In the wake of the recent Blurred Lines and Miley Cyrus VMA fiascos that threaten to overwhelm all of us with endless grief at the state of the popular music world, there is a woman who will put back your faith in empowering music that you actually want to listen to.
Her name is Janelle Monáe. Her third album, The Electric Lady, has just been released and seems to be raising her popularity in the UK (in other words, I walked past HMV and heard her song playing in the shop). The critics love her because her music is inventive and perfectly orchestrated. I love her because she solves the eternal problem of our generation: trying to reconcile one’s feminism with one’s love of R&B/soul/hip hop/popular music in general. She falls under a category I like to call ‘accessible feminism’, which may or may not be an actual theory/thing. She’s not throwing herself in front of a horse or writing books with prose that only those with a PhD in Sociology and Gender Politics can understand, but hey ho, that might not be a bad thing. What she is doing is providing us poor women who enjoy a funky tune and a wee bit o’ female rap with an alternative to other female singers out there today who are so often presented in a hopelessly sexist and uninspiring way. Just as in ‘the media’ (being the invisible, evil force that it is), most popular music that you hear on the radio/In Da Club or see on TV nowadays has caused a generation of women to feel unattractive (and thus worthless). Janelle is using this same platforms to make us feel good.
And so Janelle, whose music is essentially mainstream (although difficult to categorise and often confusingly cited as ‘alternative’) in music style because it draws on popular music styles and popular subject matter (love, dancing, chicken wings, etc, etc), gives us a counter-narrative to what it means to be a woman. Hallelujah! I hear you cry.
How does she do this? Observe the holy trinity of Monáe…
1. Her image
Janelle’s uniform for videos and interviews is a tuxedo. She wears it because it looks cool. I have no doubt in my mind that at some point in her career some behind-the-scenes music man has said to her, ‘Look, love, if you put on a bikini, get in a bath naked and start crying, or perch naked on a giant ball from a bulldozer, we could make millions and you’ll be a superstar’.
The fact that I have to even point out how unusual it is for a female singer to wear a shirt is a great testament to how sexist the expectations are for female singers. The fact that they are required (arguably whether they want to or not) to strip off for success probably hasn’t passed you by. The point is not to shame these singers, but to question an industry that requires a woman to take off her clothes to be considered successful, and the ratio of how much women do it compared to how much men do it. And also to take back the tuxedo from its current hibernation place in the back of the wardrobes of Robin Thicke and Jay-Z.
Janelle is obviously a massive fan of Judith Butler, as shown through the whole androgynous tuxedo uniform thing. Is gender a performance? Perhaps, says Janelle. In fact, she has used an ‘android’ persona in the album The ArchAndroid and her new album creatively to transcend rigid gendered and sexual boundaries.
Along with her look, there is a distinct lack of reference to gender roles in Morae’s lyrics. Bit of a breath of fresh air when compared to the constant deluge of lyrics akin to Beyonce’s ‘All up in the kitchen in my heels, dinner time’ (from ‘Countdown’ – the song, not the excellent Channel 4 programme starring Nick Hewer, more’s the pity). Her image, lyrics and uniform are especially significant when compared to other popular black female singers, like Beyonce or Rihanna. Flavorwire points out that ‘it’s notable how a subset of criticism in relation to Monáe’s work has insisted on portraying her as a Black Female Artist, as opposed to an artist who happens to be female and black’. OK, fair enough. But then again, in a recent radio interview with 97.9 The Beat, she did say her goal was to redefine what it was to be a black woman. Let’s not belittle her racial status when it is so important to her identity and music. Instead, surely the point is it’s nice to have a figure in the popular music scene that happens to be female and black but also isn’t hypersexualised?
The thing is, it’s nice to have varied experience and identities represented out there in ‘the meejah’. This is pertinent in the wake of the black feminist criticism of Miley Cyrus at the VMAs where, as you’ll remember, black women were portrayed as sexual objects for the white women and men to use as props. Seems to be a classic feminism-is-for-white-women argument to say her race is inconsequential. Also, there has been much discussion about whether she is a lesbian, as her lyrics faintly hint at this. How much black lesbian experience do you see represented in music? You got it: pretty much nada. Although labelling her as ‘lesbian’ may be an attempt by ‘the patriarchy’ (boo, hiss!) to categorise a woman who makes them feel uncomfortable because she isn’t like other women we see singing. As she says in Q.U.E.E.N, ‘Categorise me, I define every label’.
2. Her call for revolution without using the F word
I love the F word, but then again I have an arts degree and live/work in an environment where it’s not a dirty word. As much as I’m comfortable with the term, I feel keenly that it’s not fair to shame women who don’t identify as feminists. Many women don’t self-identify as a feminist simply because they don’t understand what it is (remember Katy Perry and the rest of the ‘I’m not a feminist’ brigade?) and because they associate feminism with its 70s stereotypes, despite holding beliefs that sound pretty, y’know, feministy. Plus, it may not feel socially acceptable for them to identify as one.
This is where Janelle’s accessible feminism comes in. Janelle doesn’t ever use the F word, but one glance at her lyrics tells you that she’s all about gender equality. Take the song Electric Lady: ‘Wearing tennis shoes or in flats or in stilettos/ Illuminating all that she touches/Eye on the sparrow/ A modern day Joan of Arc or Mia Farrow/ Classy, Sassy, put you in a dazzle-dazzy/ Her magnetic energy will have you coming home like Lassie’ (a.k.a wear whatever shoes you want, you don’t have to wear heels to succeed but you can still be Joan of Arc in stilettos, because, bebz, feminism is all about choice).
3. Her counter narrative
Janelle’s alter ego and alternative reality in both The ArchAndroid and her new fabulous album The Electric Lady are set in a futuristic, computerised, robotic world, in which she is an ‘android’. Is this futuristic android world a feminist dream of equality? Seems likely.
In The Electric Lady, there is a distinct lack of product placement and references to our contemporary world that would locate her music in a specific culture. Yet this futuristic setting is alongside a smorgasbord of music styles drawing on the past: funk (which perfectly works in a duet with Prince), electronic, classical, a whiff of the 80s ballad, a bit of Motown, birdsong and even reggae.
So what is the point of this? To me, it symbolises a new reality, a new way of being that draws on good aspects of the past (Prince, obvs, God of fluid sexuality) but does not base its ‘message’ on specific gendered ideas of our culture that we hear in other mainstream music (men has to buy woman drinks; woman has to be in kitchen). Instead, it’s concerned with eternal truths (love, importance of personal decisions, freedom, choice of footwear when emulating Joan of Arc).
Is it not futile to analyse all this to such detail?, I hear you scream. But hey, c’mon. It’s no accident or coincidence that the general ethos of this woman points to a feminist nirvana of musical brilliance. How far away this is from the scary preachy image that some women associate with feminism. Janelle is a very clever woman and I think she knows exactly what she is doing. She is well on the way to making feminism cool.
Is all of this worthwhile to the feminist cause? Yes. Will it help change the world? We’ll see. For the meantime, ladybros, serious – go listen to The Electric Lady.