Institutionalized: Eight Musical Homages to the Asylum

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This week, Janelle Monáe released her video for “Tightrope,” a song featuring Big Boi  that will appear on her upcoming album The ArchAndroid. In it, the pompadour-sporting soulstress tap-dances around The Palace of the Dogs Asylum, a notorious mental institution which housed the likes of Jimi Hendrix and James Brown.

Musicians have a long and complex history with mental illness. While Monáe uses the asylum motif to tie her to the greats she channels, artists have depicted hospitalization in their songs and videos as a metaphor for lost love and truth-telling and some have even exploited the theme, showcasing society’s most vulnerable as freakish others for cheap shock value. Here are some of the most famous, and infamous, songs and videos about being institutionalized.

1. Janelle Monáe: “Tightrope”
Crazy never sounded so good.

2. Eminem, “The Real Slim Shady”
This notorious video is sexist, homophobic and just plain offensive, but its asylum-theme echoes the Shakespearean notion of the truth-telling fool, saying “things you joke about with your friends in your living rooms.”

3. Pearl Jam, “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me”
This song off of Pearl Jam’s 1994 smash hit Vitalogy loops and samples recordings of actual patients from various institutions. It’s hard to argue that this was created for anything other than shock value.

4. They Might Be Giants, “Absolutely Bill’s Mood”
This piece from their self-titled debut EP recounts the tale of a man in rubber-lined rooms, and the refrain “I’m insane” makes the hospitalization-theme of the piece quite clear.

5. David Bowie, “All The Madmen”
This song, which appeared on Bowie’s 1971 album The Man Who Sold The World, was written about his half-brother Terry, who suffered from schizophrenia and became an inmate of Cane Hill.

6. James Taylor: “Knockin’ ‘Round the Zoo”
Taylor wrote this song about his 1965 stay in the notorious McLean Hospital, where Ray Charles and Sylvia Plath where also inmates at different times.

7. Pink Floyd, “Another Brick in the Wall”
Though more obviously about the brainwashing education system, The Wall was conceived as a concept album about Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters’ descent into mental unrest. The factory, muted colors and straight lines of marching children underscore the institutionalization theme.

8. Koko Taylor and Willie Dixon: “Insane Asylum”
On this classic blues dirge, the duet likens scorned love to being trapped in an “Insane Asylum.”

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