“The same, safe, sexy route”

Dave and I were both pretty sauced when he suggested that I write this post. We were leaving a house party where there had been a serious amount of dancing, mostly to our new pop crush Janelle Monae. I haven’t danced as much as I did that night in years, and, generally, I don’t even like dancing. I am bad at it and tend to get disastrously handsy. The whole dancing thing tends to seem fascistic, with everyone doing basically the same thing at the same time, or desperately seductive in a way I find stressful. But that night, we danced, and we were happy about it. We were so happy about it, in fact, that, while stuck waiting for a train at 4am on the 42nd Street platform, Dave and I each put a bud in an ear and danced some more. We are in our 30’s, and danced on a subway platform at 4am, grinning like loons.

There are a number of things Janelle Monae does for me that other right-now pop, a lot of which I enjoy, doesn’t. Many of them are trivial, like that she grew up near me, and I know her high school music program, which was similar to mine. I can hear her place consonants the same way I was taught to do it, and her chest-to-head-voice flexibility is straight out of Kansas, where the hyper-flexible alto is queen. She is a sci-fi dork who nimbly manages a Blade-Runner-esque subplot without letting it drive the entire album. She talks seriously about African-American history and culture. Every genre of music I have ever liked shows up somewhere in her young oeuvre, and she wears them all with intelligence and grace. Her Twitter feed shows an Ebertish desire to interact with fans and not-fans alike. Somehow, she’s 24 years old.

The most obvious things about Janelle Monae are that she’s divinely beautiful, she’s an incredible dancer, and she wears a tuxedo, saddle shoes, and a pompadour. No one would say that she’s not sexy, I think, but that she has the air of someone who is not trying to turn you on. It’s not her job.

Given that she is an artist who seems to feel that everything else is, in fact, her job, this one refusal is striking. I brought her up at work last week, and a woman my age paused and said, “Janelle Monae? Isn’t she that… eccentric person who wears men’s clothes?” I said I didn’t think it was a man’s suit; it’s clearly tailored for her. “Yeah, she’s a strange one.” In a pop culture in which Lady Gaga is everywhere wearing hoof-shoes, corsets, and fake crutches while pretending to masturbate on couches, the chick dancing in pants is strange.

Don’t get me wrong; I like sexy people just fine, and I will defend to the death their right to be sexy. I just don’t tend to feel personally inspired by or invested in them. I can’t relate to the need to make sure everyone around me has an erection all the time. What’s the point? How many of those erections could a person even make realistic use of? Doesn’t it seem kind of pointless and desperate? But the desire to tell a story, or make people smile or cry or dance or sing along, or inspire someone to think something they haven’t thought of before—these are motivations I can stand behind. They’re ambitious. Why shouldn’t we be ambitious?

Oh look, here’s a video of Janelle Monae talking about her motivations for making music, which do not include taking “the same, safe, sexy route.” She handles the Gaga issue more delicately than the editors of the clip do.

If you are the one person alive who hasn’t seen the “Tightrope” video (the current single from the new album The ArchAndroid, Pitchforked here), here it is:


I also very much like this video for “Many Moons,” an excellent song from her EP Metropolis. It’s clear that she has been getting well-deserved major support for her work for a while now.


12 responses to ““The same, safe, sexy route””

  1. Tyler says:

    Loving this girl. She’s so dope!!

  2. swells says:

    Wow–she is whatcha call adorable, and so interesting and cool. Thanks for this! (Dave pointed me her way last week, but now I’m all the way there!)

  3. A White Bear says:

    Cool thing about that “Many Moons” vid: the android/slave auction models get increasingly “sexy” through “Suzie Scorcher” (3:28), about whom a white woman in the audience turns to her guy and mouths “I want one” (3:25). Then “Emily Empire” comes out in a khaki jumpsuit (3:52), and everyone in the audience freaks out with desire and starts doing exactly the same dance move (3:55). Also, the forward moonwalk at 4:14–swoooon.

  4. J-Man says:

    wow – she is totally amazing! Whatta dancer! The video concepts are so weird and compelling too. I love her fearlessness.

  5. A White Bear says:

    I didn’t talk much about the new album in the post, but I should say that it’s worth getting. It’s hard to describe because every song is doing something completely different, but they move beautifully into one another. I remember the first time I listened to it, I kept thinking, “Oh, this isn’t going to work out” whenever a new song started, but they all do. “57821” is an attempt at an English madrigal. Should be twee. Isn’t. Makes me cry. “Oh Maker” is in the style of Stevie Wonder’s “Heaven is 10 Zillion Light Years Away” (my favorite). Should be terrible. (“HI10ZLYA” shouldn’t have worked, either.) This one hurts it’s so good. “Come Alive” is very Nick Cave. Who does that? “Mushrooms and Roses” makes me actually sort of enjoy psychedelia. There are references in the lyrics not only to Philip K. Dick and Octavia Butler, but also to Jean Toomer. She’s fucking smart as hell.

  6. F. P. Smearcase says:

    I’ve just listened to a little this and that, but it does seem like she’s made really satisfying choices about The balance among things like substance, image, and technique that can sometimes be invisible in pop music but easier to notice in the ascendance of Lady Gaga. I feel like there’s some kind of bullshit out of The Queen’s Throat I could maybe spout about chest voice and what it means to use it, but it isn’t really coming together, which is probably best for all involved.

  7. F. P. Smearcase says:

    p.s. We have to talk about dancing sometime, you and I.

  8. A White Bear says:

    Is that an invitation, Smearcase? I’ll see if I can find my character shoes.

  9. Adriana says:

    Lane told me you & Dave were crushing out on Janelle Monae–I know, right?!? I’ve been waiting for this new album forever and once it finally arrived I couldn’t stop listening.

  10. Bryan says:


    Loved the second song and video. Thank you for posting.

  11. J-Man says:

    I’ve been meaning to tell you, AWB, that since this post I’ve been totally obsessed with Janelle Monae. Thank you for turning me on to such a genius!

  12. Josh K-sky says:

    I too thank AWB for turning me on to Janelle Monae, after my astrophysicist friend appeared on Studio 360 with her and I somehow didn’t pay attention.