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.
Her stunning 2008 video for "Many Moons" was an opening chapter in Cindi's narrative. Set at the "Metropolis Annual Android Auction," an event MCed by Big Boi in his own alternate identity as Sir Luscious Leftfoot (the name under which he's releasing a new album this spring), Cindi is trotted out to perform as her fellow robots are auctioned off for hundreds of millions of pounds. Cindi, moonwalking across the stage in her tuxedo, with her crowd of screaming fans, is proof that the customers are getting their money's worth: until she's not. In the midst of an incantation, Cindi levitates, short circuits and burns out before the stunned eyes of the military, a band of punk prophets in bird masks, and a ghostly regiment of brides:
The video ends with a quotation attributed to Cindi: "I imagined many moons in the sky lighting the way to freedom." We've known Cindi for less than six minutes by the time of her collapse, but the video's poignancy and power are overwhelming.
And the video for "Tightrope" begins with a similar eerie legend. Set at the Palace of the Dogs, an asylum, text warns us that "dancing has long been forbidden for its subversive effects on the residents and its tendency to lead to illegal magical practices." And magic there is, in abundance. A man tossing a ball aimlessly while he sits in a hallway finds it floating above his fingers instead of returning to them. Figures in robes, with mirrors instead of faces, reminiscent of No-Face in Hayo Miyazaki's "Spirited Away", follow a nurse down the hall. But Monae and her friends—clad in cropped tuxedoes that show off their ankles and draw attention to their footwork, a tactic Michael Jackson learned from Fred Astaire—start a dance party in defiance of the rules. And when the figures follow her, she simply dances through a wall and into a forest. Magic is real, and music is the way into it:
But by the end of the video, we're left to wonder if Monae is an inmate at the Palace of the Dogs or an architect. But whether Monae is jailor or liberator, robot or real girl, I'd follow her flashing feet and sinuous voice anywhere.