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.