I was stuck in traffic on my way home from work this afternoon and I was in the middle of a one-woman dance party. You know how it is: the weather’s good, the windows are down, you’re wearing your ridiculous aviators, and you’ve got Janelle Monáe in the stereo. Sometimes you get a little moved to cardance, and that’s all there is to it. Nothing to be ashamed of.
So traffic’s moving along and I’m thinking about the video for “Tightrope” and something occurs to me. Monáe’s collaborators include Big Boi (of Outkast). While I’d stop short of calling the “Tightrope” video derivative, it shares certain similarities with the video for Outkast’s “Hey Ya”.
The connection between the two is the nature of the participatory culture in the videos: Outkast’s fake band “The Love Below” are either objectified or to be imitated; Monáe assumes everyone wants to follow — that is, everyone who isn’t an asylum guard. In both cases, the artists set trends intended for their audience to follow. At the same time, however, they’re influenced by the culture they mean to influence: The Love Below is clearly meant to invoke the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show (and here’s a side question: what’s the purpose of putting the American band on a British TV show, instead of the other way around?), and Monáe and her dancing counterparts — not to mention the nurse and the building interior — look like they’re from bizarro-world Mad Men.
Both Monáe and Outkast gleefully play with genre, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that their videos have the same sense of play — although they both have an undercurrent of cultural criticism in their imagery that I find both sinister and intriguing. Both videos seem to make arguments about the joys and pitfalls of cultural consumption — and appropriation. I’ve been thinking about them separately for months, but I haven’t been able to put my finger on why I can’t forget them. I have hopes that thinking about them as connected in some way will help me figure out why I find them both so fascinating. If that doesn’t work, at least it’s an excuse to listen to some good music as I watch the videos over and over.
Also, my pick for best video of all time: “Hey Ya”, hands down. Sorry, Kanye.