How many songs have you heard that challenge racism, sexism, slut-shaming, homophobia… and make you want to bust a move? There are only a handful of artists I’ve encountered who wrap up all of those dynamics in a fresh way (M.I.A., Santigold and Ebony Bones! come to mind) but for whatever reason, Janelle Monáe stands out from the pack.
In late April, the great folks at Browntourage posted a link to a song. When I clicked play, I had no way of knowing it would become my new anthem. Q.U.E.E.N. has been playing full blast non-stop: as I make dinner in my kitchen, in my headphones at work, in my living room as I chill out with my cat, over and over. So when I saw there was a music video for the single, released May 1st, I fell even more in love with the song. So much so that it merits its own post:
Janelle Monáe referencing “Qui etes vous, Polly Maggoo?” Yes please! Janelle rocking a 1960s bob? I never thought she could top her badass trademark pompadour.
Erykah Badu has an alter ego named Badula Oblongata? Gold!
Monáe does with Q.U.E.E.N. what she does best, mixing visually stimulating high art, culture, and her very own brash brand of feminism. This song and its accompanying video marries them with deft skill. Her lyrics reference everything from black NYC drag ball culture in the 1980s (Walk in the room they throwing shade left to right/They be like ooh, she’s serving face) to Philip K. Dick (Will you be electric sheep?/Electric ladies, will you sleep?/Or will you preach?). Visually, her machismo comes across in her posturing and sartorial adjustments, while lyrically schooling you on the state of racial politics in America today.
Anyone else see that final scene lighting set-up as bit of a wink to James Bond?
Not to mention the hard femme rebelles who bring their leaders out of art gallery exile:
Now, I shouldn’t be surprised by all the artistic and (sub)cultural references in a Monáe video. First off, I’ve been a fan for years. She consistently prides herself on bring high art – or at least art that is all too often limited to university classrooms – to the masses in her own creative manner. One of her earlier videos, Tightrope, references Maya Deren. Of course, it’s not just her music videos; her concept albums are incisive, subversive, cohesive (not to mention catchy as fuck) – something we see all too rarely in the world of pop music.
What thrills me about a music video like this one, and what sets it apart from the masses, is that although it references these various elements, it remains unique and fresh. For example, as much as I love Beyoncé’s video for Countdown, I was taken aback at how blatantly it ripped off dancer/choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker… without so much as a wink in her direction (let alone questions of financial compensation). There are countless other examples, some of which lead to successful law suits on the part of the lesser known parties who are being “honored” in this fashion. But Monae? No. Her work is thoughtful, intentional, and unique. It just serves as a reminder there is a very fine line between homage and straight up rip-off.
Sartorial excellence, bravado, and an impressive catalogue of art/film references are all showcased beautifully in this video, but they would be nothing, of course, without politics. Her commentary of race and class is absolutely essential to her oeuvre, summarized nicely in this quote from April 2011:
Heavily inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 German expressionist film Metropolis, which used an urban dystopia to berate capitalism, she too has invented a not-too-distant future in order to comment on the confines within she is expected to perform and present herself as a black female artist. “As an African-American woman, as an immigrant, wherever I am, I’m always the minority,” she explains. “So I came up with the concept of the android as the ‘other’ in society. I’ve been studying the theory of technological singularity, which predicts that as advances in technology become faster, there will come a point when robots will be able to map out the brainpower of humans and recreate our emotions. I’m posing the question – how are we going to live with the ‘other’? Are we going to treat them inhumanely, teach our children to fear them?”
Damn. Smart, stylish, talented, critical, gorgeous… you can have it all.
Now go watch the music video. Again.
- Quoted: Janelle Monáe on Music and Being The Other at Racialicious (April 6, 2011)
- Janelle Monae: Avant-Garde Film Geek (“Tightrope” Video) by Colleen Claes (April 4, 2010)
- Women Surrealist Influence on Contemporary Music by Devi Noor (February 2012)