In which I watch the finest tightrope act around
We end the month on a high note (pun intended) with a artist with a finger in every pie, who is tirelessly bringing joy and empowerment to our very own time. I’ve been an acolyte of Janelle Monáe’s for over two years now. Her acting range is incredible—between Hidden Figures and Moonlight, she was to 2016 as Rachel McAdams was to 2004. Seeing her balance art forms, it’s little wonder her breakout hit was called “Tightrope.” But I regard music as her flagship industry and think of her as a musical stateswoman first and foremost.
At the risk of putting words in her perfectly glossed mouth, I would venture to guess she casts herself in the same light. She was Prince’s protégée, and his stamp on her artistic and personal style is obvious: refer to “Make Me Feel” from her 2018 music/film project Dirty Computer. I see a lot of Bowie, too, in both her constant self-reinvention and her embrace of science-fiction-inspired identities. She does with robots what Bowie did with aliens. Over one “suite” and three full-length LPs, she has explored that concept from every angle, even building a continuous world for a whole cast of her characters to inhabit across all four works.
This world takes its name from Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking 1927 film Metropolis and tackles the same issue of humanity’s coexistence with artificial intelligence, but from the opposite perspective—the robots are the heroes rather than the villains, vying for acceptance in a hostile culture much the way Monáe does as a Black woman in present-day culture and the music biz. The personality and arc of her original alter-ego heroine, Cindi Mayweather, deepens in complexity starting with 2010’s The ArchAndroid; although she no longer exists as such by Dirty Computer, a new alter ego Jane is arguably just a more evolved version who retains many of her characteristics.
Unsurprisingly, this theatrical impulse and facility for storytelling stems from an original ambition to study musical theatre and perform on Broadway. After a degree from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy yielded few and sparse performance opportunities, she moved to Atlanta, which proved to be the ideal breeding ground for her plans, including the arts-collective-cum-record-label eventually known as Wondaland. I can’t even describe how much I love this name.
With early support from local superstars like OutKast’s Big Boi, plus a couple genre-crossing features on tracks like fun.’s “We Are Young,” Monáe made her mark on the mainstream by the age of thirty. Since then she’s only been carving her groove—metaphorically and musically—deeper and deeper. Dirty Computer was an album told within a film structure (or “emotion picture”), reflecting her growing interest in the visual medium, and garnered a Grammy nom for Album of the Year.
It seems to me that part of what has allowed her to flourish, beyond her own genius for captivating presentation, is that she has never forgotten the power of a good collaboration—likely due to her history as a guest for other artists. “Screwed,” featuring Zoë Kravitz, is a model dance-pop tune, but the kind of dancing in a musical number to add momentum to a mid-song set change. And whatever your genre niche, you know you’ve made it when you get Brian Wilson to do backing vocals.
All this to say I’ll be staying tuned for her next project, and I encourage you to do the same. Given the intricate conceptual effort that animates all her work, we can reasonably hope it will supply us with a dose of escapism from (please God) by-then-post-corona life.
At the very least, we can be certain it will get both our brains and our bodies moving. The “Tightrope” video may have been released on April Fool’s Day, but her moves are no joke.
Image: from Variety, 9 June 2020