money is being funneled into.

“I’m Just a White Girl in this World” – On Hip-hop’s White Girls and Internet Novelty

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In the “Ay Shawty 3.0” video, a soft lense captures Kitty’s flower halo as she walks through a field, sundress and all. For the “rap game Taylor Swift” this imagery is not uncommon. The coy femininity — eyes darting away from the camera while she leisurely spits rhymes — are part of what made her breakthrough, “Okay Cupid,” such a massive Internet sensation. “Okay Cupid” was a disconcerting juxtaposition of teenage girl iconography and veiled suggestions, Kitty rapping about receiving three a.m. thirst calls from men, while she and her friends lounge in a room decorated with Hello Kitty and various heart shapes. The success of “Okay Cupid” (and perhaps, Kitty in general) is attributed to novelty, with a young, innocent-looking white girl rapping about cocaine with a carefully-placed bow in her hair. Kitty was 19 when “Okay Cupid” was released, but her refusal to talk about her age led people to speculate that she was younger.

In Kitty’s video with Riff Raff, “Orion’s Belt,” Kitty moves with a forced awkwardness, walking in a stilted manner and standing as if she isn’t quite sure what she’s supposed to be doing. Between the attempt at gracelessness and the girlish doodling of hearts, the comparison to Taylor Swift seems more than fair. Both women play at outsider status while simultaneously being openly welcomed and celebrated for reaching the prescribed pinnacle of femininity as young, white women.

The summer before “Okay Cupid” made the rounds, there was Kreayshawn’s “Gucci Gucci,” an annoyingly-infectious track that quickly went viral. With doorknocker earrings and a bow bigger than her head, Kreayshawn parties and drinks after persuading a shopper (played by Lil Debbie), to avoid designer clothes because “basic bitches wear that shit.” While the similarities between Kreayshawn and Kitty seem only surface level (white girls with YouTube views and a penchant for winged eyeliner) both of their successes can be attributed to, at least initially, the novelty. A few years ago Touré wrote in the New York Times that white women rapping is seen akin to “a cat walking on its hind legs.”

Kreayshawn’s success introduced the world to the White Girl Mob, a now-defunct group that consisted of Kreayshawn, Lil Debbie, and V Nasty. All three ladies were young, thin, and light-skinned, their poor rapping skills overshadowed by their looks and shocking attitude. V Nasty in particular made a name for herself for casually dropping racial epithets, answering to criticism with an emphatic “You don’t know where I’m from!,” as if the ability to use pejoratives without retribution would give her some sort of street cred (Popularly referred to as the hood pass).

What’s interesting is how, while the White Girl Mob’s skin color is a huge part of their success (Why else would you call yourself a ‘White Girl Mob,’ if you’re attempting to avoid novelty?), they quickly divorce themselves from critique by emphasizing their outsider status. Lil Debbie’s video for “Ratchets” is one of the most racist videos ever released, with black women backup dancers serving as Debbie’s “ratchets” while she raps “I got ratchets in my living room ’til 6 in the morning/ And when I finish up this weed, man I’m sending them home.”

In one interview, Lil Debbie shrugs her shoulders when confronted with her racism and degradation of black women with a simple “I’m just a white girl in this world,” brushing off her responsibility with the assumption that since she’s a white girl, she can’t be expected to know what she’s doing or be held accountable. Later, while reaming in Miley Cyrus for stealing ideas from her “Ratchets” video (if this didn’t illuminate how far the “white girl playing at ratchet” trope has gone, then nothing else will), Lil Debbie brags “I don’t twerk, I have a twerker. I have a bitch that comes and twerks for me.”

Lil Debbie’s “Ratchets” video is the prime example of what is troublesome about white women’s place in hip-hop. Debbie’s faux-outsider status allows her to avoid responsibility by being a white girl, but then she turns around and, in the video, dominates black women, calling them *her* ratchets, a racial domination that asserts her superiority. They are her ratchets, and they twerk for her. The desirability of white women in hip-hop, excellently covered by Cord Jefferson in Kanye West and his Thirty White Bitches, puts white women on a dehumanizing pedestal as a prize to be achieved. When these white women rappers come around, perhaps in order to avoid asserting themselves as the prize, they assert themselves as the victors. The racism this leads to, as it’s always white women dominating black women, is joined with internalized-misogyny. Status is achieved by having someone to dominate, and with white women, the only power that they can’t really touch is white men, who are, as of now, the predominant consumers of hip-hop.

Walking the Tightrope

I was originally going to write a post about androgyny in music videos, but when I was trying to use Janelle Monáe’s video for “Tightrope” as an example, I felt that it would be unfair for me to only spend a marginal amount of time on it.

There’s a distinct intersection between race, mental illness, femininity, and discomfort that all come to play in the span of a three minute video. It starts by declaring that it’s set in “The Palace of the Dogs” an asylum where “dancing has long been forbidden for its subversive effects on the residents and its tendency to lead to illegal magical practices.”

The dancers inside the asylum are all wearing tuxedos– a head-nod to the lack of identity in such institutions, as well as a subversion of the subordinant dynamic. Instead of a drab uniform, the tuxedos are an indicator of rebellion – a hold of dignity that the mentally ill are often stripped of. The fact that everyone in the video is wearing a tuxedo is the tribute to sameness; there’s still lack of individuality (which could also be read as “we are all in this together” ), but the identifier takes on a higher class level of dress (though the suit is still a signifier of servitude, instead of wealth).

In Sounding Like a No-no: Queer Sounds & Eccentric Acts in the Post-Soul Era, Francesca T. Royster looks at the racial implications of the asylum scene:

“In “Tightrope,” Monáe reminds us of the many ways the prison industrial complex infiltrates our lives by means of surveillance and the heightened fear of black bodies in motion.”

The fact that the dancers in the video are all black is not a coincidence – as Royster says, it’s a reaction to the fear of black bodies, specifically those that don’t “behave” (in this sense, behavior is tied in with the correct behavior or an asylum patient: the rebellion is the dance and celebration in an otherwise solemn venue). The joy that the dancers exhibit is contradictory to the purpose of the institution, as it has “[a] tendency to lead to magical practices,” which could also be read as racialized fear of the unknown, as the white majority exhibits a general distrust and unease about practices it’s not familiar with.

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Monáe’s choice to wear a suit is, in her own words, an examination of (and tribute to) class:

“When I started my musical career I was a maid, I used to clean houses. My parents—my mother was a proud janitor, my step-father who raised me like his very own worked at the post office and my father was a trash man. They all wore uniforms. And that’s why I stand here today in my black and white and I wear my uniform to honor them.”

As a successful musician she has moved beyond the suit (or uniform), but continues to wear it as an acknowledgment of where she came from. There’s a parallel between the invisibility of the mentally ill and the invisibility of the working class — the uniform worn by the working class is both meant to make them distinct (to those who require their services), but also very easy to ignore (by those who don’t). The same could be said of patients who are actually in asylums (or as they’re presently called, Behavioral Health Centers), as they’re typically noted for stripping patients of identity, individuality, and agency.

Monáe’s video simultaneously acknowledges this lack of agency and playfully subverts it. The dancing-as-rebellion can’t be done without agency, so even though she and the other dancers are similarly clad in work clothing, they’re participating in behaviors that aren’t allowed. It’s the type of rebellion that goes on in secret — when the faceless guards walk by, Monáe and her crew act as though they aren’t breaking any rules.