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

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Be Bold, Part Seven: Amanda

Everyone hates Amanda Palmer.

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Even Amanda’s fans hate Amanda Palmer.

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But…everyone loves Amanda Palmer. Especially her fans.

When still signed to record label Roadrunner, and the sight of her slightly rounded belly in a music video led to the label wanting certain scenes cut, her army of devotees called for a ‘rebellyon’ and bombarded Roadrunner’s social media with pictures of their own squishy, and perfectly normal, tummies.

She one of the biggest artists on Patreon, a ground breaking new method of art patronage, and receives a donation of anything from $1 to $1000 from each of the 11’000 fans who have signed up to support her every time she releases a new ‘thing’ (be it song, album or performance art film).

Palmer is divisive in a way like no other artist. You may not have even heard of her. If you have, it may be for her TED Talk on The Art of Giving (if you have 13 minutes to spare, I highly recommend it, it’s a great watch), or it may be as “Neil Gaiman’s wife”. In some circles, the very fact that a weirdo American art-punk chick with hairy armpits had the audacity to marry handsome British million-selling author Gaiman was enough to draw vicious internet ire. To be fair, Gaiman is himself a black-wearing weirdo gothy-punk writer (with, I imagine, hairy armpits also). But men are allowed to be weird. Women are just supposed to be pretty, right?

Is she simply misunderstood, or an attention seeking narcissist? Or both?

Amanda Fucking Palmer, as she is affectionately known, former member of punk-cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls, now solo singer/songwriter and one woman Twitter storm, is a true social media pioneer. From her early DIY days, hand-pressing CDs and updating mailing lists by email and message boards, she has always been directly accessible to her fanbase. She was the first artist to break the $1 million barrier on crowdfunding website Kickstarter, and then drew widespread condemnation in the music industry for putting out a call for musicians to play on her tour for “beer and hugs”. There is no barrier, no security, no filter. She tweets back, she follows conversations in her fan groups on Facebook, she organises ‘ninja’ gigs on street corners, she takes the time to sign, hug and take selfies with the long queue of devoted fans after every live show. To celebrate her Kickstarter record, she even stood naked and let fans sign her body. Her body is something that bothers a lot of people. Her proud nakedness, her body hair (letting it grow under her armpits or shaving it off of her eyebrows), dyeing her hair whilst breastfeeding her son, Palmer has taken criticism for all of these and more. And, in typical post-modern, self-referencing style, she wrote a song about it.

I say grow that shit like a jungle

Give ’em something strong to hold onto

Let it fly in the open wind

If it get too bushy you can trim

They don’t play the song on the radio

They don’t show the tits in the video

They don’t know that we are the media

They don’t know that we start the mania

We Are The media has become a battle cry for Amanda Palmer fans (myself included). Palmer has shown that you don’t need to be part of the music machine to make music. She got her record label to drop her mid-contract, and now releases what she wants, when she wants, direct to the people who want it. Social media, crowdfunding, genuine contact with fans, these are things that she tried telling the record execs were vital to her success, but back in the early Noughties they didn’t want to listen. Website? Who needs a website?

Art is great that way, you can do anything

You can make pop music

You can paint ducks

But if you’re a pop star and you’re a woman

Then it’s much more likely that

People will say your art sucks

There is no denying that her body of work is, at times, problematic. Her “Poem For Dzhokar”, written hastily in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, was both badly-timed and ill-conceived. Her Evelyn Evelyn collaboration with Jason Webley drew condemnation from disability groups for their stereotypical circus freak show performance as conjoined twins. Often criticised for being a privileged white woman who likes to shoot her mouth off, even though plenty of white male rock stars shoot their mouths off in equal measure without drawing half the vitriol.

Prolific and ever changing, like a Madonna for the Buzzfeed generation, Palmer keeps coming back, ignoring the critics, using the media obsession with her body to nourish her art (see her supposedly NSFW video for the beautiful Pink Floyd cover ‘Mother’ where she breast feeds a Trump lookalike), refusing to conform to the traditional role of wife and mother (though she is both). Amanda Palmer is a true autonomous artist.

Her music.

Her body.

Her art.

Her way.