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The Evolution of the Mental Hospital in Music Videos, From Björk and ‘N Sync to JJ

Swedish pop duo JJ recently released the video for their single “All White Everything.” The film is set in a mental institution, and director Olivia Kastebring imagines lead singer Elin Kastlander as a patient in a fittingly all-white environment, the footage intercut with a white-sequined contortionist who looks like the ghost of Pickle Surprise. From the powder on the floor to the patients’ white eyeliner to the contortionist’s costume, all surfaces in the video evoke the texture, colorlessness, and the emotional erasure of Xanax. The video wavers, from shot to shot, between being beautiful, unintentionally silly, and utterly disturbing in its aestheticization of the mental hospital setting. But it certainly isn’t the first music video to do so. Much like da club, da mental hospital has pervaded music videos for decades, most notably in the 1990s.

The way it’s been used, though, has varied. Sometimes the psych ward appears as a heavy-handed shout-out to a song’s lyrics, sometimes as hyperbole for a song’s emotional tone, and sometimes, crazily, for reasons of actual social importance. Regardless of the meaning, though, the recurrence of the stylized mental hospital in music videos proves that yellow wallpaper is the not-so-new black. These often-simplistic interpretations of mental illness can be hilarious in their crudeness and lack of any visible effort to make institutionalization anything more than a thoughtless metaphor. Through two decades of these videos, we see the depictions of mental hospitals changing with cultural ideals on how we emote in public (the “coolness” of emotional expression seems to fluctuate in pop culture just as often as it does in fashion.) Trigger warning: some of what you’ll see below is graphically ’90s.

The appearance of mental hospitals in the pop-cultural imaginary often fall into two categories: there’s the dilapidated, haunted mental hospital trope, which we’ll forever associate with Brittany Murphy “never telling”; and then there’s the less romanticized, antiseptic space-age mental hospital. The ’90s were, of course, less aesthetically enamored of vintage decay than we are today, and thus a couple of ’90s music videos in alternative and mainstream pop used the latter aesthetic: Björk’s “Violently Happy” and ‘N Sync’s “I Drive Myself Crazy” are both set in padded cells (and no, I never thought I’d utter “‘N Sync” and “Björk” in the same sentence).

In “Violently Happy,” the cell appears like a moonbounce, a space where childlike crazies can get out all their giddiness and rage (one of “Violently Happy’s” infantilized mental patients even gets a dolly that squeaks “I’m the baby!”). The song was one of Björk’s first danceable tracks, and its opening image of a man bobbing his head dramatically up and down imitates both a gesture of inner turmoil and the head-banging freedom ’90s twenty-somethings must have felt painting the town red at one of those cool new techno clubs. The song’s title uses a negative to accentuate a positive, just as the video conflates mental illness with glee — it’s a deliberate artistic choice and an amazingly fun video, which happens to be kinda essentialist and based on a not-too-nuanced metaphor (a rarity for such a nuanced artist).

And then there’s the never-nuanced ‘N Sync, bless them. Through an absurd display of lip-quivering mugging, the band infantilize themselves, however unintentionally (and maybe they only seem thus when seen through my soulless 2010s lens.) Seriously, though, pouts like these look even less like adult emotions than those seen at the beginnings of diaper commercials, where the baby is all sad because it has the generic diaper brand and it’s itchy.

The premise of the video is that each band member has fucked up — or been fucked up by — a relationship. Their remorse has landed them together in the padded cell, where they can get some serious thinking and singing done (in Chris Kirkpatrick’s case, to a shoe; I repeat, he sings to a shoe). As with the Björk video, the implication is of an emotion so strong it verges on psychosis. Like the padding in a baby’s crib, the singers’ foamy prisons save them from the insubordinate emotions that render them fragile and infantile, prone to self-harm both inadvertent and intentional. The videos propose insanity as a vague form of emotional imbalance (an emotional imbalance that, in each video, makes the characters do truly fucked up things to their hair — Chris Kirkpatrick, COME ON).

While Björk and ‘N Sync appropriated the turquoise padded cell — with its combination of neon dance-club vibes and womb-like comfort — for the purposes of a heavy-handed emotional metaphor, ’90s rock and rap musicians were gentrifying the harder surfaces of the mental institution with their vague form of white-boy angst. Like middle-schoolers comparing the razor blades with which they’ll pretend to cut themselves, both Green Day’s “Basket Case” and Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady” expose a trend in masculine ’90s music of asserting how messed up in the head they are, as though “crazy” were the highest form of achievement. The performers’ psych-ward garb here serves as a substitute for muscle, and throughout the ’90s, it seemed that a musician’s worth was measured by their ability to demonstrate their emotionality. It was all close-up shots of singers holding their heads and FEELING, oh-so-performatively.

Just as pop in the 2000s/2010s has relied on insubstantial grotesquerie and high fashion (to the point where artists must portray themselves as Alexander McQueen-sporting beasties even if their song is about, say, loving being a soccer mom) the emotions expressed in ’90s pop were worn just as automatically and thoughtlessly — they were a zeitgeist-pandering requirement. The mental institution was thus aggrandized as an emo paragon, a place where emotions as elevated and CRAAAZY as those worthy of a pop song could truly be expressed.

Like R&B and pop artists now assert themselves with bling and engage in one-upmanship via monetary brag-fests, the ’90s game of thrones was one of emotional posturing. The craziest fucker won. Not everyone could capture what Sinead O’Connor did in 1990 with the release of “Nothing Compares 2 U.” It was hard to compete with her relatively context-free emotional bareness, but note the thematic similarities between “Nothing Compares” and Melissa Ethridge’s “Come to My Window” (O’Connor’s “I know that living with u baby was sometimes hard/ but I’m willing to give it another try” vs. Etheridge’s “I would stand inside my hell/ And hold the hand of death/ Just to reach you”). Released three years after O’Connor’s song, the “Come to My Window” video used Juliette Lewis as a proxy for Etheridge, forcing gravity upon the act of pining — something O’Connor did with just her face — by placing a pining face in a mental hospital.

Since the ’90s, the mental institution’s intrigue as a symbolic space has somewhat diminished. When it has appeared, as in Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope” or JJ’s “All White Everything,” it’s been in similarly stylized form, but without the exaltation of mental illness as the quintessence of emotion. Both of these more recent videos have been completely unique in their usage of the psych ward, managing to avoid conforming to a now-hackneyed metaphor. In “Tightrope,” the actors depicting institutionalized characters make no attempt to imitate “craziness”; instead, they seem like people who just happen to have landed there. The video is about the irrepressibility of joy and mischief, and despite being in captivity (and pursued by mirrored specters that remind them of said captivity), these characters dance. Their exuberance is portrayed in a non-condescending, non-fetishistic fashion. The characters don’t dance as a matter of rebellion, it seems – they just dance to dance.

In JJ’s video, conversely, the mental patients’ humanity is nullified by injections and their chilly surroundings. The most surprising and disturbing moment come when, midway through the video, two of Kastlander’s eerie, red-and-black figurative doodles (the only non-white objects in the video) come to life. Through a computer-distorted squeak, they take over Kastlander’s vocals, and despite their two-dimensionality and blobbiness, these little guys are presented as the two most human characters in the video. There’s something desperately sad about their imitation of human functions such as language and song, and how they trump the human characters’ — nay, props’ — personhood.

In the ’90s, the mental hospital was used as a place where artists could most promiscuously flaunt their emotional spectrum; “All White Everything” depicts the same setting in total opposition to this idea. JJ’s video emulates the anesthetized, dehumanized, turn music has taken — especially earlier this decade, it reflected a general cultural leaning toward aloofness (see also: the vocal fry pandemic). It presents its psych ward as a place where all feeling has been subjugated by the trappings of contemporary existence. It’s essentialized, perhaps — and goofily aestheticized at times — but at least it’s not venerated as a vessel for catharsis.

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