By Anne Boyer, from A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, a collection of essays that was published in May by Ugly Duckling Presse. Boyer is a poet and essayist. She received a 2018 Whiting Award.
I’ve only watched it once. First there are Missy Elliott’s mortuary metaphors; then the mining lights on the dancers’ heads; then Missy is in a hivelike palace of graves, of honeycombs, of vertical scaffolding made horizontal; and then there are the plastic bags. Maybe a plastic bag is a kite in situ. Maybe a kite is an escape in situ. Maybe an escape is a soaring in situ. It’s not the first time she has brought her performance from a bag. It’s not the first time, too, that her torso is obscured in the foregrounding of her head. Everyone knows that where “WTF (Where They From)” comes from is from years of all of us wanting more, and in this it’s also a song about emerging from ossification. Maybe what is ossified is a fandom’s desire over these long hauls. And where we are from, as fans, is the dim, steady light of waiting. Where Missy Elliott is from is space—not the outer kind but the kind we all move through—and she positions herself always as one joint in the folding body of the world. It begins with the people, as the people always make the scene of sound. It begins with the reminder that the people who listen to music are as real as the ones who make it.
As often as Mary J. Blige leads with a missed call, so Missy Elliott leads with the word on the street, and then the appearance of a child, of the world starting anew with the one who starts out. Where every child is from is possibility, and so the children dance next to her in many of her videos, in this one too. In Missy Elliott’s work this child is also the beginner who is a prodigy—the child genius, dancing with astounding precision, with perfect furor and also perfect humor—a homage, maybe, to Missy the child genius, caught in the brutality of her first home, the one where her mother left behind a few necessary objects as an act of confusing mercy for their abuser.
Missy conducts; she orchestrates. I first thought what she does is conduct a crowd to move laterally, but this isn’t right—what she does is conduct a crowd to move any way it needs to, however the spirit of the crowdness calls. You can put your thing down, flip it, and reverse it: that’s the crowd’s ars poetica. It’s also, maybe, a politics, that not moving forward unless you want to, that taking on any space you need how you take it even if you turn space itself inside out. In this song about being from, in this one viewing of this video, I am reminded that Missy Elliott is an expert in prepositions. She is a “prepositionist,” probably. We are all from, and in Missy’s music there are with’s and at’s and to’s. She unites by direction. It takes a genius to turn prepositions into a politics. Where we are from is the space opened up by Missy Elliott, and if Missy says we should dance from the grave, we do.