PICNIC Cross Media Week/flickr
Three weeks ago, the pop world almost suffocated itself in anticipation of Lady Gaga's music video for "Telephone," and almost buried itself in frenzied reaction and analysis when the epic, highly referential clip debuted late on March 11. But even as debate swirled around Gaga's video, I found myself yearning more for a collaboration between OutKast's Big Boi and the protean, astonishing Janelle Monae on their song "Tightrope," a clip that finally debuted today. Monae and Gaga couldn't be more stylistically different. But in Monae, Gaga has more than worthy competition as both women revitalize music videos as a form and turn their release into major events.
While both Lady Gaga and Janelle Monae studied at New York art schools, Gaga got her start at New York University's Tisch School for the Arts and her artistic identity found its expression in the burlesque scene on the Lower East Side. Monae studied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy before moving to Atlanta, where she got to know Big Boi and cofounded the Wondaland Arts Society, a collective obsessed with funk, punk, vintage clothes, comics books, technology, and innovation. She sang with Big Boi on OutKast's Idlewild album, most notably on the haunting, heartbroken duet "Call the Law" and again on "Morris Brown," a 2006 track Big Boi recorded with other collaborators in his Purple Ribbon All-Stars crew:
Along the way, she developed a striking aesthetic of her own. What Lady Gaga has done for pantslessness, Monae may well do for saddle shoes, pompadours, and the tuxedo. While it often seems that Gaga's music is simply a vehicle for her performance art, her songs catchy but unextraordinary dance tunes elevated by the package in which they're delivered, Monae has a voice strong enough to have considered pursuing a Broadway career. And she deploys that instrument in swoops and chants on her best songs. Where Lady Gaga's best videos are strong, referential pastiches, Monae has created an eerie world in her videos tracing the adventures of her alter-ego, an android named Cindi Mayweather, a universe where magic and technology coexist and interact, and where music and dance are potent but risky weapons of liberation.