“Calling All Stars”: Janelle Monae’s Black Feminist Futures

September 25, 2013
By

The Electric Lady

By Emily J. Lordi

I will let others explain why The Electric Lady, released earlier this month, is Janelle Monae’s most beautiful, expertly pop and unapologetically black album yet. Others will want to decode the lyrics and discuss the newest chapter in the Metropolis saga. I want to talk about the brilliant way Monae has thrown down the Afrofuturist gauntlet. At a moment when the term Afrofuturism can seem like an easy shorthand for all things black and imaginative, Electric Lady makes Afrofuturism less about androids and fantastic other worlds than about the unrealized futures we are living with now. If we are the beneficiaries of past struggle, Monae and the Wondaland artists insist that we are also the inheritors of some long-deferred dreams.

Monae’s album title alone performs a black feminist coup by turning a glorified object into a glorious subject. Here the male fantasy theme park of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland becomes The Electric Lady, a female agent who not only claims a term (“lady”) historically reserved for white women but also seizes the creative power that “electric” connotes. But the title also evokes an era when “electric” became a keyword in American culture—when a nation emerging relieved from the 1970s energy crisis would create the “Electric Slide” and “The Electric Company” and give birth to a neon sneakers-wearing generation of kids with astronaut dreams. Welcome to the future of the past.

The first song presents Monae as the unlikely future of a very masculine musical past. An outsized outlaw’s boast made in the image of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” (I am sharper than a razor, eyes made of lasers, bolder than the truth), “Givin’ Em What They Love” chronicles the greatest hits of swaggering tropes, from Peter Tosh’s “stepping razor” to Dylan’s “rolling stone” and Biggie’s Ready to Die. From here, cue a Lenny Kravitz-style open voiced refrain, echoes of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” and the entrance of Prince himself. This fact alone merits pause: when was the last time that Prince was a guest on someone else’s album? But Monae’s re-channeling of gendered power doesn’t stop here. As if less impressed than I am with Prince’s appearance, the album moves right on from Prince to Monae and Badu’s “Q.U.E.E.N.” And with the next track the sonic middle ground surges in like light through the album cover’s neon sign: “Electric Lady.”

This is where things get fun. Solange is the special guest for a party that features go-go percussion, a graciously elastic 1990s R&B dance beat, tight female harmonies a la Destiny’s Child, a great rap by Monae—and Outkast woo-hoos, a random Britney Spears reference, and a vocoded mini-outro just for good measure. Electric lady you’re a star, you got a classic kind of crazy, but you know just who you are… ya’ll make me so proud—the song conspires to make a future of women celebrating other women irresistible.

But this isn’t just about the future. Women have been cheering, admiring and seducing each other in black popular music ever since Bessie Smith’s sexual blues of the 1920s. Nor is Monae’s bending of gender roles new. When Monae reworks the sounds of male artists from Hendrix to Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, the point is not simply that in 2013, women can do everything men can do. It’s also about reanimating a whole history of non-normative pop gender performances. Marvin Gaye’s falsetto helped make the sensitive man—literally brought to his knees with longing for a distant lover—into a potent sex symbol in the 1970s; Prince was posing in the buff on a white winged horse as early as 1979; and Michael Jackson was soon channeling divas like Judy Garland and Diana Ross to create his inimitable androgynous style. The album’s musical allusions remind us how queer American popular music has always been.

Black women are central to this history. I have said that “Givin’ Em What They Love” starts with a male boast, but the first musical figure is a chain-gang grunt that echoes Grace Jones’s Slave to the Rhythm, an album released a month before Monae’s birth in 1985. And we might just as well associate Monae’s gritty vocals on that song with rock icon Betty Davis as with any male star. But the most powerful shadow figure in Monae’s pantheon of pioneering black women might be Lauryn Hill. Monae’s most moving vocals often recall Hill’s contralto sound: the yearning intervals of Hill’s “Ex-Factor” resonate through Monae’s line about her rebel ways in “We Were Like Rock & Roll.” But Monae also uses “To Zion’”s martial drums on the stunning “Victory”; she raps about marching to the streets on “Q.U.E.E.N.” in a cadence that revives Hill’s march through these streets like Soweto; and when on “Sally Ride” Monae sings I know you love me but I’m still gone, she sounds so much like Hill it’s haunting.

For all the genres Monae has mastered, the R&B song of lost love—the ultimate sign of an unrealized future—might be her strongest suit. Witness “We Were Like Rock n’ Roll,” with its bright Smiths guitar line, record-correcting refrain and steady rising gospel choir: No matter how the story’s told, we were like rock n’ roll, we were unbreakable, I want you to know. The album’s long musical memory recalls that “Sally Ride” was a goad before it was a proper name—that the future once sounded like Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” (“Ride, Sally Ride”), and like Aretha Franklin’s bold sanctifying of that lyric in “Spirit in the Dark,” before it looked like the first woman in space.

With these histories in mind, I keep hearing the album as a field of unrealized futures. I hear the future of black radio, revived in the album’s vexed but bracing skits at station 105.5 WDRD. I hear the alternate future of Hendrix, who would not live to record another album after Electric Ladyland; I hear the lost future of Whitney Houston and the still-possible future of Lauryn Hill. I hear the promise of Michael Jackson, whose presence is so palpable here: in the young striver’s sound of “It’s Code,” the easy beauty of Off the Wall (“Can’t Live Without Your Love”) and the message-y lyrics of “Black or White” (even if it makes others uncomfortable I will love who I am).

Hearing the album as a series of pop afterlives helps explain why Electric Lady ends with “What an Experience,” a song indebted to 1980s synth-pop that references “Red Red Wine.” At the end of this album’s journey, and indeed after Monae has declared I’m packing my space suit, and I’m taking my shit and moving to the moon, the sound of the future is… UB40? This perplexed me until I thought about the dates. Neil Diamond first recorded “Red Red Wine” in 1968; UB40 made it a hit in the mid-1980s. So the song evokes the era of Monae’s birth but also that of her mother’s. You’re the reason I believe in me, Monae sings to her mother in “Ghetto Woman.” The 1968-to-1984 trajectory of “Experience” asks what it means to occupy the space, as Barack Obama writes in his memoir, where your parents’ dreams have been.

Monae’s Afrofuturist art is a humbling and stirring reminder that the future is ours but it wasn’t ours first. Like the TR-808 drum machine, the synthesizer and the spaceship, Monae’s gender-bending performances have sounded like the future for a long time. What can we do to make them sound more like the present? As James Baldwin archly asked when advised to proceed gradually with the black freedom movement, “How much time do you want for your progress?”

These questions are especially resonant at a moment when the March on Washington is commemorated as evidence of a national victory instead of as the first step in a long march toward justice. As the most basic material gains of the civil rights movement are mistaken as the goal of what was meant to be a long-term moral revolution, Electric Lady invites us to reconsider what dreamers of prior eras—those who boycotted buses, went to jail, started breakfast programs and rioted at Stonewall—might have wished for. If we are the future that civil rights activists dreamed of, how much freer were we all supposed to be?

___________

Emily J. Lordi is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She teaches and writes about African American literature and black popular culture. Her first book, Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature, is due out in October. Her next book will explore the concept of “soul.”

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15 Responses to “Calling All Stars”: Janelle Monae’s Black Feminist Futures

  1. eli on September 25, 2013 at 8:08 am

    Beautiful review. Thank you for the context and the juxtaposition of parallel struggles. This album definitely planted a seed that will birth a movement of thinkers just like us.

    (Looking forward to reading your book too!)

  2. Timothy Benston on September 25, 2013 at 11:38 am

    What a brilliant review !!! Thanks for the insightful analysis.

  3. rebeKah on September 25, 2013 at 2:33 pm

    A brilliant, well-written review. Thank you!

  4. Lillie on September 25, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    Hey, now, Emily (if I can be so informal),
    An extraordinarily wonderful review. I peeped Monae a couple years ago when she hit the waves, and I though her a brilliant artist, so young and talented. Thanks for giving us the goods on this new work. Very nice (your words) to accompany (the few) tracks I’ve heard so far.

  5. nat irvin on September 25, 2013 at 8:06 pm

    Professor Lordi,

    …I think you have just given the final benediction on Janelle Monae’s “The Electric Lady” and the writers of Wondaland. Anything written after this will have to sit in the shadows…and just wave a church fan, back and forth, back and forth…

    ..Good Lord:))

  6. Shy on September 26, 2013 at 8:27 am

    Fantastic review. I really appreciated your reflections, thank you so much! So insightful..

  7. Bridget on September 26, 2013 at 10:10 am

    Don’t think I can say it better than nat irvin.

    Wow. I wanted every paragraph to be an essay unto itself.

    I have been holding off on buying the album, out of frugality. Went over to amazon and bought Metropolis, ArchAndroid and Electric Lady.

    Thank you.

  8. Emily Lordi on September 26, 2013 at 12:07 pm

    Dear All,

    I’m too new at this to be cool about it so I’ll just say that your comments meant the world to me. Thank you so much for taking the time to read and to comment, and above all to LISTEN to Janelle Monae’s incredible work!

    Peace,
    Emily

  9. Bella on September 26, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    This was an amazing review! I love your writing style and your analysis on Janalle’s album from a historical/futuristic context. I look forward to your book!

  10. Juan Botha on September 26, 2013 at 4:39 pm

    As a white South African when someone writes or talks about equality and racial motifs, I get this cringe. Over and over, repetitively and almost perpetually, we are bombarded with messages of black empowerment.

    I know that this is not the aim of your review. It is refreshing to read your highly academic perspective on Monae’s album. It opened door’s for me with regards to the amount of planning that makes up such an album.

    Janelle Monae is unique. I exposed one of my friend’s to her music yesterday and told him that she is the epitome of a woman. Just by the way that she conveys herself publicly – alwyas exemplary morals. She is the kind of role model that more youngsters need.

  11. Gigi on September 26, 2013 at 7:11 pm

    Thank you so much for this review on Ms Monae! This album hits the nail for me. It’s incredible lyrically and musically. Ms Monae is doing something I very fond of, and I pray for her to succeed behind her expectations…I love the album. The last time I felt like this was Ms. Lauryn Hill “miseducation” keep it up, Janelle. You make me so proud!!

  12. Jean Baker on September 27, 2013 at 6:27 pm

    Thank you Emily J. Lordi for this super reflected review!!! I will def get the album and read your book!!!!

  13. The Tasteful Miss on September 29, 2013 at 1:08 am

    I love J-Monae, but it seems that this reviewer is grasping at straws with all the references she tries to pull out. (Her attempt at assigning meaning to a song as sweet but ultimately lightweight as “What An Experience” was as fruitless as trying to detect any semblance of a sci-fi storyline in Monae’s current musical output without having to refer to the artist’s virtual explanations.) To me, this album isn’t much more than an (admittedly, well-done)easily-digestible hodgepodge of Monae’s influences, not to mention, disappointingly similar-sounding to ‘The Archandroid.’(Her same-y, digital-smear-y production could SERIOUSLY benefit from an outsider’s fresh ear.) At its worst, it’s a starry-eyed regurgitation of previous musical styles and generically positive/politely watered down lyrical content. I hope one day she grows/goes beyond mimicking her idols (the 70′s-era Stevie, MJ, Lauryn, etc. In regard to the latter, what has Monae rapped or sang about that Ms. Hill hasn’t already tackled with a sharper, more competent tongue?) and makes something truly new/fresh/unique/thrilling. (ie, ‘Many Moons’, ‘Sincerely, Jane’, ‘BaBopByeYa’ – the last of which is truly a progressive sonic adventure.) In an attempt to make a broadly appealing classic, she’s created a vague/nebulous mess of an album – a far cry from her original BRAVE, focused and unique concept on ‘The Chase’.
    I KNOW she has it in her – and these albums are a good start. Her passion has the ability to get people seriously – if not overly – excited, but let’s not put the cart before the horse and hail our new savior until she actually releases something truly revolutionary.

  14. mauraweb!» archive » my spaceship leaves at 10 on September 29, 2013 at 9:13 am

    […] are other thoughts I’ve had too, but really you should just go read Janelle Monae’s Black Feminist Futures over at The Feminist Wire, because it’s right […]

  15. […] J. Lordi sums up the feminist, political side of The Electric Lady better than I […]

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