Janelle Monáe, whose new album The Electric Lady is out this week, is one of the great individuals working in pop at the moment, an artist who’s created a distinctive and singular aesthetic for both her image and her sound. The Electric Lady is the continuation of her overarching musical vision, set in a dystopian future that draws heavily on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It’s an album that draws on a kaleidoscope of musical influences, and one that, like its creator, doesn’t fit any particular neat musical pigeonhole. It turns out, unfortunately, that for all her efforts to avoid being stereotyped, Monáe gets stereotyped regardless.
In particular, 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. This lukewarm and rather patronizing review of The Electric Lady by the ever-contrary Jody Rosen at New York magazine, for instance, seems to punctuate every second paragraph of his with a mention of Monáe’s race, describing her as “an excellent concept” and concluding with an observation that “The only people who like a black bohemian more than fellow black bohemians are white rock critics.” (Not Jody, though!)
It’s depressing and silly, especially because Monáe seems to have gone out of her way to try to avoid being pigeonholed. Like her spiritual forebear Prince, her music draws on the sound of myriad genres, some of which have historically been seen as “black” genres and some “white.” Similarly, she’s spoken about the fact that she chose her distinctively androgynous aesthetic specifically so that it couldn’t be sexualized — the image of herself that she projects to the world plays with gender, certainly, but it also ends up transcending gender.
So it also goes with race. Monáe’s lyrics (and her exclusively black-and-white garb) certainly evoke issues of black and white, and plenty of people have placed the ArchAndroid suite within the context of Afrofuturist art (most notably The Quietus’s John Calvert with this excellent article from 2010). This is certainly a valid view — there’s plenty of critical mileage in examining the ArchAndroid suite as a modern-day exploration of the glorious regions of inner and outer space that George Clinton floated through back in the halcyon days of Parliament and Funkadelic.
But ultimately, evaluating her work in this context is also somewhat limiting. This is because pegging Monáe’s work as Afrofuturism — as opposed to just plain old futurism, or sci-fi allegory — is still a process of otherization. Clearly, the central conceit of the ArchAndroid idea — that of a world ruled by a secret society who suppress a marginalized android underclass — contains obvious parallels to the treatment of real-life minorities. The temptation to identify the underclass of Monáe’s artistic vision with America’s still-underprivileged black community is obvious.
But the idea has broader resonance than that. Monáe’s obviously well aware of this, too — take her talk-radio skit “Our Favorite Fugitive,” wherein a “caller” opines that “robot love is queer,” to which the “host” replies “What I want to know … is how you’d know it’s queer if you haven’t tried it.” Beyond that, the idea has as much to do with socioeconomic inequality as it does with racial inequality — obviously, the two have always been deeply intertwined in America, but if you consider it to be just about race, you miss the wider point. After all, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis — which is an obvious and strong influence on the entire ArchAndroid concept — was an early example of what we might today call anti-capitalism, a Marxist-influenced critique of the exploitation of the working class.
If anything, the entire suite is an argument against the exact sort of otherization that many critics seem to want to visit on it. Focusing on the race of its creator only serves to reinforce its point. In comparing Monáe to artists like Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj, with whom pretty much the only thing she shares is the color of her skin, Rosen reveals more about his own prejudices than anything — ironic, perhaps, from a writer who only a couple of weeks ago penned a mildly hysterical critique comparing Miley Cyrus’s VMAs performance to a modern-day minstrel show.
But anyway, leaving aside the Jody Rosens of this world, the way The Electric Lady has been received is still an instructive, if depressing, illustration of how we seem to want to pigeonhole artists. Whatever your opinions on whether Monáe’s music matches the grandness of her ambitions, they shouldn’t have anything to do with the color of her skin. Can’t we just celebrate Janelle Monáe for what she is: one of pop music’s great originals?