December 30th, 2010

Come Alive in 2010

Back in May, I was perusing an issue of Newsweek magazine when a two-page article on a singer I’d never heard of caught my eye. Two pages for an unknown? And there, within the first few sentences, this singer – a stylish and pretty 24-year-old Atlanta resident named Janelle Monáe – was described as being influenced by Kate Bush and Philip K. Dick. My favorite musical artist and my favorite author? Of course I had to check her out, so I headed to YouTube and caught the video for “Tightrope”, the first “emotion picture” (as she calls her promotional shorts) from her album The ArchAndroid. Sure enough, in just her second closeup, Monáe was seemingly channeling vintage Kate, employing the same heightened expressions and crazed eye-pops.



I was hooked (it didn’t exactly hurt that the rest of “Tightrope” was the funkiest song I’ve heard since the days of Curtis Mayfield). I immediately bought both The ArchAndroid – officially her debut album (a self-produced earlier work notwithstanding) – and the 2007 EP, Metropolis. That was seven months ago, and I haven’t stopped playing them since.
Here’s the thing: Before Janelle Monáe, I really was wondering about my relationship to music. Most of my peers seem driven more by music than any other artistic expression; I’m periodically tagged in those online games that go along the lines of, “Name 15 Songs That Changed Your Life”, and I usually answer something like, “Songs haven’t changed my life.” Sure, there’ve been plenty I’ve liked…well, okay, over the last twenty years even that part wasn’t completely true. Had I finally fallen victim to that middle-aged calcification of taste, when so many people only like what they grew up with? But that didn’t feel right in my case, either, because frequently I’d come to prefer silence to anything at all. I was simply burned out on the old songs and uninspired by the new. Music had ceased to excite me. I was neither interested in the postmodern, post-Madonna ironic posturing of most pop singers, nor the fake anthemic rock of many bands, nor the incessant sexism and macho braggadocio of most rap and hip-hop.

Then I heard The ArchAndroid and I was shocked to realize that I could still fall helplessly head over heels in love with music.

Here’s a brief description of what Monáe and her album are about: Starting with the Metropolis EP, Monáe began exploring a huge, extraordinarily well-developed mythology about an android named Cindi Mayweather in the year 2719. Cindi, a Platinum 9000 model, was designed to be a rock star, but has broken the law and her programming and is in love with a human named Sir Anthony Greendown. Fleeing the bounty hunters who now pursue her, Cindi begins to wonder if she isn’t “the ArchAndroid”, a prophesied “chosen one” who will lead the future’s repressed classes in revolution.

If that sounds weirdly complex for an r&b performer, try googling a few interviews with Monáe and you’ll find she even goes so far as to claim to have been “geno-raped” (God, I wish I’d created that term first!), with her DNA providing the basis for Cindi’s design. In other interviews – “Q: Religious beliefs? A: First Android Church of Metropolis” – Monáe seems to suggest that she herself is #57821. She’s also stated repeatedly that she believes The ArchAndroid will provide a transformative experience for its listeners.

It’d be easy to dismiss that as just more rock star hype…if it wasn’t at least a little true.

The album is a masterpiece. It includes classical overtures, equal nods to Chopin and Prince, riffs on James Bond themes and film noir scores, and a direct Phil Dick reference (“You sleep with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep under your pillow”, from the song “Make the Bus”). It ranges from effervescent dance tunes to screams of primal rage to lovely ballads (and I usually loathe ballads) to bubbly pop; Monáe’s magnificent four-octave-range voice takes on different personalities for every piece, but remains uniquely her. The lyrics work both to expand the vaster canvas of Cindi Mayweather’s saga and as individual expressions; some are so whimsically silly they make me smile whenever I hear them (“Take her back to Wondaland/she thinks she left her underpants”) to one of the most devastatingly honest lines I’ve ever heard (“I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me”).

But Janelle Monáe’s ambitions don’t end with the music. As a co-founder of an artistic collective called the Wondaland Arts Society, she’s investigated everything from seminars exploring globalism (she sometimes calls her followers “thrivals”) to fashion (as she playfully notes in a remix of “Tightrope”, she’s been featured in Vogue three times) to a promised forthcoming graphic novel. She's one of the few Twitterers whose posts I routinely enjoy (here she is on opening for Prince at Madison Square Garden: "We played MSG w/ Prince And I have no words to describe. Hvkffkkfflkccnhjkfjlk Ghklgserolfdjkfh Chjffjfdhjggj"). And check out her music videos; like Kate Bush, she has an obvious interest in filmmaking and visual arts. Her first video, for “Many Moons”, is the best science fiction movie I’ve seen in years:



This is Philip K. Dick with a more acute social consciousness: Set during the “Metropolis Annual Android Auction”, Monáe struts a runway as a variety of androids, all bid upon by the future’s most decadent elite (including one “tech dandy” who sports vampire fangs). Monáe, who stands virtually alone in the field of new female pop performers by not using sex to sell herself, literalizes that point in this video by amusingly seducing the camera as she plays an android named “Suzie Scorcher”, while the wealthy whisper “I want one” to each other and place their bids. It’s also impossible not to miss the reference to slavery auctions (especially since Monáe mutters “Jim Crow” at one point during the song’s bridge).

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that I adore her feminist leanings. Listen to the song “Locked Inside”: “I’m locked inside/A land called foolish pride/Where the man is always right/He hates to talk but loves to fight”. Monáe is also – perhaps in best android form – obsessed with keeping her focus and balance; “Tightrope”, of course, is all about staying centered, while in “Cold War” she worries about “running from depravity”. Not exactly words we’re likely to hear any time soon from Lady Gaga.

Monáe’s also displayed real brilliance at creating tantalizing hints and placing careful codifiers in her music and visuals. Her fans have, for example, speculated at length about “the Palace of the Dogs”, the setting for the “Tightrope” video and which Monáe claims is a real place (although she won’t reveal the location of it). Does it mean something when she passes a door labeled “Mask Center” in that same video? Who is “Blueberry Mary”, the woman with silver hair and rosy cheeks mentioned in “Mushrooms and Roses”? What's with the eerie brides in the "Many Moons" video (when their eyes suddenly glow bright green under their veils, that image creeps me out every time).

But the crowning jewel in the ArchAndroid’s magnificent city-shaped crown is Janelle Monáe the live performer. On October 30th, Ricky and I ventured into the Hollywood Palladium to see her live. It didn’t matter that we were probably twice the age of everyone else there, or that most of the trendy young crowd seemed to have come to take in the headline act, a deliberately arty band called Of Montreal. Nothing mattered but Monáe’s absolutely astonishing performance. The sheer joy she and her band (especially her charismatic and gifted guitarist Kellindo Parker) display for their work is exhilarating and infectious. Her presentation – which began with a young man in Victorian garb (the same young man glimpsed towards the end of the “Tightrope” video, perhaps?) exhorting the crowd like a seasoned circus barker, and included a lengthy science fiction film intro in which Monáe filled us in on the story of Cindi Mayweather – was ceaselessly creative and energetic. Monáe even performed one song (“Mushrooms and Roses”) with her back to the audience as she executed a huge impressionist painting:



I’m pleased to see how many “best of 2010” lists The ArchAndroid has topped (even if those bastions of mediocrity, the Grammy Awards and Rolling Stone, gave it little more than passing nods), and I have no doubt that Monáe will have a long and fascinating career, although I worry about how passing years treat perfectionists (see Kate Bush, for example, whose last album, Aerial, was 12 years in the making).

In the meantime, I’m just happy to know that I’m really not too old to appreciate new music – even if it takes a 24-year-old genius to make me realize it.