Doad and I were lucky enough to see Janelle Monáe last night. If you aren’t already listening to Janelle Monáe (Cindi Mayweather, the ArchAndroid, Electric Lady #1, Android #57821, etc), you should be. Her series of concept albums about a fugitive android who falls in love with a human are easily the most creative thing happening in music today. I have assembled a miscellany of reactions presented here in no particular order.
- She is so good at dancing. She. Is. So. Good. At. Dancing. No one has made moonwalking look this cool in 20 years.
- She’s lost the signature tux and saddle shoes, but is still keeping everything clean and black-and-white and is still sporting that amazing pompadour. This isn’t just an aesthetic choice: She’s said that the black and white clothes are meant to evoke the uniforms that her working-class family members always wore.
- Using robots as a civil-rights metaphor is so natural that it’s kind of strange that it’s never been done before (to my knowledge). It makes you realize how much we’re missing due to the absence of minority voices in science fiction.
- And yet, her message is universal. She makes it clear that her themes of freedom and acceptance are meant to resonate with everyone, whatever personal struggles zie may be facing. And they do.
- Our friends came in by a different door and got handed the ten droid commandments. Lucky.
- The 5’0″ Monáe knows how it is: During the surprisingly quiet and intimate (yet intense) finale, she had the entire audience get down on the floor and then went out into the audience and confessed to being a short person. Then she went back onto the stage and people my height finally got a perfect view of her dancing.
- Aside from that, the conceit of this concert was not the android storyline, but rather the Palace of the Dogs, the asylum seen previously in the music video for “Tightrope.” She came onstage in a straightjacket. The Palace of the Dogs is about the importance of individual self-expression and how society seeks to control people by crushing it. These are themes common to Monáe’s work, as in “Cold War,” where she sings “I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me.” There are so few artists today who talk about things like this.
- One of the main points of difference between The Electric Lady and its predecessor The ArchAndroid is its candid-yet-classy exploration of sex and sexuality, as seen in “Q.U.E.E.N.” Monáe’s booty don’t lie and she isn’t afraid to shake it. But, unlike a lot of female artists, Monáe’s sexuality always feels like hers: It isn’t a concession to male viewership, but rather another facet of her shameless self-expression: “Even if it makes others uncomfortable, I will love who I am.”
- The differences between concept-album storytelling and other forms are interesting. Media like movies and books are usually highly structured and bound by realism and internal consistency. Music, on the other hand, lends itself to very loose, unstructured storytelling that only touches on the important events in the story, rather than locking them into a rigid chronology. This, curiously, allows an album to contain more ideas, plots, themes, and elements than a book or movie could, because it can add things that would feel too disconnected in other media. Thus, Cindi Mayweather the android from a dystopian future can coexist comfortably in the same fluid narrative as the dance-powered psychics of the Palace of the Dogs and the time-traveling rebel artists of Wondaland.
- I have a theory that no artist has more than 2 1/2 narrative concept albums in them, since that’s how many the Who produced (Tommy, Quadrophenia, and half of Who’s Next). Monáe has released two full-length albums and an EP, but she chose not to bring Cindi Mayweather’s journey to a close in The Electric Lady, so she’ll have to destroy my rule to bring her story to a close.
- Monáe is getting big, so it was a real privilege to see her at a venue as small as Club Nokia. We may never get this kind of opportunity again.
- But I hope she does get big, because this kind of talent deserves to be rewarded and her message deserves to be heard. And then maybe she’ll get that movie deal and we’ll finally get to see Cindi on the big screen. Because this story has been cinematic since day one.
I’m not shy with my criticism and I hate the word “perfect,” since I tend to believe that no work is perfect and that aiming for perfection cramps creativity and discourages experimentation, but this concert was perfect: Slick but not overproduced, technically competent but still full of heart, making every number, from the up-tempo hits to the mellow ballads, feel like the highlight of the show. Usually big, daring works that take risks also make a lot of mistakes and the works that avoid major mistakes are timid and spiritless. Janelle Monáe proves that you can have your cake and eat it too. Her discography is big and daring and yet it contains absolutely nothing I could label a mistake, nothing she experimented with but didn’t really work. Instead, her music is great on every possible level: Her gorgeous vocals, her infectious hooks, her always-meaningful lyrics, powerful themes, and intriguing story, and of course, her magnetic stage presence.