Great Moments in Badass Rock History: Janelle Monáe Comes Alive

Were there any justice in pop, Janelle Monáe should be the biggest thing in the world right now.

Sep 23, 2011 at 12:00pm | Leave a comment

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I'll admit it’s a stretch to call something that happened only a couple years ago “historic,” but I am ever the optimist. I’m classifying this as badass rock history with the expectation that someday soon, Monáe will get the attention she so richly deserves, thus making her early work worthy of such recognition. I’m seeing into the FUTURE, here -- so listen up.

Were there any justice in pop, Janelle Monáe should be the biggest thing in the world right now. She creates brilliantly catchy music that explodes with references without seeming derivative, hiding layer upon layer of meaning under a sweet candy shell. Her work is a revelation, the kind of thing you hear and then immediately long for ALL music everywhere to sound this good.

Monáe dropped her first EP, "Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase)", in 2007. This collection set out the story that would carry through her first full-length release. In a stunning feat of genre-busting, Monáe uses her music to create a vivid sci-fi world in which the protagonist, Cindi Mayweather, has broken the law by falling in love. See, the problem is Cindi is an android, and she’s fallen in love with a human.

Yes, these are concept albums, a phrase that often conjures up images of impenetrable highfalutin pomposity, but Monáe makes it all so very effortless. Her first full-length -- "The ArchAndroid" -- appeared in 2010 and continued Cindi’s story in suites II and III.

Monáe’s first video -- promoted as a short film -- was for “Many Moons”:

This was followed by the effervescent “Tightrope,”  which was a breakout hit, and then subsequently by “Cold War” (which invariably makes me cry every time I watch it, at the lyric, “I was made to believe there was something wrong with me.”):

Part of Monáe’ success is her ability to make these albums stay true to their story while ensuring that each of the songs is perfectly able to stand on its own and be enjoyed by someone with no idea of the bigger picture. Certainly, the future she has invented represents a society in which androids are oppressed in a mirror image of the way people are oppressed by racism and sexism today, but you don’t need to recognize that in order to dig her jam.

Monáe’s commitment to her story and to her ideology is impressive, but best of all, she openly embraces weirdness -- she does not try to validate it, or to make it cool. She doesn’t turn it into a hipster affectation. Girlfriend likes science fiction, she likes futurism and she likes herself and she isn’t going to try to fit in if that’s not the truth.

In an interview with sci-fi blog io9, Monáe is explicit on this point:

That's what I've always been fighting for - making sure that people love themselves for who they are, and we don't pick on people because we're uncomfortable with ourselves... That's been my message, from when I was young to now. There are lots of young girls out there who are struggling with their identities… afraid of being discriminated against or teased. I take risks and use my imagination so that other people will feel free and take risks. That's my hope.

The comparisons to Lady Gaga are inevitable, even though these artists have little in common besides both being women, and sharing a stated commitment to making weirdness socially acceptable. But where Gaga is the bad girl consciously pushing limits just to see how far they’ll bend before breaking, Monáe is her bookish counterpart, satisfied to lay her feelings on the line and let people take from them what they will.

And Monáe lives her ideology, with her tuxedo-uniform and her rejection of conventional ideas of what counts as “feminine” or “sexy” and her hope for a world in which everyone belongs and there are no outsiders. As she told The Telegraph in a 2010 interview: “If I had to fit in, part of the real me is just being erased because I am being a mimic. Everyday I still feel like we are fighting against conformity.”

So there you have it: a very recent entry in the annals of Badass Rock History. There can be no doubt that in the future, Monáe is already a megastar.