If the final golden years of MTV taught me anything, it’s that the effects of certain music videos can lay dormant in your brain for at least thirteen years and then rumble into consciousness when you least expect it. I sometimes have acid flashbacks to Lady Marmalade, for example. I’ll be in the jam aisle at my local grocery store and freeze as I reach for a jar of apricot preserves — Christina Aguilera’s teased wig will flash before my eyes as Mya’s baby-like voice repeats on a loop. Other times I am terrorized by the spider scene in Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy.” I am sure that in some very real way these music videos have played a pivotal role in my development.
But on a less subliminal level, I am positive that I am who I am because of Missy Elliott. Her music videos are filled with life lessons that shaped the curve of my formative years, from the tender age of nine in 1997 to 17 in 2005. And not to sound like BuzzFeed, but if you still think of Carson Daly as a puka shell-wearer and remember when The Real World was still cool, then Missy Elliott probably taught you a lot, too.
And if you don’t, no time like the present.
Let’s begin with her iconic 1997 video hit, “The Rain [Supa Dupa Fly].”
First of all, no one innovates like she does. Remember that this was years before it was a thing to log onto the internet and search for hack-y shit like, “How to repurpose your old lame helmet” and “How to turn a black, air-filled garbage bag into the best wardrobe choice ever donned in a music video, ever.”
Lesson #1: Things aren’t always what they first appear to be.
Here Missy Elliott, Lil’ Mo, Eve and Mary J. Blige reiterate a truth that’s reinforced multiple times throughout Elliott’s videos — but it’s one I remember first from “Hot Boys,” and it stands the test of time:
Lesson #2: “Sexy” does not pertain to just one societally-prescribed way of dressing, and it has nothing to do with amount of exposed skin.
“She’s a Bitch,” 1999
“Bitch” is a contentious word. We don’t use it casually at Man Repeller, as a policy. But this song taught me early on that women have the ability to take back whatever words they need or want to. Here Missy Elliott owned the term “bitch” and used it to refer to herself as a synonym for “boss” or “powerful woman” when I was at an age where “bitch” was the ultimate insult. It got someone suspended at my school for passing it in a note; it made the girl who was called a “bitch” in the note cry; it made me — when I was much older — slam on the breaks of my car and instruct a guy to get out.
But this song was like, “Yup. And what about it?”
Life Lesson #3: Words can and will hurt. But they can also be energizing, self-esteem boosting and liberating. (Also, context, speaker and intention changes everything.)
Get Your Freak On, 2001
I mean, do you REMEMBER this video? It felt historic to watch. I think brains exploded? It was crazy. I was such a weird kid, even when I pretended not to be and covered up my inherent strangeness with makeup and hip-hugging jeans. But this visual delight of warped un-reality taught me…
Life Lesson #4: Your weirdness will eventually be an asset, and whether through dance or dress or writing or asking a special effects animator to stretch your neck like a Windows screen saver and make spit slow-motion fly into someone’s mouth, you will find a way to express yourself.
“One Minute Man,” 2001
I didn’t equate “minute man” to sex, just as I didn’t get the joke from Grease when Putzie asks, “15 minutes; is that all it takes?” But a friend of mine told me that this song was about not wasting time on guys who don’t spend time on you. So,
Life Lesson #5: Time is money. Don’t waste either on anyone who isn’t deeply worthy of your brain space.
“Gossip Folks,” 2002
People talk a lot of shit and despite what “they” say, mouths don’t stop running with age. There’s nothing you can do about gossip except be true to yourself.
Life Lesson #6 is a Pinterest classic: those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.
Work It, 2002
Beyond the hypnotic beat that makes it literally impossible to sit still while this song is playing and belief that talent has absolutely nothing to do with age, the music video is a celebration of self celebration.
Life Lesson #7: WORK IT. Interpret as needed depending on scenario.
Pass That Dutch, 2003
Sometimes artists hide deeper messages in their visuals; sometimes deep messages are right there on the surface; and sometimes you just want to Riverdance in a cornfield for the sake of keeping your music videos original.
The author of a 2003 MTV article about “Pass That Dutch” reported on some of the visual mystery:
“Every time she calls, she demands to be totally different,” said [David] Meyers, who has directed the landmark clips for Missy’s “Work It,” “Get Ur Freak On” and “One Minute Man.” “In addition to trying to keep up with her growth, I have to reinvent my wheel every time. She loves having a dance element, so we always find new ways to do innovative things around dance.”
During a phone call in which they bonded over their love of the same movies, Elliott and Meyers agreed that “Pass That Dutch” would be a tribute to fallen comrades [like her close friend, Aaliyah] as well as to movies such as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “King Kong,” “Drumline” and “Signs.”
Life Lesson #8: Humor, wild creativity and sincerity regarding serious issues are in no way mutually exclusive.
I’m Really Hot, 2004
Life Lesson #9 needs no backing: if anyone disputes how hot you are, challenge them to a dance battle, immediately.
Lose Control, 2005
Missy Elliott convinced Ciara to rap in this song despite Ciara’s hesitations about how her fans would receive it. Ciara obviously ended up saying yes, and later, this about the finished product: “It’s about music, how music makes you feel and makes you lose control.”
Life Lesson #10: For at least 100 reasons, it is never a bad thing to have some swing dancing skills in your back pocket. But if you forget the choreography, remember Tommy Lee’s old standby: dance like no one’s watching and you’re floating.
We Run This, 2005
Pop quiz: Can Missy Elliott ever balance precariously atop too many ledges while defying gravity with her dance moves in Adidas gear?
Answer: HAHAHAHAHA no idiot sorry bye.
Life lesson #11: Don’t ask stupid questions.
Of course, because Missy Elliott is all about combining the old with the new in sticking with your vision and your roots, it would be remiss to not throw in her most recent video while I await the (very possibly crowd-sourced??) genius that’s sure to come of “Pep Rally.”
WTF (Where They From), 2016
Life Lesson #12: Don’t be afraid to reference your own greatest hits, do what you do best, take a public break then make a comeback; oh, and remember that you definitely do not need a gimmick — you really don’t — but if puppets and disco glitter make it that much more fun, then you know what the answer’s gonna be: Get your freak on.
Feature photographs by Getty Images Entertainment and Jeff Kravitz via Getty Images; carousel photographs by Jeff Kravitz and Lawrence Lucier via Getty Images.