Feature image of Janelle Monáe performing at their Age of Pleasure tour by Kyle Gustafson / For The Washington Post via Getty Images
Five years ago, Janelle Monáe released Dirty Computer and came out to the world as a free-ass motherfucker. They had long used the sci-fi concept album and an android alter ego to express themself. Now that expression was made even more explicitly queer.
How does an artist this singular and talented follow up their coming out album? For Monáe, it meant declaring the arrival of The Age of Pleasure. If Dirty Computer placed their sexuality in their favorite genre, The Age of Pleasure dropped any pretense. No more androids. Just Monáe and their sexuality on full display.
Editor-in-chief Carmen and I were both lucky enough to see Monáe live during their Age of Pleasure Tour. We decided it was necessary to debrief about our fun, free, and… erotic experiences at our shows!
Drew: Okay should we start by talking about the first times we saw Janelle Monáe live. Because I know we both have stories.
Carmen: I’ve seen Janelle live only one other time — and it was at the beginning of their career. In 2009, I saw them open for Erykah Badu at this outdoor concert on Governor’s Island in NYC. Which is wild to look back on! Because in 2009, obviously I was there for Erykah, I had never even heard of Janelle Monáe.
Drew: That was going to be my question! Did they already have their unique magic?
Carmen: Yeah, they absolutely did. What I will never forget is — you know, especially back then but even now, Janelle is this ball of energy. So they probably did a handful of songs, running all over the stage, with that afrofuturist pop beat that’s their trademark, but then… abruptly, they stopped.
They stopped center stage, just standing tall with a microphone, and sang Nat King Cole’s “Smile.” You know the one, “Smile though your heart is aching/ Smile even though it’s breaking/ When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by…”
Carmen: It felt like time stood still. To this day, I don’t think I’ve seen anything else quite like it.
Drew: Wow that is so special.
Carmen: Definitely quite an introduction, that’s for sure!
Drew: I also first saw them on an NYC island before knowing who they were! My first girlfriend was really crafty when it came to doing things for free around the city and she always volunteered at Governor’s Ball. We’d broken up by then, but I still decided to go because I was trying to prove that we could be friends and that I didn’t have feelings about our breakup. Also, I wanted to see Vampire Weekend and Sleigh Bells — just a little window into my music taste at the time.
As a volunteer I spent two thirds of the time assigned to different areas picking up trash in exchange for one third of the time getting to be wherever I wanted. This was 2014, but as you can guess from my music taste I didn’t know who Janelle was, so thank God I was assigned to pick up trash in their area during their performance!
I remember being totally overwhelmed. Just like WHO IS THIS?? They’re still not famous enough as far as I’m concerned — but in 2014 that was even more true. They performed during the day and I think pretty early in the day. But they had the energy of a headliner. After that I was a fan forever.
Carmen: First of all, this is an extremely gay story. But also! 2014… that would’ve been the Electric Lady album! That was my baby gay album!
Drew: Yes!! That’s such a good baby gay album.
Carmen: The amount of times that I listened to “Q.U.E.E.N.” while dancing barefoot in my kitchen, it is unrivaled.
Drew: Dirty Computer came out about a year after me, so that played a huge part in my baby gay years.
Carmen: Ooooooh Dirty Computer is such a good baby gay soundtrack! You didn’t even have to do the thing I did, where you follow the analogies of androids named Mary. By then Janelle was singing about fucking girls straight out.
Well not “straight” out. Sorry, I couldn’t leave the pun.
Drew: Hahaha right! I went to the “emotion picture” release party — I wasn’t fancy I just happened to RSVP from their Twitter right away because I was very online — and it felt like a coming out for them. They were so nervous and I remember feeling really comforted by and emotional about that. I was like oh if Janelle Monáe is nervous to fully own their queerness, it’s okay that the past year has been so hard for me.
But then the movie started and Janelle was dancing with Lupita Nyong’o in the aisles and it was so fun and special.
Carmen: The way you slid in this Janelle/Lupita gossip.
Drew: The secret to overcoming anxiety about coming out I think is grinding on Lupita Nyong’o maybe.
Oh sorry okay moving on.
I did then see them perform properly during the Dirty Computer tour. I don’t go to that many concerts but I’ve seen them now three times. Four if you count that video premiere.
Carmen: That’s phenomenal. The only person I’ve seen four times is Beyoncé. Three as a solo artist and once when Destiny’s Child was the opening act for TLC in the year 2000.
Drew: Omg your opening act skills are unparalleled !!
Carmen: I wanted to make a joke about having my finger on the pulse of the culture, but it’s truly just luck. But thank you.
Drew: Luck? Or fate!
Carmen: Gay fate for sure!
So! We both went to the Age of Pleasure Tour this month, which is technically the real reason we are gathered here today. Did you have any expectations going in?
Drew: I knew it was going to be a great performance because, as we’ve established, they’re such a uniquely great performer. But I think I was excited to see how different they felt on stage after some years of really owning their sexuality and gender. And, of course, this album so explicitly owns those things.
Janelle has always been such a talent and also so good at like the production of image and live performance. It’s fun that all those skills are going to this celebration of pleasure. I love trash, but overt sexuality doesn’t always have to equal trashy! Sometimes it’s high art!
Carmen: I think for me, that was one of the clearest takeaways. They are such a master of their craft. I went with two people who have really studied music, for quite literally decades. It was great to enter into that space with them because we were each bringing in our own expectations or levels of expertise. And they were both blown away by Janelle’s pure vocal quality. We were all taken aback by their showmanship.
I think it also shows, when you are more comfortable with yourself, when you are able to own all of who you are, it touches everything else in your life, right?
Carmen: It makes everything else better, because you are whole. Janelle has always been great on stage, clearly we both can speak to that, but this Janelle? It hits different. And I also think that’s because, even as fans, we got to walk so much of that journey with them. Like we can see and feel the sweetness of these wins along with them.
Because I sure was reading queerness into “Q.U.E.E.N.” and now I get to sing “Lipstick Lover” at the top of my lungs.
Drew: Even when they performed a handful of older songs like “Yoga” and “Tightrope” they just felt different to me.
I still listen to their older albums and love them, but it is really exciting to watch the evolution! And experience how that evolution makes the older stuff even better — in performance and just with a new context.
Carmen: Yessssssss! “Yoga” completely goes hard in a new, more intimate way now. And… I hadn’t thought about this before, but the feeling of ownership in “Tightrope”? Sheesh.
Also, of course, because they’re performing “Tightrope” in a tux. And yes, it’s a throwback to their black-and-white uniform era for sure, but I couldn’t help but also think of it as a wink to bygone queer performers and drag kings who often performed in tuxes. (Yes I just finished Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club, can you tell?)
Drew: It’s so funny to me that people read the tux has being conservative when it was obviously queerness.
Carmen: That was a whole discourse this summer, especially in certain Black spaces! With straight people who were like “Janelle is showing skin all over the place now, what happened to when they were clothed and respecting their body” — and I was like “oh buddy, did you miss what they were trying to say with those suits? There, there now. It’s ok. It wasn’t for you.”
Drew: And their evolution takes the subtext of the suits and the android persona and confirms it as text. Their queerness now is undeniable which also makes the queerness of the rest of their career undeniable, too.
Carmen: Hahaaa I was going to say, “But damn it feels good to revisit those suits now, in the open and on our own terms” — but yes, let’s take it to an academic level!
Drew: Hahaha. Open and on our own terms is the beauty of textual queerness!
Carmen: Yes!! And I think especially too, as a Black queer performer, there is so much policing done around our sexuality and our bodies, not just who we sleep with but also how we conduct ourselves in public, and in so many ways, for so many years, Janelle has been undoing that.
And of course, bodies being policed is also so true of trans communities, and to see Janelle keep pushing through all of the bullshit and channeling it back into their art, back into what they bring to the stage and leave there for us. It’s wild. I feel so lucky to be in the room for it.
Drew: Me too. There’s something so uniquely queer about looking around at the pretty rough time we’re living in right now and going, oh of course the answer is to declare this the age of pleasure.
And that felt reflected on stage! The show felt looser? Like the performance was still tight but I really felt the fun everyone was having on stage.
And it was… erotic.
Carmen: Yeah, no, it was sexy as hell.
Drew: I know they have good taste based on, um, rumored relationships. But wow did they pick talented and very hot dancers!
Carmen: Hahahahaaa. I think my expectations going in were for it to be, I keep trying to find a more professional way to say “horny” and I’m coming up short!
Drew: I think they’d be okay with you saying horny !!!
Carmen: I recently watched their “Janelle Monáe Reads Thirsty Tweets” video for Buzzfeed, where they chided fans for not being dirty enough. So yeah, I think they’re ok with horny!
Drew: Omg I’m going to watch this immediately after we’re done talking.
Carmen: It’s so good and my favorite part is the person who shares their alien fantasies and Janelle doesn’t miss a beat.
Drew: Did you go to the concert with people ready to embrace the horny?
Carmen: It’s so funny, because when I was prepping for the concert I was talking to my cousin (who is also gay), and immediately their question was if I was trying to get some. And while I’m never… not paying attention to that, this trip was much more of a friendship reunion. My best friend got the tickets on presale, without even telling me! And basically texted me like: “So… get a plane ticket to Minneapolis.”
Drew: Okay but being horny — even separately, platonically — with friends is also very fun!!
Carmen: Extremely fun! And, through a series of unexpected events we ended up in VIP seats. Which was great for a few reasons, one of which was that the venue in Minneapolis was standing only, so VIP balcony seats were the only seats available (not a win for accessibility, just saying!). Ironically, I ended up dancing the entire set anyway, so I never really “sat” in the seat that I paid for.
I sweated clear through my layers, I ended the night in a bra and jeans.
Drew: JANELLE WOULD BE PROUD
As you said in your fashion advice column — bra and jeans feels like a very correct outfit for this show.
Carmen: Least amount of clothes possible is definitely the outfit of choice. A fun little challenge for the fall!
Drew: I definitely had my nipples showing and I was in Toronto, where it’s already fully fall. But it was worth being a little cold on the walk over to free the nipples at the show.
Carmen: Free the nipples is such a small thing, but it’s become a rallying cry for this tour and I think we’re all finding a lot of freedom in it? Like I feel like everyone I know has this excited hush tone going into the concert of like, “ok but can I really do this? Are we doing this? Are we being this free?” And yes babe, we are.
Drew: It makes it feel more like a queer dance party (where my nipples are often free) than a concert (where they tend to be covered).
Carmen: Yes! That is such a distinction.
Drew: Also Janelle Monáe’s boobs make me proud to have boobs.
Carmen: I don’t know if they did this at your concert, but at mine they opened with “Float” and because the venue served alcohol, they did the toast at the end of the song live with the audience. I was so caught up in the moment, I forgot to record it. But I feel like that set the tone right at the top. To have thousands of people at once toast to the “fucked up shit we can’t erase!”
Drew: Yes!! Sexual freedom can also just be about freedom in general, at least for one night, in a special space.
Carmen: And that’s what Janelle has been able to create, to sit right at that intersection and hold room for the rest of us. It’s… unreal. Except of course, it is very very real.
Also, Janelle Monáe’s boobs make me proud to like looking at people’s boobs.
Drew: Okay yeah, that too.
Carmen: One of the best parts of my concert was towards the end. Janelle said that they wouldn’t be flashing their boobs because we were in Minneapolis (which was the home of one of their mentors, Prince) — and Prince, who spend the last decades of his life as a Jehovah’s Witness, would not approve.
But then they winked and said, “but I haven’t seen any boobs yet! Is no one going to show me some?” And I swear it felt like the entire two rows at the front of the stage lifted up their shirts at once.
Drew: Late in life Prince may have not approve, but I’m glad they got the audience to give a little something for early career Prince! (And for themself lol)
Carmen: A win for everyone!!! (Rest in Peace, late in life Prince)