A lot of people have been talking about Janelle Monáe, myself included. I wrote about her look and sound here and here, as well as her music video for “Tightrope” during my recent stint at Bitch. Her album, TheArchAndroid Suites II and III, was released last month and many wonder if she represents the future of pop music. Showcasing an eclectic blend of genres and references to tell the story of a futuristic messianic figure named Cindy Mayweather, Monáe channels her love of science fiction to create music that’s entrenched in the past, yet remains fresh and singular. Not since perhaps David Bowie’s incarnation as Ziggy Stardust has high-concept pop music sounded so fun.
Some critics note Monáe’s indebtedness to a myriad of popular influences. In a recent Culture Gabfest podcast, Jody Rosen rattled off seemingly disparate folks who inform her sound like Fela Kuti (evident on songs like “Dance Or Die”), jump blues pioneer Louis Jordan (“Faster,” “Come Alive,” “Tightrope”), 60s British psych folk (the verses to “Oh, Maker”), and 80s punk and new wave (“Come Alive”). Obviously James Brown factors prominently here as well.
I point him toward the artists I mapped out in my Bitch entry and raise him Astrud Gilberto (“Sir Greendown”), Simon and Garfunkel (“57821”), Wendy and Lisa (“Wondaland”), and Prince’s psychedelic inclinations (“Mushrooms & Roses”). There are notable pairings with Saul Williams in “Dance or Die” and Of Montreal on “Make the Bus.” There are even direct references to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Rodgers and Hart’s “With a Song In My Heart” , and Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune.
The emphasis on musical reference and hybridity also links The ArchAndroid to artists like Beck, Cornershop, and mentors’ OutKast who anticipated the iPod on shuffle approach ubiquitous to pop music during the 90s. I detect kinship between Monáe and Gnarls Barkley in “Cold War.” In its embrace of concept and musical extravagance, I note a tenuous connection with Gorillaz and Bat for Lashes as well. And strangely enough, I also sense an unexpected affinity between The ArchAndroid and Helium’s The Magic City, the sophomore release of an indie rock band whose leader Mary Timony wanted to channel her love of prog rock into an album full of varied sonic atmospheres and rich storytelling. In short, there’s a city’s worth of ideas in Monáe’s head, as the album cover suggests.
If this list suggests that the music contained within The ArchAndroid is derivative, belabored, unformed, or tedious, it’s to the album’s credit that it certainly doesn’t sound that way. In fact, save for the extraneous (“BabopbyeYa”), I marvel at how the 18-track album simultaneously works as a collection of singles and as a cohesive album with considerable buoyancy. I’d wager that one could go in without knowing about the story or any of the reference points and gladly navigate its varied pop terrain at home with headphones and on the dance floor.
Some believe Monáe’s artistic ambitions exceed her grasp. But I’ll gladly champion a young artist bored with the limitations of a genre that she’s assumed to align with because of her race. Like Gnarls Barkley, she demands to be insinuated in pop music’s cultural history in order to reclaim black people’s obscured role in the creation of the form and I applaud that.
It’ll be interesting to see how Monáe and her audience will evolve, as she captures much of the same white hipster fanbase as OutKast, Kanye West, tour mate Erykah Badu, and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. But I have no doubt she’ll negotiate it with aplomb. With her focus as forward as her trademark pompadour, she’s hardly “just another weirdo.”
It took maintaining this blog to realize how much I love talking about hair; the more extreme or edgy the coiffure, the better (think Marie Antoinette hair stylist Odile Gilbert). This is interesting, as I’m quite the wash-and-go girl in real life. Perhaps, then, I view fantasmic hairdos, really any hairdo slightly more complicated than the ponytail, as feats of magic.
Continuing a previous discussion of what the racial and/or ethnic connotations of Rihanna’s, Cassie’s, and Amber Rose’s unusual hairstyles (which, BTW, did anyone notice how cute Cassie looked next to P. Diddy and designer Zac Posen at a recent event?), I wanted to highlight two more women of color who like to play with their hair (keeping in mind, as Cassandra astutely pointed out in a previous comment, that these ladies’ hairstyles speak to their classed positions as pop musicians).
First up, Janelle Monáe, whose style I highlighted earlier. While on tour with twee psychedelic group Of Montreal (a band for whom she is also a fan), she did a shoot and interview with PAPERMAG. I really love her self-possession and poise here. She seems totally unflappable and completely in control of who she is and what image is trying to project. Dig the way she takes the compliment when the interview mentions that others have hyped her as a 21st century Grace Jones while at the same time pointedly stating that becoming Grace is not her goal, as they are different people (subtitle reads: “Just because we’re two black female pop singers with fades doesn’t mean we’re interchangeable”).
I also find Monáe’s hair care regimen fascinating — she washes her hair with orange juice, maple syrup, and salt to form it into “a bushel of fun and elegance.” I hope my interest in how she maintains her hair and forms it into a pompadour doesn’t scream “Oh my! Look what the black woman does to her hair!” As a white woman, I don’t know how widespread these sorts of treatments are, or if they only work on certain kinds of hair. But I find the idea of using non-cosmetic products toward cosmetic ends and wonder how common and shared they are.
The other woman I wanted to mention is Shingai Shoniwa of The Noisettes. In the music video for “Never Forget You,” a song which evinces a clear indebtedness to the girl group era, we see Shoniwa perform and preen with several different pompadours, as well as a set of Afro puffs.
(As an aside, did anyone else notice the Fabric of My Life crawl at the bottom of the screen when they watched the music video? So, that’s a way Cotton Incorporated, through DDB, are getting the message out. Interesting.)
I think the diversity of hairstyles on display suggest that women of African descent (Shoniwa is British Zimbabwean) may use their hair as a marker of identity, but how that identity is constructed is varied, discursive, and unpredictable.
Just as playing with hair could potentially challenge traditional, white beauty standards and how women of color cultivate (and control) their image, I likewise find it heartening that Shoniwa is the lead singer of a band, a mixed-race, mixed-gender band at that (it isn’t evident from the music video, but Shoniwa is also the bassist).
While I don’t think these women resolve gender, ethnic, and racial tensions intrinsic to the mechanization of the beauty and fashion industry, I do think they challenge it by daring to be themselves, whoever they feel like that may be on any given day.