Janelle Monáe — the Kansas-born, 24-year old, androgynous, tuxedo-sporting, queer-supporting, soul-oriented, alternative singer/songwriter, dancer & performer — graces the cover of HONEY Magazine this month. I read Monáe’s interview directly after reading Hortense (of Jezebel)’s “It’s not easy being a mainstream pop star in a Lady Gaga world,” published yesterday in response to Ke$ha’s empty trainwreck of a performance on Saturday Night Live. I suggest you adopt the same reading order, as the Monáe piece functions quite well as an antidote to The Ke$ha Situation.
See, Ke$ha’s becoming our first example of what happens when record execs try to impose what they perceive as Gaga’s ‘Gimmick’ onto an arbitrarily selected pretty girl with a pretty good voice. Background is irrelevant (Ke$ha’s story has more shades of Jewel than of Gaga or Lambert), as is former musical style (Katy Perry & Avril Lavigne are both repackaged Christian singers). And though Lady Gaga’s act is hardly original, Gaga’s presently our most famous example of the Warhol-endorsed Artist as Separate Character prototype, making her the obvious inspiration for Ke$ha’s act. But Gaga’s so fucking good at it that no one else is in danger of eclipsing her, let alone succeeding at their own Performance Art. Ke$ha hasn’t even come close. Yet this haphazard image is threatening Dollar Sign’s future, as its sloppy application is squandering her potential as a creator of dumb, commercially viable pop songs.
To be clear, we’re not debating musical quality here or considering genre — for starters, Quality is an impossibly subjective debate, despite its reputation as a worthwhile one, and we wouldn’t have the background to judge that debate anyhow. And genre is only relevant insofar as it relates to the possibility for commercial success/”pop”ularity. So it’s the overall package we’re going to talk about.
Janelle Monáe, with her Motown-y, exuberant Outkast-meets-Grace-Jones-meets-Judy-Garland style and her theatrically-rooted story-based productions, has the Artist as Separate Character act down pat. Because like Gaga — and unlike Ke$ha — Monáe means it. And that’s why this is the perfect moment for Monáe to break out. And Monáe breaking out is a very, very good thing for queers and perhaps a defining moment for music as well.
Janelle Monáe has that something extra needed to be a real star. Even more fascinating, especially when considering the consciously sexualized (for better or for worse) images of 2010’s most visible female solo artists — Gaga, Taylor Swift, Ke$ha, Rihanna, Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, Christina Aguilera — is that despite her impeccable physical beauty, Monáe’s managed to extract & reject traditional ideas about sex from her overall package. Her androgyny is too sweet to be a rebellion, yet too fancy/classic to be coincidental or even trendy.
If you don’t know Monáe yet, it’s time you get acquainted. We highlighted her tuxedo uniform and trademarked bouffant in our recent article 10 Fashion Icons in Music: Women Rocking Homosexy Style list, but there’s a lot more to know about her than the fact that she considers The Tux to be “a lifestyle [she] enjoys” that keeps her “balanced” because, as an artist, she looks at herself “as a canvas. I don’t want to cloud myself with too many colors or I’ll go crazy. It’s an experiment I’m doing. I think I want to be in the Guinness Book of World Records.”
Monáe put out her first album, Metropolis, in 2007. It was introduced as the first of a four-part concept album and was released via her own website and mp3 download sites. By the end of the year, she was signed by Bad Boy Records, and in 2008, they released a physical version of Metropolis with bonus tracks, titled Metropolis: The Chase Suite (Special Edition). Her next album, ArchAndroid, debuts next month from Bad Boy and her own label, Wondaland Records. She cites David Bowie, Stevie Wonder and Tim Burton as inspirations for her work.
We want Monáe to be a lesbian, mostly ’cause we’re attracted to her. But the most she’ll cop to is thinking gender roles are useless/meaningless and only being attracted to androids, and that’s actually fine with us. Bisexual, ambisexual, heteroflexible — you don’t want those words? It’s okay. We are buying what you’re selling.
From an April 7 Interview with from The New Gay:
The New Gay: What are you attracted to in people?
Janelle Monáe: I love when I’m surrounded by very fearless individuals that don’t worry too much about how others may perceive them, their artistic vision or sexual orientation. I like people who are aware of stereotypes but they don’t care too much about it and they live their life very free. I like givers, lovers, imaginative minds. I just really like artists.
The New Gay: How do you identify in terms of sexual orientation?
Janelle Monáe: I’m actually attracted to androids.
In her Honey Magazine article, Janelle Monáe offers this:
Honey: Do you find time to date?
Janelle Monáe: I do. I think that love is very beautiful and it’s an energy that I love having. I do date and I do have someone that I love. Someone that understands me very well and encourages me to be the best person and artist I can be. I couldn’t ask for a better android.
Janelle Monáe’s got her own Factory called Wondaland, which she explains thusly to Honey Magazine:
My creative space is the headquarters for The Wonderland Arts Society. We have floating bookshelves, green grass, very beautiful pianos that we write songs on. We have lots of fish mounted on the wall, more importantly we just have really interesting people. It’s a headquarters for artists, who have super powers. We come up and try ideas. We wear black and white and we try to lead by example and try to change the world. It’s a very peaceful environment. Sometimes when we create music it gets very rowdy, it feels like an African tribe. When your artist, you don’t go home, you stay and you create all day and night…
‘The Wonderland Arts Society’ are very smart thinkers, forward thinkers, survivals, artists — from visual art to performance art. We try to help preserve that and come with new content and ideas. We look to the past for inspirations but really focus on the future, using our super powers for good. We all sit at round tables and discuss ways to reintroduce music to the world, transforming music and experiences. We like to think of what we do not just as one event. We want people to experience and be moved, so they can remember that experience for the rest of their lives. We think of the album as an emotional adventure for the mind, just coining new terminology and allowing the listener to be taken on a journey. As artists, it’s our responsibility to take people on a journey. We have the opportunity to see things that the everyday person cannot see. We see beauty and we see art in so many things and we have the opportunity to share in it in a thought provoking and clever way and hopefully they can be more inspired.
Here’s the music video for Tightrope, with Big Boi:
More from The New Gay Interview:
The New Gay: As someone interested in doing things differently, do you find you have a big queer following?
JM: Absolutely, those are the cool people I love being around and that’s awesome. I haven’t really thought about it, i look at people as people, not “Oh, he’s queer.” What is queer, what does that mean? I don’t believe in categories. I respect people for who they are, I’m attracted to that more than anything.
Janelle is also a big supporter of the GLBT community and even made an appearance at 2008’s Atlanta Black Gay Pride.
And now, back to the aforementioned Jezebel piece about Ke$ha:
It’s not easy being a mainstream pop star in a Lady Gaga world: “There was a moment during last night’s Saturday Night Live when my disdain for Ke$ha morphed into a kind of distanced pity, and that moment, I believe, was the exact moment that Ke$ha herself was questioning her career’s direction… [her reaction to the crowd’s unenthusiastic response was] a look coming from someone who doesn’t seem to buy the shit they’re selling.”
Like the wannabees packaged to imitate Britney Spears’ alluring product in the early ’00s (Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore, Willa Ford), Ke$ha, Hortense argues, is merely a dumb man’s Lady Gaga. And what’s more: the act is falling to sloppy pieces. Even Ke$ha’s bisexuality feels more boring than it does artificial, titillating or even strategic.
Is it possible that Kesha the person is, in fact, smart, and that’s precisely why she’s failing so epically at acting so blah-blah-blah-dumb? Her music is dumb, but it’s popular, so it’s succeeding in that respect. But by trying to take that party-girl persona to the level of epic Gaga-inspired performances, Ke$ha ends up looking like a more-or-less “nice” girl still wearing her Halloween costume on November 1. Hortense:
Ke$ha: singer, who brushes her teeth with Jack and stays out until the police shut her down, wouldn’t have shot a nervous look off stage. She would have yelled “Fuck all of you, y’all don’t even know,” and would have rocked out with the confidence she attempts to pass off in her records. But Ke$ha, actual human being, reacted the way most of us, I expect, would have reacted, with an “Oh, crap” glance and an attempt to keep going, despite the unenthusiastic audience response.
For Ke$ha’s second act of the night, she added war paint and feathers to a concept used by Sia in a 2008 performance, because what’s better than a shitty song? A shitty song with a little “native” cultural appropriation!
Ke$ha’s best bet at this point is to peel back the glitter and refuse to be a constructed symbol of “weird” when honestly she seems really quite normal, not unlike Mandy Moore or Avril Lavigne. But regardless, she’ll ultimately be forgettable.
There’s plenty of room for more female artists to make it big, and even if Monáe doesn’t aspire to be any part of “The Lady Gaga World,” she has the power to exist within it, even though she got started way beforehand and ultimately is doing something very different musically. The future, mark our words, just may belong to Monáe.
Kristen Stewart is at Coachella, looking fantastically hot. I mean, just really, really, really, really good looking. Also, like Shane:
VH1 is “revamping” and will show more music, less dumb reality shows. Allegedly. (@thp)
Melissa Etheridge and Tammy Lynn Michaels: Inside Their Split. Thanks, People Magazine. (@people)
This is your last chance to win tickets to see Hailey Wojcik in New York City! (@autostraddle)
Lady Gaga will appear on American Idol on May 5.
Is Christina Hendricks the sexiest woman alive? Esquire puts Christina Hendricks on the cover of Esquire’s “WOMEN” issue. (@esquire)
Mo’Nique’s brother admitted he molested her on Oprah today. It happened when they were children, and he wants to apologize to her. (@yahoo)
i love this song/music video! this is like old janet jackson but better.
TOTALLY reminds me of Janet Jackson! I LOVE Janelle’s style and I love androgyny. I also love her music so it’s a triple win situation. When does this record drop?
OMG. Kristen Stewart is the new Shane?? :0 I’m diggin it. :D
Dammit, I hate when Esquire agrees with me. About anything at all.
Going to go buy Monae’s last album now, y’all sold me. Let us know when the new one drops, eh?
so, uh kristen stewart is coming out after the twilight movies, right? RIGHT?
My sister, WE ALL KNOW. you are gay-city.
I love Janelle Monae like burning. I need to find a place to buy her album for download that isn’t failtastic iTunes and that will sell to someone using dirty Australian money! :P
Try this – there’s a preorder of her new album too:
(ahahaha yay for followup emails!)
Oooh, you the lady, Tiara!
Fffff they won’t take my dirty Australian money T_T
Maybe I’ll have to PayPal my brother and get him to give me the download link or something :P
o_O don’t they? What do they need, an American CC? I have a Mastercard Debit I use for that sort of thing…
Whoa, holy double-take. Um, so I think Kristen Stewart must be dating Kate Moennig (or, really, I guess any one of the 1000s of the lesers who emulate Shane in style) and have massive merge going on.
Whatever is happening, I support it, unless something really bad is happening that I can’t see from that picture. Because all I see is really good stuff happening.
Sincerely awaiting a link to We Have Lesers.
God, I can never, ever get enough of Christina Hendricks. Miss Stewart, on the other hand, is FREAKING MY SHIT OUT, man.
I’ve loved Janelle since the Metropolis EP. I mean, all you have to do is listen to Cybertronic Purgatory or her rendition of Smile and it’s totally fucking over. I actually feel like I stumbled upon both she and Lady Gaga’s Poker Face video around the same time, and maybe that’s partly why I’m so unimpressed with the latter.
Janelle Monáe, FTW!
I’d never heard of Janelle until five minutes ago, but now I am officially smitten. This is why you are awesome, Autostraddle.
Also, Janelle was totally playing the Pronoun Game with that answer about her current relationship, Y/Y?
One of us! One of us!
congrats to those of you who have finally discovered ms. monae. i have loved her for years now. she the most talented artist of our decade… not to mention the most beautiful.
her album comes out may 18th so be sure to tell all of your friends to go out and get it. its gonna be crazy. i saw her show here in atlanta and the songs are to die for!
Aha! I finally figured out why Janelle Monae and her bouffant seemed vaguely familiar even though I’d never heard her name before… she was in that Christmas Gap commercial that was ubiquitous a few years ago! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1_F51Lcf2Fg
Aww. And she’s only gotten more adorable, and her bouffant even more glorious.
omg everything about the excerpted interview was so beautiful it made me want to cry. esp. this part: “It’s a headquarters for artists, who have super powers. We come up and try ideas. We wear black and white and we try to lead by example and try to change the world. It’s a very peaceful environment. Sometimes when we create music it gets very rowdy, it feels like an African tribe. When your artist, you don’t go home, you stay and you create all day and night…”
Also I almost gasped audibly when I read the thing about Mo’nique’s brother?
GIRLS IN TUXES AND TRUMPETS I AM SOLD.
1. That Janelle Monae video was ridiculously DOPE!!! I’m gonna be doing that dance, FTW.
2. I feel for Monique and that whole situation and is it just me or does anybody else have feelings about the brother waiting ’till she won an Oscar to apologize? Maybe it’s just my cynicism.
3. I WANT KRISTEN (STEWART) TO BE MY WIFE, AT LEAST FOR A LITTLE WHILE.
In the future, every lesbian will be married to Kristen Stewart for fifteen minutes.
Yeah, a nice little “Power 15” is all you need really.
Good Job for finally DISCOVERING Janelle Monae. I first noticed her in the “Morris Brown” video for Outkast as she sat gloriously in the backseat looking better than an ass on a Brazilian beach. More like a Georgia peach :)
Then, she dropped her hit, “Letting Go.” Before she was HUGE, I actually used to have conversations with her on Myspace about that song. Then she dropped a few other hits, not excluding, “Violet Stars Happy Hunting.” It was then that I decided that I would try to marry this girl.
I’m still working on it.
I don’t know how I feel about the Kesha-Sia connection there. I mean, she used glow paint but that’s about where the comparison seemed to end. The style of it (the paint/costumes, the lighting of it, her movements etc. not the music which is of course different) was really very different. Does using glow paint mean the Black Eyed Peas video ripped of Sia too?
Not that I felt there were any redeeming qualities to either of Kesha’s performances, just the way they stated it I kind of expected more similarities than just the presence of glow paints.
Ah well, my number one feeling is that I’m really glad I got to see the Sia video because it was awesome. Love that song.
The more I read about Ke$ha, and particularly people’s opinions of her, the more I want her to succeed. Everyone is so conceited in their view of her being a trivial, sub-Gaga who’ll have vanished by next year, it’s really bugging me.
Despite female presence in pop music vastly increasing over the past fifteen years, female artists still seem to be subjected to far more scrutiny than men, particularly regarding image and identity. I guess you could argue that for pop success you need to promote the image as much as the music, but I still don’t see anywhere near as much criticism levelled at male artists producing similarly catchy but banal auto-tuned hits.
When I think back to the grey, pre-Spice Girls days, when the charts were rammed full of vapid boy bands singing tedious songs about heartbreak you could never imagine they’d experienced, I reckon someone akin to Ke$ha would have lit up the pop world. Just because the demographic has changed now, so that she’s only another one in the cavalcade of slightly crazy, sexuality-indifferent, would-be avant-garde ladies in pop doesn’t mean that she should be summarily dismissed.
I, for one, think she’s still a whole lot more interesting than most of the other equivalent chart acts, and would much rather we default to supporting female musicians of any ilk, rather than automatically bitching about them, lest we return to the dark ages when we didn’t have many at all.
Nicely said! (and I shall quote you on my blog!)
OK i’m not a music expert or a Ke$ha expert, I just know what little I know from what i’ve seen and from her performance at dinah and the reactions to it and from the jezebel article.
i more than anyone don’t like hearing women think of another woman as a joke like everyone did of ke$ha at dinah shore, and i felt like that jezebel article was good in pointing out that kesha isn’t like a BAD artist or something, but that the image she’s adopted at the prompting of the male music execs & Dr.Luke who are attempting to suck cash out of her and then dispose of her (they don’t do this to male artists!) isn’t one that befits her or her potential endurance that well. and that ke$ha knows this. honestly I think this could be a revolutionary moment for music! Ke$ha could break free! But i understand what you’re saying, that leveling these critiques might seem belittling … but I dunno. I think this could be a Moff’s Law Moment –it’s important to talk about this stuff!
I think it’s men who think women need these trendy of-the-moment gimmicks, not the women themselves; and I don’t mean to paint Ke$ha as a victim here, simply a woman without much money who needed to do what she needed to do to get ahead. I would’ve done the same thing in her shoes, likely, you know? I don’t want it to seem like I’m denying her agency.
‘Cause gimmicks are a business decision, not an artistic decision. Again; I could be wrong. If Ke$ha endures and keeps making $$, then that’s awesome, props to her! As you said, that’s great for the ladies.
I guess when it comes to deconstructing male images… really the only contemporary male musical act that I listen to is Adam Lambert. Um, looking at my CDs the only men I’ve purchased in the last ten years are dead or Outkast. Hm. tom waits is still alive, right?
All the dudes I listen to are either dead or really old; Bob Dylan, Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley, Elliot Smith… um, Beethoven? The Beatles? irm. I guess I listen to some emo guys too, whatever Intern Laura sends to me. But most of the music I listen to honestly is Tegan & Sara, Ani DiFranco, Lauryn Hill, Chris Pureka, Rihanna, Indigo Girls, Dar Williams, musical theater stuff… I’m kind of a dork. I don’t like constructed images of people unless they seem genuine and I don’t like seeing smart women molded into one-offs for men.
But take everything I say on this with a grain of salt — I’m not really an expert on this topic and could be wildly off here.
For another example of women defining their own image you must must must must must check out our new interview with lesbian hip-hop duo Kin-4-Life! nownow
I agree with what you’re saying…including the stuff about male artists, strangely. Queer women prefer listening to old or dead men? Shocker! That sounds pretty damning actually, hmm.
But yes, it’s pretty much within the context of the whole music industry that I find the Ke$ha-bashing a bit over-the-top. If blokes were subject to the same enforced packaging to the same degree, and also subject to the flak, I’d be less irked.
And yes yes, I have read the Kin4Life thing already ofc, because seeing AS things pop up on RSS feed is like a morsel of sanity that must be instantly devoured to stay alive when you’re losing your mind in a dull job.
Also, I only discovered Janelle Monae a couple of weeks ago (when someone linked her off here, coincidentally), and if she takes over the radio I think I would be very, very happy.
Ok, I finally got around to finding a version of the music video that can be viewed here in Germany. And. Wow!
The dancing! The music! But the DANCING!
YESSSSSS. Will have to work on the tight rope.
Holy crap, Janelle Monae can DANCE.
I…I think I’m in love.
O my actual god.. I love shane so whers th pic of kristen for camparison? – u guys u totes forgot to put up th pic of kristen…
O wait ..
Gaawd … Kristen, babes .. My number is 077……….
Did I just see “Ke$ha” and “pretty good voice” in the same sentence? Does the girl even sing?
Almost like taken the Lord’s name in vain.
I don;t think it is hard to be a pop star in a Lady Gaga world I just think that its hard to be a talentless or sub-par pop star in a Gaga world. Even though I am pissed at Gaga right now, she raises the bar so when you come you better come correct or get the f out.
Janelle Monae is inspiring. She keeps you guessing and always leaves you intrigued. She has the staying power. Let’s support her and her mission. May 18th!
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