Herstory 11: Missy Elliott and the Evolution of Music Videos
Missy Elliott: Rejection and Resourcefulness
Radio singles, guest features, and music videos have always been tools to push an artist’s name towards wider audiences. This gave space for outlets like MTV to base their entire business around music promotion. It also gave artists the opportunity to evolve songs to more than just simple album promotion and into the depths of the visual field.
It’s an increasingly rare conversation to talk about the impact of music videos outside of the usual music awards season. And that’s where Missy Elliott comes in. The woman that was rejected early on in her career for “not having the right image”, in reality, mapped the blueprint for pushing creative boundaries beyond the fringe. Missy Elliott stands out as a fiercely independent voice who took a wild and experimental undertaking of how we conceptualize music.
Timbaland and Transitioning to The Stage
Born on July 1st, 1971 to Patricia Elliott, a dispatcher, and Ronnie, a U.S. Marine, Melissa Arnette Elliott grew up as an only child in southern parts of the U.S., but calling Virginia home for much of her early life. Often gravitating towards the arts, Missy followed dreams of becoming a performer after forming an R&B group Fayze (later known as Sista) shortly after graduating high school. The group later signed to Swing Mob, an imprint owned by DeVante Swing (of Jodeci) and were added to the increasing roster of upcoming R&B singers, Ginuwine, Tweet, and Playa. Ensuring that her close childhood friend, Timothy Mosely (better known as Timbaland), was brought into the fold, secured a working relationship between the two that would serve as a foundation for Missy’s thriving career.
Though her own group’s debut album was ultimately shelved and never formally released, both Missy and Timbaland’s hit-making ability caught the attention of artists across the Hip-Hop and R&B community. The duo went on to write and produce songs throughout the 1990s for both emerging and established R&B acts.
Despite feeding on the rise behind the scenes, it was Missy’s connection to her true calling that made her biggest impact. In 1993, after writing and producing Raven-Symoné’s debut single, That’s What Little Girls Are Made Of, Missy had garnered another charted hit. The music video, released a short time later, included the backing vocals that Missy had originally recorded, but was replaced by a thin, light-skinned woman lip-syncing her vocals. Later interviews shared that Missy was never notified that the video shoot was even taking place and told that she didn’t fit the image that they wanted. This pushed her to craft her own image through the discriminatory practices of industry executives that sought singular lense. This experience forced Missy to instead focus on songwriting and producing for acts like Destiny’s Child, Aaliyah, and Whitney Houston rather than her own brand.
A lot of times this is where the story wraps up, but luckily for us, this wasn’t the end of her story. Missy was stronger and more than capable to remain idle. Using this rejection, Missy continued forward to record her debut album, Supa Dupa Fly. and released the video for her single “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”, featuring a signature trash bag becoming “Hip-Hop’s Michelin Woman”.
Directed by the famed Hype Willams, this was everyone’s first look into the personality that set the tone for what would carry through in subsequent music videos. This first effort solidified her talent and image as a packaged deal that couldn’t be compromised regardless of the landscape at the time. Each successive video almost became a character on its own combined with the Timbaland-backed production and Missy’s lyrical ability balanced so that one piece never overshadowed another. Staples of a Missy Elliott video were almost guaranteed to feature vibrant and unique costumes, stylized but often subtle choreography, and cameos from far and wide. They were being released at a time when music videos dropping on a Friday night were a scheduled event rather than an afterthought.
A Modern Woman in a Flawed World
Unlike her predecessors, Missy ventured into a creative field that would carry a broad influence for years and years to come. The Guardian, in a featured article interviewing Missy, spoke of the messaging she presented in both her music and public image. They described it around Missy’s awareness of being a modern woman in a flawed world. That women can want and financial security and healthy relationships without compromise, men can behave poorly towards women, and self-discovery is essential to explore.
The music business deemed Missy “too large and weird to make it” - music is an industry that demands a singular view of how a female artist should present themselves. Missy didn’t shy away in her content and often incorporated gender equality, body and sex positivity across the decades. At a time where female artists were positioned into a mold consumed by objectification and maintaining sex appeal, some artists attempted to flip the script and objectify men in their content and images (to various levels of success) which isn’t always an effective and long-lasting angle.
To push the status quo as an artist, you have to be willing to be alone and different in your creativity. And that’s exactly what we were given from Missy. From the makeup to the visual effects and choreography, Missy Elliott’s visuals truly highlighted her individuality. She was able to align elements of fantasy and wonder to a space that was otherwise occupied. No costume, scene, or concept was too experimental for Missy as she pushed past the expectations of a standard music video. And that leaves her influence continually looming throughout modern Hip-Hop, R&B and Pop. This is Missy’s story.
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For our Herstory Lessons blog series - we're retelling the stories of womxn in music that have been misheard, mislabeled, or erased completely from our history books.
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