Heart in a Headlock

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Today we’re going to listen to Imogen Heap’s Headlock. I love Imogen because she’s sooo fantastic at capturing the terrible, yet whimsical storms of femininity.

What is this song about? Let’s look at the elements. What’s in the video? Machines, lots of machines, strange and fanciful. White space. And Imogen herself, in colorful costume and dancing interpretively. Finally, you have the chorus. “You say too late to start got your head in a headlock.” Who’s she talking to?

You might be forgiven for thinking she’s talking to some boy she’s having trouble with. She does use the word “you” a lot. And that’s the theme for loads of Imogen songs. But if she were talking to someone else, where are they? Are they represented by the machines? The moving people shapes in the mechanical stage depicted at 2:47?

No. There’s no one else. The dialogue is between her id and her super-ego. Her heart and her head. Her heart is in a headlock, and her ego is struggling to free it. She’s depicting the creative process.

Let’s look at the structure of the song and video. She wakes up, in this white space. She finds a little box and starts playing music. The music pops up some scenery. Notice how static the scenery is, as is so many other things in the video. Most of the machines are static or rotating, except when she’s messing with them. The ego’s looking out at the world it lives in, and finds it blank, empty. The ego and the id are wondering, “what the hell, why’s everything so dull? It looks nice outside, why don’t we go check it out?”

Only to get smacked down by the super-ego. “It’s too late to start!” You’re too old. You’re not a kid anymore. Just stick to the script.

“I don’t believe any of it. You know you’re better than this.” The ego can’t accept it. But the heart’s in a headlock, what are you going to do? Her entire life is represented by the chest of knick knacks. That’s how the super-ego wants to see it. Life as a ‘safe’ set of memories to examine and ‘cherish’.

Imogen can’t accept this state of affairs, but doesn’t know quite how to break the lock. The second verse describes her efforts. She’s aware of the duality. She knows she has to do something to keep the music going. So she “wears a different pair, throws a stranger an unexpected smile.” She dresses up as a strange animal, turning the physical world upside down. Normally we’re human outside, animal within. In her inner world, this is reversed. She digs through the chest of her id to find strange things. Eventually, she stuffs herself into the chest, symbolically giving up all semblance of control.

A lot of the strange things you see people doing are attempts to keep the magic alive. Art itself is often the attempt to communicate one person’s sense of magic to another. Artists struggle with this constantly, filling their home lives and thoughts and idle musings with whimsy, to keep this connection between their id and ego alive.

Now she’s travelling through the wonderland of her id. Butterflies, symbols of change and growth, fly around, but strangely, everything else is still static. She’s riding on a bicycle, where? She’s not even moving, the bike is stationary. The animals are stuffed, they don’t respond. She’s still searching. She puts her head down to the crow, trying to tell if it’s alive.

Then comes the awakening of the artist. She sees it! The object of her frustration materializes. All these machines, “monitoring” her. It’s the super-ego. Now that she can see it, it starts to lose its power. How strange all these machines look! She’s shifted her vision, taken charge. She screams, in cathartic epiphany. And everything starts to move. Now her super-ego’s a curio piece, it’s gone from crushingly oppressive to laughably mechanical.

Now she dances, conjuring up scenes and conducting the movement. The machines start to abstract in shape, she’s transforming them from ugly mechanical contraptions to beautiful mathematical objects. Master of her world now. But she’s not done yet. Notice still, that even though she’s in control, that nothing else is in the video but objects of her creation? As wonderful as the world she’s created is, she eventually loses interest.

And so the music box of her id sinks back down into her mind and she walks off, a changed and powerful being. It’s time to find the other.

That’s the essential struggle of the self. We think we see others. We think we understand the world. But we’re all prisoners of the super-ego, that presence that controls and limits. And until you see it for what it is, a bunch of machines keeping watch on you, ensuring your actions fit its predetermined sense of correctness, you’ll never be free. You can’t perceive anything until you solve this.

You haven’t even seen a glimmer of the outside world yet. It’s just like the landscape at the beginning, a static scene that looks green and wonderful, but inaccessible. You can’t go out and experience it until you’ve mastered your mind. You look at the scene and mistake it for the whole world, and make your conclusions and believe in their truth. Your heart is in a headlock. 

Related posts:

  1. Promiscuous Boy, Get to the Point
  2. Tide Knows Dad Better Than He Knows Himself

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22 Responses to Heart in a Headlock

  1. BluegrassJack says:

    a. I had to watch the video on YouTube.

    b. You’re reading way too much into a confused and confusing music video.

  2. cat says:

    I’m enjoying these posts. They make me look at the videos in a completely different way than I would usually. It would be cool if you looked at a really poppy mainstream video by say Britney or Kesha.

    • Napsterbater says:

      You’re going to really like the one I’m working on now, then.

    • Ron says:

      Or looked at why such simple lyrics in a song like Thirteen capture what it is (and was) like to be that age. Reading the lyrics without hearing the song doesn’t quite convey the meaning. Must be lots of id, ego and superego mojo roiling inside those unsuspecting teens.

      http://is.gd/RUWqS1

      Won`t you let me walk you home from school?
      Won`t you let me meet you at the pool?
      Maybe Friday I can,
      Get tickets fro the dance,
      And I`ll take you,
      ooo ooo ooo.

      Won`t you tell your dad get off my back?
      Tell him what we said `bout “Paint It Black,”
      Rock and roll is here to stay,
      Come inside now it`s ok,
      And I`ll shake you,
      ooo ooo ooo.

      Won`t you tell me what you`re thinking of?
      Would you be an outlaw for my love?
      If it`s so then let me know,
      If it`s no then I can go,
      And I won`t make you,
      ooo ooo ooo.

  3. rufibarbatus says:

    Your commentary and analysis of “Promiscuous” had me nodding most of the time. You didn’t get to criticism itself, but you did a masterful job laying bare the elements of the video, so that piecing the puzzle together could be left an exercise to the reader. (Indeed, apart from a couple instances of moral judgement, that’s what happened in the comments section.)

    This time I think our biases fell a bit farther apart; I didn’t see your post contemplate many elements which to me were very relevant in the video. Or maybe I don’t agree with the way you (somewhat hastily, it feels) adjusted the imagery of the video to an ego-id-superego framework. (If you’re going for psychology, I’d say the video has much more evident (intentional?) associations with certain Jungian archetypes.)

    Being surrounded by butterflies: this has long been used (and abused) as symbol for a certain lucidity in dissociation. Their flying around at you with their inherent state-changing symbology, an objectification of the idea of illumination. Imogen isn’t enlightened, she’s playing inside the box (let’s not forget that this whole music video was evoked upon her by a little music box); her little butterfly-infested delirium is represents lucid dreaming as opposed to being awake.

    Then it’s no longer about ego and id and superego: all parts of the self are edges of a box she’s trapped into. Imogen realises that she’s dreaming and gets rewarded with a little dopamine in anticipation of waking up (which never happens), even as she starts to feel the ground under her feet unsteady. She can reenact her trapping by hiding herself into a locker, and she can enact her liberation by playing the role of whatever bestial Jungian archetype seems to ring of an authentic existence outside the box. But she cannot for the love of God get herself to wake up.

    Which is fine and well: from maturity, to ego-death, to creative flow, to the understanding of a certain subject and then some more, for all possible definitions of “enlightenment” you might come up with, most people “in the path to enlightenment” are in it for the ride (and are in it with a set goal to fail) and there’s no small print anywhere saying that’s any better or worse than enlightenment itself.

    And in that sense I’d say the video is really a footnote to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

    • Napsterbater says:

      Ahh, I see what happened. This is reminding me why I try to keep technical psychological terms out of my analyses. Lesson learned!

      • rufibarbatus says:

        Implying one of us misused the “technical psychological terms?” (I have to admit, there’s a big chance it was me.) I don’t see what you saw that happened, help me out. :-)

        Also, it’s amazing how that conspiracy theory guy I linked to sounds like us.

        • Napsterbater says:

          Terms tend to short circuit a discussion. Because definition and meaning are one of the biggest battlegrounds of culture, everybody’s got their own pet meanings for a word like “ego.” The last thing I want is for a discussion over what an artist intended to convey to devolve into an argument over who’s using the terms properly. But if I just use plain, unadorned language, “Her entire life is represented by the chest of knick knacks. That’s how the head wants to see it.” Clearer, fewer frills.

          I think it’s Freudian, you think it’s Jungian. Who’s right? Does it really matter? Can there be a such thing as right, in this instance? You think that’s air you’re breathing, now?

  4. AnonymousAtLarge says:

    I like the contrasting elements of futuristic (synth work, autotuning, lots of machines and abstract objects/space) and nod to the past (vaguely victorian fashion elements, old-timey phone). Contrasting elements of inanimate (machines) vs natural (butterflies and animals). It’s very wacky in that 80s fun kind of way but retains meaning and substance enough which requires you to pay attention and try to understand it. The phrase “heart in a headlock” is also a contrast between softness and harshness, tenderness and cruelty.
    This “wacky female songstress” thing was done before by bjork and tori amos, so it’s not exactly original, but I enjoy it enough to overlook the unoriginality.
    She seems to be alluding to the difficulties of being in love with someone who won’t open up and give themselves to you. Or perhaps just speaking abstractly about all the people in the world who go around closed to love and refuse it because hardness has worked out better for them thus far.
    If she is speaking of herself I would assume it was intended in more of a generalized/state of humanity sort of way as opposed to herself individually. She seems to be singing from either the perspective of a romantic partner or some kind of human transcendent “universal love” element. That would be in line with the highly abstract imagery.
    The lines about wearing up appearances/throwing strangers smiles and making weak connective gestures to other humans is suggestive of the desire but intense reserve and trepidation people toward each other. Note that all the behaviors are offensive / active / defensive and deliberately lacking in any capacity to receive. You “throw” a smile and “wear” a pair, you stay at your station. Her point: people (or perhaps this one person) is/are incapable of being vulnerable to love.

    Your thesis seems to be this is a song which has narcissistic elements (a battle between ego id and superego) but I disagree, it seems either written as a ballad of unrequited love, or a commentary on the state of humanity in general. If it were about herself, it should be noted that this seems extremely impersonal (and this would work if she were singing about humanity, or a lover she could not reach… but seems strange if applied to herself exclusively and specifically, unless she were abnormally detached from herself).

  5. Francis says:

    Before looking at your analysis, I definitely felt that she was talking to herself with the chorus… You ain’t Alone. I mean, alone. Ahem…

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