My Album of the Year: The Electric Lady
I started to write a post on why Janelle Monae’s The Electric Lady may be the best album of the year, but I ended up scribbling “Thesis: Ideas of Non-Violence and Violence in Janelle Monae’s Album The Electric Lady,” and the whole thing took on a mind of its own. This isn’t going to be exhaustive, but it should make a small dent in everything this album has to offer.
A brief overview for those unfamiliar with this work: The Electric Lady is a concept album which continues a futuristic dystopia started on Monáe’s other albums. This tale is collectively known as Metropolis, and it follows the story of archandroid Cindi Mayweather (Android No. 57821, and the fact the androids are known by numbers is significant) and her human star-crossed lover Anthony Greendown. Human/Android love is forbidden on Metropolis. Cindi’s punishment is a sentence of “immediate disassembly.”
Thematically, the albums include elements of Fritz Lang, Isaac Asimov, Afrofuturism, classical literature, and anti-discrimination including gender, race, class, sexual orientation, real or perceived mental illnesses [that music video for “Tightrope,” not to mention the knowledge many identifications have been classified at some point as illnesses]. Musically, the albums touch nearly every genre, heavily incorporating hip-hop, soul, funk, rock, gospel, jazz, electronica, wonderful interludes of rap and classical. I can’t emphasize enough how audacious and jawdropping a project this is. Yet every song also works as a stand-alone work.
Playing With Narrators
Generally, Cindi serves as the first-person singer/narrator. For the purposes of this essay on The Electric Lady, there are three main players:
DJ CrashCrash hosts a radio show playing many of Cindi’s songs, and takes calls from humans and androids alike. These verbal interludes are reminiscent of Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauren Hill, where a teacher talks to his classroom and their chatter helps bring the etherial themes of the songs into concrete and simple terms.
Often, Monáe/Cindi/DJ CrashCrash are expressing similar ideas. They basically advocate against wanton violence; the idea of love conquering all and peaceful protest are woven throughout the album. But Cindi and DJ CrashCrash, and so it would seem Monáe, condone violence in specific instances: violent and systemic injustice, police brutality, lack of other options, actively defending one’s rights and bodily autonomy.
Monáe’s rapped verses are generally when she breaks character/the fourth wall and stops with the Cindi conceit. Q.U.E.E.N.’s rap verse gets really specific with ideas confronting class, race, gender (‘she who writes the movie . . .), and one vague reference to non-heteronormativity with ‘categorize me, I defy every label.’ This is true of the Q.U.E.E.N. music video as well, where suddenly we leave the freedom fighter’s museum/detainment center to get a single shot of Monáe in a James Bond outfit, pose, and set, delivering her quasi-rap spoken word in rapid fire.
It’s all intensely personal first person, it leaves the narrative of android and futuristic world to get real about modern problems. The albums are certainly musical roman à clef, but these interludes drop most of the conceit and get down to business. In the verses, Cindi reemerges, but the personal and fictional narrative inform each other. Monáe knows how Cindi – as an oppressed minority – would be likely to feel and act, and Cindi knows what sort of likely end awaits her and how the Powers That Be will act because she’s aware of history at large, and Monáe’s history specifically. Past and present inform each other, and together they shape the future.
Themes of Modern and Future Discrimination
Monáe tackles modern-day racism, classism, LGBTQ oppression, and female discrimination. Cindi addresses these all in addition to the fictional (or prophetic, depending on how you see it) anti-droid discrimination, where droids act as not strictly a metaphor but more a gleaming metal surface onto which is projected all our modern injustices. Making it a futuristic dystopia is genius on a couple levels, but the way it enables Monáe to be righteously angry without turning the album into a diatribe may be the best level.
Overall Ideas of Violence versus Non-Violence
Certainly Monáe and Cindi seem to have a right to riot on every level, and the DJ has some more veiled reasons as well. Though no words are minced words about what is wrong, they advocate violence should be saved for a last resort; love is the higher road, the ideal. “Love not war; we are tired of the fires; quiet no riots, we are jamming, dancing, and loving; don’t throw no rock, don’t break no glass, just shake that ass.”
The idealism and romanticism of love and music conquering all is best displayed in “We Were Rock n’ Roll,” where Cindi sings to her absent lover in the face of her likely death, “No matter how the story’s told / We were like rock n’ roll / We were unbreakable / I want you to know . . . We had an incredible, unbreakable, unshakable love.’
Love and music conquer . . . until they don’t. Within that very song “We Were Rock n’ Roll,” the lines “And I remember the smell of guns / War lived in me but love finally won” display the tension felt between the two ideas. The song “Victory” is almost wholly concerned with that tension.
Today I feel so troubled deep inside
I wish the tears would roll back in my eyes
Will I rise?*
Oh I’ll keep singing songs until the pain goes
If loving you means fighting till the end
Then I’ll fight harder baby just to win
And if tomorrow shall come to me
I’ll count your every kiss as a victory
Cause to be victorious
You must find glory in the little things
To be victorious
You must find glory in the little things
Surrounded by the schemes and senseless lives
And blaming others, feeling victimized
Oh tomorrow, one day they’ll know
To win you’ll have to lose all the things you know
Trying to light the fire deep inside
Father take all the fears and sorrow from my life
Cause when the rain falls
My seed will grow
I’ll be further to my dreams tomorrow
*The phrase “Will I rise?” is an historical reference to slave uprising sloganeering, referenced earlier in “Q.U.E.E.N.” and later in “Sally Ride.”
The fighting is metaphorical, but the language is poignant, and one piece of how Monáe presents love and violence on the album: as coexisting ideas tensioned to breaking. She wants love to always conquer all, but there are specific textual cases where Monáe / Cindi / DJ CrashCrah believe violence – not retribution – is justified. They believe at some point violence is the only option.
When a caller to DJ CrashCrash’s show suggests bounty hunters who come looking for Cindi Mayweather (who has done no moral wrong, only been decreed as wrong by the state) may find themselves ‘hurt,’ DJ responds ‘that’s right sisters, power up, power up.’ The immediate song following is “Dance Apocalyptic” talks about all the ways people find to make their own tiny rebellions against societal norms by rejecting suburbia, smoking in school, continuing to dance, even truly falling in love. And the chorus may be fun fast and furious, but the repetitions of ‘smash, smash, bang, bang,’ aren’t just for onomatopoeia. They’re real suggestions.
Not everything requires or should have violence, of course. When a caller to the radio show blusters about how he and a group are going to go down to the docks and smash things and hit people in the head, DJ CrashCrash cuts the call off and admonishes listeners not to follow that ‘ignorant rusty-dusty nanothinking nonsense.’
The tension between non-violent versus violent protest has a history of deep and important conversation in culture. The idea of non-violent versus violent reaction to slavery is especially pertinent to black culture, from Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King Jr ‘versus’ Malcom X.
Oppression in Relation to Black Slavery, Historical and Current
I’m going so far as to say Monáe sees herself as a black leader for this generation (as she should). On “Q.U.E.E.N,” Monáe claims “I’mma keep leading like a young Harriet Tubman.” The idea of slavery and its overthrow runs through the Metropolis series as the androids are seen as subhuman, laborers, controlled by humans, etc., and the idea is reestablished on The Electric Lady in one of the first lines in the whole album, “I don’t want to be a slave again.”
But it’s not just the historical concept of slavery, nor even a historical and futuristic one. It’s modern. The second song, “Give Em What They Love,” says the powers that be want the narrator ‘locked up in the system,’ which evokes the idea of the industrial prison complex being a form of modern slavery. Monáe is well aware of her parallels in past and potential future, and she wants to be a voice which helps break the cycle.
(There’s a third, minor underlying reference: the duet is with Prince, who has a history of making slavery comparisons to industries co-opting artists and withholding royalties. Incredibly, a faaaaaantastic dance remix of this song was released by Prince, unauthorized but quickly applauded by Monáe. The remix was quickly squelched and yanked by the label. Incidentally, if you were one of the ones smart enough to grab the remix from the internet before it was so assaulted, please please hit me up.)
Oppression in Relation to Queerness / Non-Heteronormativity
The idea of android/human love being a metaphor for everything from interracial marriages to classically star-crossed loves like Romeo and Juliet is of course valid, but it’s strongly connected to Monáe’s overall concept of queer oppression. In “Givin’ Em What They Love,” Monáe as Cindy sings “She followed me back to the lobby / Yeah, she was looking at me for some undercover love.” One of the callers to DJ CrashCrash’s show comes right out and says “Robot love is queer.”
The idea of people being persecuted and killed for their real or perceived orientation is pertinent today, and Monáe doesn’t seem to see it going away so much as shifting focus, just as now marriages between classes [a least in the US] are barely blinked at, interracial marriages are much more accepted, and non-heteronormative couplings are sometimes accepted and sometimes have rocks thrown. Eventually, something like android love will rise to take the same ire non-heteronormative relationships now take, but there’ll still be plenty of disapproval to go around. Q.U.E.E.N. is more concerned queries if it’s weird to like the ‘way she wear her tights’ or ‘watching Mary,’ and occasional breathy chorus of ‘queen’ (which in some places just sounds suspiciously like ‘queer’) in the background. She asks if God ‘would approve the way I’m made,’ and there are a few other biblical references scattered across the album, both direct applications to a sovereign and turns of phrase like ‘watch the water turn to wine,’ and the pertinent ‘love is patient, love is kind . . . ‘
Oppression in Relation to Class
Androids are seen as second-class citizens (when it’s acknowledged they’re citizens at all), much as various races and nationalities have been seen over the years. But the idea of working class heroes is also evident. Monáe spoke about this when accepting a BLACK GIRLS ROCK! award. “When I started my musical career I was a maid, I used to clean houses. My parents—my mother was a proud janitor, my step-father who raised me like his very own worked at the post office and my father was a trash man. They all wore uniforms. And that’s why I stand here today in my black and white and I wear my uniform to honor them.” Her tuxedo is a uniform along the lines of Johnny Cash’s black; it comes in somewhat different forms but is a constant, her signature, and a reminder of those who worked jobs on what are considered ‘lower rungs’ of society.
“Ghetto Woman” is clearly sung to/about Monáe’s mother, who was unable to advance herself through education and philosophy, but though some lines are specific, the song – and especially the chorus – is sung to women at large. Don’t let The System get you down. You’re strong. You’re loved.
Oppression in Relation to Gender
In addition to Harriet Tubman, Cindi compares herself to Joan of Arc, Sally Ride, and Mia Farrow, a warrior and leader of men and a fashion icon, respectively.
As to the first, it’s likely it ties in to the idea of necessary violence or righteous warfare. Sally Ride was the first woman in space, and having a futuristic song named after her is a clever and nostalgic thing. But Mia Farrow seems an odd fit at first, until you place her in the context as an actress who was also a fashion icon, as Monáe is now a CoverGirl. Monáe has said “I believe it’s time that women truly owned their superpowers and used their beauty and strength to change the world around me . . . Becoming a CoverGirl is truly and honor and a gift: it opens up a new platform for me to inspire women to feel stronger, braver and more beautiful inside and out,” and also “I want to help redefine what it means to be a strong woman in the music and fashion worlds.”
If you’re listening, she’s well on her way to doing just that.