What The Hell Is Going On? Contemplating The Possible Genius Of Janelle Monáe’s “Tightrope” Video


I’ve been watching and re-watching Janelle Monáe’s video for ArchAndroid first single “Tightrope” for a few months now, and though I’ve come up with lots of other music-related stuff to talk and think about since, it’s stuck with me. Firmly. Not for Gaga reasons, either–it’s not nine minutes long or laden with haute couture and mind-numbing identity politics–the “Tightrope” clip is weird and memorable primarily for pulling from much more easily identifiable source material. More crucially, however, it’s the ever-so-gently-strange way that Monae and her asylum of tights-and-tux-wearing tightrope walkers present this song, and its attendant mythology. Because pop concepts are most often inherently batshit chimeras–and that’s what makes them brilliant and fun to explore–I want to try and figure out exactly what’s going on here. Wish me luck.

The video opens with a title card identifying the building we’re about to enter as “The Palace of the Dogs,” a Cuckoo’s Nest joint that has unfortunately, we’re told, fallen prey to some Footloose­style cultural regulations on dancing. In a recent interview, Monáe admitted that there was an actual Palace of the Dogs, where she actually studied at one point, and that more will be revealed soon enough. But then she also says, “I do think that artists have superpowers and people want to know, you know, what makes you tick. And so I definitely can believe that there have been places where artists have either voluntarily signed up — or they were actually forced to sign up — to be studied and analyzed.” Which leaves open the less actual and more thrilling possibility of the Palace as the centerpiece of a thrilling sort of sci-fi narrative-cum-folktale–maybe somehow branching off the Metropolis-inspired “narrative” of the album–in which the most gifted (African-Americans) are quarantined and disallowed to practice their skills while under examination, lest their unique magical powers escape untethered.

And it’s the type of dancing that’s most thrilling here, of course. There’s not been a dance-centric video this compelling since Missy’s heyday, and part of it’s just the fact that Monáe and her collaborators have created a two-part dance: Do the Tightrope, as it were. The first part is drawn directly from James Brown, as has been noted frequently: the out-of-control feet being continually tamed, as if a tapdancer lost control over the lower half of her body, the upper body more or less used for balance (yet after seeing that other recent Wonderland denizen’s dance, I can’t help but make the comparison to this strange thing). The second part, more avian in derivation perhaps, but equally necessary to keep one’s balance: lithely flapping one’s arms up and down while bending at the knees to avoid falling.

The Godfather’s there to be sure (as are Stevie and Cab Calloway), but in visual terms, the tuxes say “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough,” the locale “Basket Case.” Hell, the hallways recall “…Baby One More Time.” Even more, for all the financial backing she’s got, the video purposely goes b-movie on some of its effects–notably the jagged cuts as she runs through walls, leaving her tux plastered to the plaster, and the Bergman-esque hooded reaper figures holding mirrors in front of their faces, which is a trick my undergraduate film-major buddy used in one of his schlockiest horror films. Some artists use “concept” to caulk over cavernous quality gaps like this, but I don’t get that vibe at all with Monáe–I just wait to try and figure out what the hell is going on.

But will everyone else? Monáe’s androgyny and youth couple with her ridiculous musical and dance talent (and reverence for art and pop) to overwhelmingly signal “superstar,” but in a way that I still have a lot of trouble finding a firm precedent for, and as a result have to pray that it transfers to something that catches on fully beyond critics and Kevin Barnes. Compounding that, she’s just got this eerie quality that comes through in the video–signaled most clearly by her enormous eyes and coquettish distance from the camera’s gaze–that keeps bringing me back by creeping me out. It’s a returned gaze, sure enough, but it’s not remotely sexual, as much as it’s just knowing. It’s as if she’s looking past me, and us, toward what’s coming up behind us, something only she can see. She told that same interviewer from above that she’s planning on making clips for every track on her album–that’s more than enough to make me look over my shoulder.