Be Bold, Part 8: Janelle

It never ceases to amaze me that Janelle Monae isn’t an all-conquering global mega-star by now. Since her 2010 breakout album The ArchAndroid, her profile has bubbled just outside the surface of wide-spread popular consciousness. When I recently told some friends how excited I was that I had booked tickets to her London show, they didn’t even know who I was talking about. Why isn’t she as ubiquitous as Bruno Mars? As Rihanna? I have to wonder if it would be different if she flashed more flesh, rather than wearing her trademark tuxedos.

Remember when they used to say I look too mannish

Black girl magic, y’all can’t stand it

Janelle Monae refuses to compromise. Women in the music industry are expected to look a certain way, sound a certain way, sing about certain things. Look at the change in Lady Gaga’s aesthetics as she has gained more autonomy as an artist. Think back to the lyrics of Pink’s Don’t Let Me Get Me: “LA told me, you’ll be a pop star, all you have to change is everything you are”. But maybe it is our concept of what a pop-star is, especially a female pop-star, that needs to change.

Monae is making the slickest, the realest (so good, so good, so fucking real, as she would say) pop music around, and on her own terms. Who else out there would create a seven suite afro-futurist opus complete with accompanying “emotion picture”? Sonically The ArchAndroid, and her 2018 album Dirty Computer, put me in mind of a more cerebral Midnite Vultures era Beck; a bricolage mish-mash of different genres and styles, an electro-hip-hop-soul-groove-funk-rock-dream-folk masterpiece. But Beck never built a whole dystopian world for his musical creations to inhabit. From the outset, Monae worked with laser-like focus on her vision for a post-modern Metropolis musical mythology. Neither has Beck been in two Oscar nominated films, for not only can Monae sing, dance, write, perform, play and compose, she can also act, as her turns in Moonlight and Hidden Figures show. Her choice of roles is not taken lightly. Both are films about black identities that do not conform to stereotypes.

Already got a Oscar for the casa

Runnin’ down Grammys with the family

Prolly give a Tony to the homies

Prolly get a Emmy dedicated to the

Highly melanated, ArchAndroid orchestrated

Monae has cited Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz as a musical influence. There are a lot of similarities between The ArchAndroid and St Vincent’s album Actor, which was directly inspired by Disney films and The Wizard of Oz. Both artists speak in a cinematic musical language. Both have been accused of being arch, aloof story tellers. Female artists are pigeon-holed as weird and non-mainstream if they refuse to sing (supposedly) auto-biographical songs about boys. While her earlier works may have featured a rather chaste human/android love story, between Monae’s robot alter-ego Cindi Mayweather and her flesh and blood lover Anthony Greendown, there is no doubt that Dirty Computer is a sexual album.

See, everything is sex

Except sex, which is power

You know power is just sex

You screw me and I’ll screw you too

Everything is sex

Except sex, which is power

You know power is just sex

Now ask yourself who’s screwing you

It drips with sexuality but a non-heteronormative sexuality; a sexuality that cannot be packaged and paraded for the male-gaze. It is autonomous, it is joyous, it is inclusive. Just watch Janelle and her dancers wearing those beautiful pink vulva-pants in the video for her song Pynk, and realise this is a celebration of all women, even women who do not have vaginas.

When introducing Kesha at the 2018 Grammy Awards, Janelle gave a moving speech that focused on the Time’s Up movement. “We come in peace,” she said, “but we mean business.” Janelle and Beyonce and Solange and Gaga, with their emotion pictures and mind-blowing stage shows, are taking the helm from James Brown and Prince and David Bowie, because what male stars are worthy of stepping into their shoes? Drake? Kanye? Ed Sheeran? They are the hardest working women in showbiz, pushing creative boundaries, re-writing the definition of the female singer/songwriter. They mean business. At a time when black male icons are crumbling, as Janelle would say:

Hit the mute button

Let the vagina have a monologue

Be Bold, Part One: Courtney

Music is my dilithium crystal core, my flux capacitor, allowing me to fly and travel in time. I cannot function without it. It makes me, in the words of a dear friend, soul satisfied. In this series, I will be writing about female musicians I admire and adore.

This is not intended to be exploration of all the outstanding or underrated female musicians around the world, this is simply introduction to some female artists who are important to me. While I can appreciate the flow of Middle Eastern female rappers such as Paradise, the hypnotic beauty of Malian singer Rokia Traore or the sheer brutal grindcore assault of Japanese female metal bands like Flagitious Idiosyncrasy in the Dilapidation, I am first and foremost a lyrics person. I am a writer, a wordsmith, a letter wrangler and I need the lyrics to speak to me.

So first of my bold female artists is Courtney Barnett.

 

Australian singer, songwriter and guitar hero Courtney Barnett is everything teenage me loved about 90s bands like L7 and The Breeders. She looks like a real person, not an unattainable, ethereal acoustic strumming goddess or body-jacking, booty-shaking pop tart. And she rocks out. I mean she truly shreds. Her songs are at once deeply existential and comically mundane.

Erroneous, harmonious, I’m hardly sanctimonious

Dirty clothes, I suppose we all outgrow ourselves

I’m a fake, I’m a phony, I’m awake, I’m alone

I’m homely, I’m a Scorpio

Barnett’s particularly perceptive Australian brand of bluntness comes out in her dead-pan delivery and poetic lyrics, which touch on the typical female singer/songwriter subjects one second (love, relationships, self-exploration) and then flip onto the perils of house buying, destruction of the oceans and food industry ethics the next. I am sick of female singers chirping away on songs someone else has written for them, rhyming ‘you, true, through and do’ or ‘me, be, free and see’, imploring their ‘baby’ to love them. I want to listen to Courtney Barnett’s tales of trying to impress someone she fancies at the local swimming baths.                 

Held my breath longer than I normally do
I was getting dizzy
My hair was wet and frizzy
Felt my muscles burn, I took a tumble turn
For the worse, it’s a curse
My lack of athleticism, sunk like a stone
Like a first owner’s home loan
When I came to, you and your towel were gone

Sitting within the current wave of lo-fi female bands and artists that also includes Cate Le Bon, Warpaint and Childbirth, as well as being co-owner of the Milk! Records label, Barnett shows how indie is shaping the future of the industry, rather than the other way round. The DIY indie ideals of the late 80s and early 90s grunge and riot-grrl scenes, which seemed quite gauche at the time, have now simply become the way things are done. Making and sharing music is now easier than ever for women, and I for one am thankful for that.