Why Janelle Monáe’s ‘Tightrope’ Is Awesome
The first time around, I thought that the awesomeness of the video for ‘Tightrope’ could be boiled down to three words: “Pompadour. Saddle Oxfords.” And it’s true–that is one of the ass-kickingest Pompadours I have ever seen, and frankly, I want those shoes to be my shoes. But, there’s quite a bit more about the video that makes it awesome. And I don’t just mean the killer dance moves.
‘Tightrope,’ the song, is about keeping your balance in the face of external criticism or praise–remembering yourself, keeping your cool:
Some people talk about ya
Like they know all about ya
When you get down they doubt ya
And when you dip it on the scene
Yeah they talkin’ bout it
Cause they can’t dip on the scene
Whatcha talk about it
T-t-t-talkin’ bout it
When you get elevated,
They love it or they hate it
You dance up on them haters
Keep getting funky on the scene
While they jumpin’ round ya
They trying to take all your dreams
But you can’t allow it.
What’s interesting about this is that the lyrics of ‘Tightrope’ aren’t just about proving the haters wrong, or about being better than anyone thought you could be. They’re about just being–or better, being you–even when this is complicated or uncertain:
I tip on alligators and little rattle snakers
But I’m another flavor
Something like a terminator
Ain’t no equivocating
I fight for what I believe
Why you talkin’ bout it
S-s-she’s talkin’ bout it
Some callin’ me a sinner
Some callin’ me a winner
I’m callin’ you to dinner
And you know exactly what I mean,
Yeah I’m talkin bout you
You can rock or you can leave
Watch me tip without you
N-N-Now whether I’m high or low
(High or low)
Whether I’m high or low
(High or low)
I’m gonna tip on the tightrope
(Tip, tip on it)
The video plays this ambiguity out in a really great way: Monae is playing a character in an asylum (an institution designed to force non-conforming individuals into a mold of sufficiently “normal” behavior) whose choices are severely constrained. She is supposed to remain in her room, medicated, and is forbidden from dancing–which, we learn in the course of the video, has the property of enabling her–at least when coming together with the transgressive dance of others–to transcend the walls of the fluorescent-lit asylum.
In the end, she is brought back to the everyday reality of her cell by two Grim Reaper-esque guards, who initially appear to be faceless. On further inspection, however, the faces of the guards are mirrors, suggesting that they are not truly external enforcers–but the internalized norms of self-restraint, faced, perhaps, by each of the residents of the asylum. Thus, inside her room, Monae finds notes–written by whom?–indicating that “Walls finish for resident of room #1 were never completed–not needed.”
The walls of restraint are incomplete, and yet they function–at least at the end of the video, when Monae is surrounded by her self-faced guards–to contain her. And yet, it seems that the incompleteness of the walls is what allows Monae, when she is transported through the subversive act of dance, to move beyond them.
She, and the other denizens of The Palace of the Dogs, are in many ways trapped–they sneak around to find spaces and moments in which they can just be, and even then, they are stuck in the basement of the asylum. Even transcendent trips outside its walls are short-lived. And this might seem defeatist, or hopeful, depending on your perspective. But then Monae is there to remind us: you can’t get to high, you can’t get too low–you just gotta keep doing what you can. And, it would seem, looking for the opportunity to break the rules–to dance.
It’s tempting to read this rule-breaking as being about gender specifically, especially given Monae’s semi-androgynous dress and dance–and it might be about this, partially. But I think it’s also worth wondering about the extent to which gender is only an indicator of a larger phenomenon that the video subtly highlights: that our whole selves are shaped by social norms that we internalize and help to enforce–and thus that the walls of gender law or race law or mental health law don’t have to be complete to keep us in check, because we’re right there doing the job on our own. In this respect, it seems like the you gotta keep it balanced message of the song is more ambiguous than it seemed at first: it’s not that you have all the answers, or that you’ll be ok as long as you block out the voices of the haters and the yes-men. You are part of the haters and the yes-men. But that’s ok. Because the walls that you build–those are incomplete too. And occasionally, you can find the inspiration to jump on through them.