I mentioned a few weeks ago in class that “my jam” is Tightrope by Janelle Monáe. Now let me tell you something about Janelle Monáe: she is amazing. And it’s not just her beautiful, ingenious, inspiring music. It is everything about her.
“There was a lot of confusion and nonsense where I grew up, so I reacted by creating my own little world … I began to see how music could change lives, and I began to dream about a world where every day was like anime and Broadway, where music fell from the sky and anything could happen.”
— Janelle Monáe, in her Atlantic Records bio, 2008.
Janelle Monae was born in Kansas City, Kansas in 1985. She had a difficult childhood; her father struggled with drug addiction, and her mother, father, and stepfather all worked blue-collar jobs while young Janelle worked to supplement her family’s funds by competing in talent competitions
. She was inspired by musical theater, but conventional musical roles just couldn’t contain Monáe’s creativity and ambition, so she traveled down her own path, starting Wondaland records.
Janelle Monáe’s music is most often described as R&B or Afrofuturist, but really, her musical style spans countless genres and influences. Monae draws from many literary and film sources as well–“Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), and the literary science fiction of Octavia E. Butler and Isaac Asimov” among many others–to create a rich and complex critical narrative.
Monáe’s albums—Metropolis: The Chase Suite and The ArchAndroid—follow the story of Cindi Mayweather, an android in the dystopian city of Metropolis where oppression reigns. Cindi closely escapes being disassembled for falling in love with a human before realizing that she herself is the ArchAndroid. Says Monae’s official bio, “She has been sent to free the citizens of Metropolis from the Great Divide, a secret society using time travel to suppress freedom and love throughout the ages.” Janelle refers to Cindi Mayweather as her alter-ego, because she too tries to be a “mediator between the Haves and Have-Nots” like Cindi.
There’s really SO MUCH I could talk about, but I have neither the time nor the resources to say as much as I would like, so I have decided to focus on…
It’s hard to find an instance of Janelle Monae wearing anything that’s not all black and white (with occasional red accents and/or lipstick); she usually wears suits or tuxedos. This minimalist “uniform” symbolizes many things. First, as just that, a uniform:
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 . . . This is a reminder that I have work to do, I have people to uplift, I have people to inspire.
–Janelle Monae during her acceptance speech at BLACK GIRLS ROCK! 2012
Monae uses her clothes to show people that no matter who you are, your situation, your status, you can be who you want and do what you want.
A Pham discusses, women often feel as if they must emulate men’s dress to be taken seriously, especially in professional settings.
Women appropriated men’s styles of dress in an attempt to access the social and economic capital that lay on the other side of the glass ceiling. So-called career women practiced power dressing, wearing tailored skirt suits with huge shoulder pads, approximating the style and silhouette of the professional male executive.
Yet such adaptations of men’s fashion and styles are rarely without small feminine touches. Sociologist Jan Felshin coined the term feminine apologetic to describe how the pearls or ruffles on a woman’s professional attire serve as disclaimers: I may be powerful but I’m not masculine. Or (gasp!) a lesbian.
Janelle Monae wears men’s clothes, but there’s no feminine apologetic to be seen. (Seriously, the last thing she would do is apologize for being herself.) There are no “feminine touches”, and her suits do not disguise her silhouette, as they are tailored perfectly to her female form. There are no shoulder pads, and no skirts. She just wears whatever she wants, seemingly completely ignoring the gendered nature of clothing, and I think that’s really powerful.
Perhaps the most significant purpose of the tux is to cover up and desexualize Monae’s body. She advocates that women don’t need to be sexualized to be valued. She is very vocal about this attitude, and it even comes out in her songs. This is pretty radical in the context of western society’s history of “widely [excluding black women] from dominant culture’s celebration of beauty and femininity”  by “[presuming] ugliness and heightened sexuality” . For a long time, the sexual power of black women was their only path to appreciation as beautiful. Janelle desexualizes herself, and yet she is accepted by the mainstream as beautiful, as evidenced by Covergirl‘s choice of Janelle Monae as their new spokesperson in 2012. Thus, she subverts these old presumptions about black women’s bodies. She said of her position as a Covergirl and of her black and white suit, “I wear my uniform proudly as a Covergirl. I want to be clear, young girls, I didn’t have to change who I was to become a Covergirl. I didn’t have to become perfect because I’ve learned throughout my journey that perfection is the enemy of greatness.” Janelle Monae constantly endeavors to educate young girls and women to show them that they do not have to fit into anyone else’s idea of what they should be, regardless of status, appearance, or race, and uses her appearance to this end.
The part where I am a fangirl
Well, if I did my job right, you now adore Janelle Monae (if you didn’t already). Here are some cool things I didn’t get to talk about, and some things that will make you love her even more:
Janelle’s new(!) single: Q.U.E.E.N.
The references I couldn’t link to
1. Janell Hobson. Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 2005. 7.
2. Janell Hobson. Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 2005. 1.