MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #2: Never Really Over by Katy Perry

written by David Steffen

This is the second in a new series that I’m very excited about wherein I examine a music video by a well-known artist as a short film, trying to identify the story arcs and the character motivations, and consider the larger implications of things that we get glimpses of in the story. 

This time I will be discussing the 2019 fantasy film Never Really Over by Katy Perry about extreme measures taken to recover from depression after a breakup.

The film begins as a woman (Katy Perry) approaches a well-maintained bus stop on a country road marked with a modified yin-yang symbol that incorporates (cartoon-style) hearts in it. The heart sigil is a recurring motif throughout the film, visible from almost the first frame. She presses the call button at the stop and we get our first hint of the supernatural as the button exudes more heart-shapes into the air and in the space of another breath a VW Bus van arrives with another of the modified heart yin-yang on it. The van itself, besides its instant arrival, is notable in that it seems to run completely silently and its exhaust seems to be comprised of stylized sparkles–presumably this van runs very cleanly.

The van and its passenger are welcomed into a gated compound by people in loose, brightly colored clothing into a beautiful, grassy, tree-lined property, which appears to be a retreat or a commune. Alone in her spacious quarters, our protagonist laments “losing my self control, you’re starting to trickle back in” as she remembers the man from which she had a traumatic breakup from two years ago still isn’t over him. She is here for that express purpose, to recover from this traumatic event, but in these early moments she appears to be held prisoner by her longing for what was, gazing at a sketch of their matching tattooed hands and at the words “LET IT GO” etched in glass by her window as the other residents of the commune practice Tai chi outside on the lawn. “Cross my heart” she promises to herself that she won’t “fall down the rabbit hole”.

Their tattoos are a central and vital image in the story. His tattoo is in the palm of his left hand, and has a half-heart with a jagged boundary with the word “MISS”, and hers is the other matching half of the heart on her right hand with the word “YOU”. This seems an odd choice to me for a couple in love, since the entire message “MISS YOU” is only readable when their hands are together and the heart is complete, and when they are apart the half-heart is apparent but the words inside don’t form a complete thought alone. Even when they were together in the throes of love and at the tattoo parlor getting inked, were they even in that moment anticipating their breakup that they choose such melancholy sentiments that constantly remind them of their longing for each other and even more so when they are together and have no reason for such longing? Is this a hint at why they end up breaking up, that they are more in love with the idea of being together than they are each actually in love with , so that even when they are together their longing is still unfulfilled?

Soon she escapes from the isolation of her room and finds some solace in the social activities. Some of them are what you might expect at such a retreat (such as tai chi and dancing) while others appear somewhat baffling apart from being heart-laden metaphors for romantic struggle, such as tug-of-war with a heart-shaped hoops on either end of a chain. She also tries facial acupuncture and cupping therapy (with heart-shaped cups, natch).

But the most speculative of the therapies is the heart grove. Those participating in the heart grove wear devices around their eyes that look like eyeglasses but which harvest their anguished tears. These tears are then used to water the heart-fruits which are not only shaped like stylized hearts but actually throb with a “lub-dub” rhythm like actual hearts (but otherwise resemble apples). The heart-fruits have battles tied to the branches around them so that the fruit grows inside the bottles.

The next section is two scenes interspersed at intervals, though the ordering of the two is not clear. One shows our protagonist at a solemn campfire gathering, where a liquor has been made from the heart-fruits. One might expect that each person would drink from the bottle that they have personally tended, but before drinking they pass the bottles around, perhaps at random. Perhaps the best medicine for heartbreak is empathy, and drinking this liquor allows them to feel what the one who tended that fruit feels. After drinking their backs arch and they look up to the sky in what appears to be a spiritual epiphany.

The other scene interspersed with that shows our protagonist and her fellow residents dancing in a grassy field. She, for the first time in the film, appears to be genuinely happy and the entire dance centers completely around her (at turns joyous and sometimes boisterously grim as the dancers seem to mime self-harm in the form of stabbing themselves in the abdomen). It is never explained why she seems to suddenly be the center of all of the attention after having been a member of the crowd for the rest of the film proceeding this, but this question too may be answered by the epilogue where she is exiting the retreat compound alone on foot. Presumably she is believed to have been cured of her mental malady by the treatments she has received therein, and the gathering in the grass is meant to celebrate this and give her a joyous sendoff. Whether she has decided she is cured on her own or through consensus of others or some kind of authority at the compound is unclear, the question of who has organized this place and keeps it running is entirely unanswered.

In that final scene as she is walking along the road, the sparkle van passes by headed into the compound. She turns to glance back at it and she sees a tattoo hand with a fractured half-heart and the word “MISS” inside it. Her cured state appears to have been illusory in the face of seeing her beloved again, because she rushes to follow the van as the scene ends. This, combined with the title Never Really Over seems to imply that she will never be free of her heartache, that relapse is at any moment only one decision away, which in some ways mirrors twelve-step program philosophy such as AA–alcoholics never stop being alcoholics, the best they can hope for is to be “recovering alcoholics” who know that they can never allow themselves to drink again.

But the message of the end is overturned once again when you consider the image of the hand. The man’s tattoo shown in her flashbacks at the beginning is on his left hand, while this tattoo is on his right. One might wonder if perhaps this was merely an error in the film, that they showed a mirror image of the hand by accident or convenience. But, no, even this theory does not prove out, because the word “MISS” is not reversed, but the heart fragment itself is reversed.

Given these details it seems unlikely to be a mistake by the filmmakers, but then what is the meaning of this. It seems to be unclear and left up to the interpretation of the viewer.

Is it possible that the man has a tattoo on BOTH hands? Did he always have the second tattoo, or did he add that tattoo after the breakup? Is the purpose of the second tattoo to fit with the first one, to form the phrase “MISS MISS” in a complete heart? Has he since had a relationship with someone else whom he the “___ MISS” tattoo forms a complete thought? What thought would that be? “YOU MISS” perhaps? Or was this tattoo simply meant as a commentary on the meaningless of love and its sentiments in general, or an attempt to since his transporation into the commune suggests that’s not the case?

Or, is it possible that this isn’t him? Maybe there is some kind of social movement of the time that involves tattooing non-sequitor words-in-hearts on one’s hands? Or perhaps someone who knows about their relationship is sending in someone to trick her–but to what end? To lure her back into the commune and keep her there? To test her resolve and prove that she is not cured? I am curious what others think about the meaning of this because I am honestly not sure!

(Next up in the Music Video Drilldown series will be Bad Blood by Taylor Swift)

MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #1: Tightrope by Janelle Monáe

written by David Steffen

This is the first in a new series that I’m very excited about wherein I examine a music video by a well-known artist as a short film, trying to identify the story arcs and the character motivations, and consider the larger implications of things that we get glimpses of in the story. My favorite art (whether music, painting, writing, crafting) has always been art that I can find a story in, so in this series of articles I aim to celebrate the story in music. If there are any any speculative fiction music videos that you would like to suggest for a future review, leave a link in the comments! Keep in mind the “speculative fiction” part, there should be something science fictional or fantastical happening, and it can’t just be people on a stage singing and dancing only or I can’t find a plot in that.

For this inaugural review I will be discussing the 2010 fantasy dystopia film Tightrope by Janelle Monáe featuring Leftfoot (aka Big Boi*), that takes place in the an asylum called The Palace of the Dogs. As the prologue says “Dancing has long been forbidden for its subversive effects on the residents and its tendency to lead to illegal magical practices.”. It’s not clear whether these things are forbidden in the asylum specifically or in the world in general, but the fact that magic is “illegal” seems to imply that there is enough evidence of it to necessitate legal structures that forbid it.

The opening shot shows two men sitting on a bench–one reading a book and the other tossing a ball in the air, and we witness the first magic of the film when the ball refuses to come down. Shortly after this we meet our protagonist, the young and dapper revolutionary Janelle Monáe (played by themself) confined to their room and avoiding the baleful scrutiny of the nurse distributing medications in the hallway (given the rest of the film, these are presumably sedatives to keep the residents under control), followed at a distance by a pair of ominous mirror-faced cloaked figures. Monáe quickly reveals themself to be a rebel in the eyes of the viewer because they are already dancing in the confines of their room, and we see images of other residents tapping their feet and hands in other rooms. Clearly our protagonist has a powerful influence on the other residents and the power to be a revolutionary in even such a confining environment. They are also clearly not just any resident, given that they have a copy of the blueprints of the asylum in their room–were they one of the architects of this place and allowed to keep the blueprints as a reminder of their debt to the other residents? Or perhaps the asylum’s power to confine them is limited enough that they can’t stop our protagonist from showing some degree of freedom as shown in the blueprints and their unlocked door.

Monáe gives themself a pep talk in the mirror before donning their tuxedo jacket (one can say any number of things about this asylum but its residents are certainly well-dressed and well-groomed!) and heading out into the hallway to wage war against the authority figures. They begin dancing in the hallway where anyone could see them, singing about the tightrope that they walk on every day, and their singing draws four more well-dressed revolutionaries from their rooms who are presumably her generals in this war. Despite flaunting their dance in the hallways they still show some measure of caution at this stage, as they pause their musical revolution when the mirror-faced figures pass by.

The action rises when the leader and their generals reach the large gathering space where the rest of the revolution has been waiting for them under the leadership of another leader (Leftfoot), and together they increase both their violations of the law and also their power generated from their illegal magical practices. The crowd seems to draw power from this illicit action.

Unfortunately, the crowd’s revelry draws the attention of the nurse who reports to the mirror-faced figures. Monáe, still calm, escapes them by walking through a solid wall (an ability which, while powerful, leaves an easy trail to follow in the form of an extra tuxedo plastered to the wall) and out into the surrounding woods and the mirror-faced figures follow them and back into the asylum.

The mirror-faced figures escort Monáe back to their room where the blueprints are now laid on the table instead of hung on the wall, and show Monáe’s name labeled in one of the rooms and with a note that says “Walls (…) finish FR. RES ROOM #1, WERE NEVER COMPLETED — NOT NEEDED”. This may explain why the asylum seems to be lacking architectural security features–it seems (to me) that this facility may have been built specifically with the goal of confining Monáe and, given their ability to walk through walls, the walls (and locking doors) provide no security at all, and so the mirror-faced figures themselves may be the only thing standing between Monáe and the outside world.

I get the impression that Monáe could leave, on their own, any time they wish, but they clearly have great affection for the other residents, and they do not want to leave their compatriots. The mirror-faced figures are there to keep Monáe in check and to remind Monáe of their responsibility, and to keep Monáe from simply leading a crowd out the front door, but in return Monáe also shows their own display of power to show them that the asylum’s control over them is shaky at best.

Even as Monáe is again confined to their room, the revelry continues in the gathering place, and Monáe is also there with them. Even physical isolation from the group cannot take away their power. As the film ends, Monáe’s generals dance openly in the hallway (the large gathering having apparently finally dispersed) and Monáe gives a long look at the camera as if to say “this isn’t over”.

I very much look forward to the sequel!

(Next up in the Music Video Drilldown series will be “Never Really Over” by Katy Perry)

*-In the original posting of this story I hadn’t realized Leftfoot was an alias of Big Boi, this is correct now–thank you for pointing that out in the comments Kurt!