Music video commentaries (6) – Janelle Monáe

Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer (Andrew Donoho, Chuck Lightning, et al, 2018)

Janelle Monáe’s work, combining rock, funk, and pop idioms, has always come with a meta-narrative. (She makes what are sometimes called concept albums). Her earlier albums (one EP and two full lengths) combine to form the Metropolis Suite. (Several music videos from this suite are discussed below). The Metropolis Suite tells the story of a future society in which Monáe’s alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, is an android or robot. Androids are enslaved in this society, and Cindi Mayweather is on the run, and threatened with death, both because she is a fugitive slave, and because she is involved in a love affair with a human being, which is strictly forbidden by the society. In the course of the suite, she organizes a revolution against this oppression. As its title indicates, one major inspiration for the Metropolis Suite is Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent science fiction film Metropolis, in which (among other things) the heroine is replaced by a robot double. The Metropolis Suite, like other works of Afrofuturism, uses both science fictional projection into the future, and recollections of historical traumas (slavery, Jim Crow, and anti-miscegenation laws) in order to reflect upon, and oppose, an oppressively racist present. Monáe’s self-presentation as an android is both a commentary on the history of Black people not being recognized in white racist society as fully human, and a projection into a potential post-human future.

Monáe released the Dirty Computer “emotion picture” (as she calls it) in tandem with the album of that name. Not all the songs on the album are included in the film, but six of them get full-fledged video treatments, and parts of some others are also included on the soundtrack (Americans, the final song of the album, is heard in full during the closing credits). Once again, we have a science-fictional, Afrofuturist framing narrative. Here, Monáe is Jane 57821, in a future society where absolute conformity (especially with regard to gender and sexuality) is strictly enforced. Jane is a prisoner, whose memories are being erased, and whose free personality is being overwritten, and replaced with a blank, obedient one (in which, as a woman, she is expected to be entirely submissive). The science fictional background is lightly sketched in, and resembles many other such cinematic scenarios of dystopian future societies. The prison and brainwashing center, where the main action of the movie takes place, is characterized by severe minimalism in design: it is all straight lines and all in white. The people (guards and brainwashed prisoners) are also dressed in minimal white, with odd The dialogue is also fairly minimal. The six music videos that make up most of the movie are presented as Jane’s memories, replayed on a computer in order to be erased from her mind. The music video portions are brightly colored and active, in sharp contast to the sterile setting of the prison.

The movie as a whole is directed by Andrew Donoho (an experienced video director, who has also worked with numerous other singers and bands) and Chuck Lightning (an inside member of Monáe’s crew). But the six music videos embedded within the film are done by a number of different directors: Donoho himself (Django Jane), Alan Ferguson, who has worked with Monáe a number of times before (Make Me Feel and Crazy, Classic Life), and two younger, less established directors: Emma Westenberg (Pynk and Screwed) and Lacey Duke (I Like That). Four of these videos (Django Jane, Make Me Feel, Pynk, and I Like That) were released separately, prior to the complete album and film release. The embedded videos give us the album’s positive vision: they are precisely what the dystopian society of the framing narrative seeks to repress. Monáe presents us with a Black feminist utopia, in which women and men are free to pursue their own pleasures and their own dreams. Monáe has defined herself in interviews as queer – she has especially used the term pansexual – and Dirty Computer portrays Jane 57821 in a simultaneous relationship with another woman, Zen (Tessa Thompson) and with a man, Ché (Jayson Aaron). They are all captured and brainwashed in the facility that we see in the framing narrative; at the end of the movie, they escape. (This is not given any narrative explanation; one is not needed, precisely because Monáe’s “emotion picture” is not a traditional Hollywood narrative: it depicts a situation through a series of vignettes; this is one of the freedoms that music video gives its creators, in contrast to the demands of closure and coherence that straightforward narrative filmmaking depends upon).

All the individual video segments of Dirty Computer are sufficiently dense and beautiful as to be worthy of close, attentive analysis on their own. For reasons of length, I will only mention a few high points here. Two of the videos make feminist statements with all-women casts. Andrew Donoho’s Django Jane uses iconography from the Black Panther Party of the 1960s (quasi-military formations, deliberately adopted in order to counter traditional images of Black people as meek and submissive) as a background to Monáe’s rap proclaiming independence for Black women. In Emma Westenberg’s Pynk, which is awash in the color pink, which in the lyrics is associated with femininty in various ways, we see a utopian crew of women out in the desert; the women dance, and snap their fingers in rhythm (which also helps to emphasize the funkiness of the track). Both videos contain explicit references to female genitalia. (In one part of Pynk, we see Monáe and her backing dancers, in a row facing the camera, wearing what have been widely described as “vagina pants”; but two of the seven women are not wearing such pants, this has been interpreted as an acknoweldgement of trans women, and a rejection of biological essentialism).

Lacey Duke’s I Like That plays with multiple images of Monáe in order to convey a self-empowerment narrative. Alan Ferguson’s Make Me Feel is set in a contemporary dance club, and it uses double images of Monáe (both as the performer of the song and as one of the patrons of the club) together with vibrant lighting and careful staging (sometimes naturalistic, sometimes much more abstract) in order to portray Monáe’s simultaneous female and male love interests.

If you are interested in more detail, the Journal of the Society for American Music published a “collective reading” of Dirty Computer by a group of eight scholars, including myself. With your Wayne State ID, you can download it here. (My own contribution is a close analysis of Make Me Feel).

Janelle Monáe, videos from The Metropolis Suite: Many Moons (Alan Ferguson, 2008) and Q.U.E.E.N. (Alan Ferguson, 2013)

These are both Afrofuturist videos. Many Moons introduces Monáe’s character, the android Cindi Mayweather, and Metropolis, the dystopian society in which she finds herself. The setting is a slave auction, in which the wealthy, fashionable Beautiful People of the city (both white and black) bid fabulous sums to purchase androids (all played by Monáe in multiple iterations), even as Monáe/Mayweather performs the song with her band. The song’s lyrics speak ambiguously about freedom and slavery, and Monáe dances dynamically with her pompadour and black-and-white outfit (she maintained these accoutrements throughout all her performances for The Metropolis Suite, explaining that she dressed in a black-and-white uniform in order to honor her mother and previous ancestors who could only get jobs in the service industry). Monáe’s performance is intercut with satirical shots of the Beautiful People bidding, while the androids march up and down the runway like models at a fashion show. The latter part of the song is an amazing, accelerating rap segment that simply lists multiple images, conditions, and social and political issues, as much from our own time as from the fictional future time of the video: “Civil rights, civil war, hood rat, crack whore, carefree, night club, closet drunk, bathtub, outcast, weirdo” and so on. At this point in the video, quick shots of Monáe, often closeups of her face, or just her blinking eyes, or just her mouth, are superimposed over transparent video images that give a collage of the issues she is talking about — everything from old home video shots ot children to huge crowds to marching armies to nuclear explosions. (At other times, we return to a longer shot of Monáe dancing and rapping; at these points, the images continue to appear on video screens behind her).

Q.U.E.E.N. (a title which, besides evoking queens, is also, according to Monáe, an acronym for “Queer, Untouchables, Emigrants, Excommunicated, and Negroid”) once again features a futuristic setting. The video is set in the “Living Museum,” in which “rebels that time travel” are trapped in “suspended animation.” But once the music starts, the rebels – led by Monáe and her guest star on this track, Erykah Badu, emerge from suspended animation and begin to dance. The video’s background is a sterile white – or more simply, an absence altogether. The color scheme, including Monáe’s clothing, is once again largely black-and-white, though with occasional touches of red. The musicians are mostly nude and covered with white body paint (suggesting African ritual?). Monáe’s female backup dancers wear black-and-white-horizontally-striped dresses; we sometimes see them in front of an all-white background, and other times in front of a wall of black-and-white stripes (usually vertical, but at one point horizontal). Occasionally, we see the women dancing with men dressed in black suits, with white shirts and black ties. As all these details indicate, the visual design of the video is elegant and precise. We could also say this about the editing. There is a duet between Monáe and Badu, and then the song ends (as Many Moons did) with a rap segment. At this point, the video gives us shots of Monáe in a black-and-white tuxedo (which she often wore in live performances at this point of her career) against a wall lit with spotlights in order to create a bright oval immediately behind her, and a dimmer oval surrounding it. The moment the song ends, the video immediately cuts to black.