Will Janelle Monáe Survive Our Obsession?

The success of her new album puts her a step closer to the scrutiny we reserve for heroes.

By Jamilah King Jun 07, 2010

In less than a month since dropping her highly anticipated debut album ArchAndroid, 24-year-old singer Janelle Monáe has been heralded as pop music’s second coming. She’s "pop music’s Toni Morrison moment," wrote Brentin Mock at The Atlantic. "George Clinton has to smoke crack to perform this powerfully." And while Monáe has danced her way across stages from BET to Ellen and the David Letterman show, she’s also racked up a slew of improbable musical comparisons: David Bowie, Prince, Erykah Badu. The only real criticism launched at her 18-track album: it could’ve been shorter.

But I’m afraid that with all the thundering praise, Janelle Monáe may become the next victim in our society’s obsession with idolizing and devouring extremely talented ordinary people and turning them into immeasurable Gods. This is especially the case for popular performers of color, who are often seen–and contained–in rigid cultural and political boxes.

It’s written all over our cultural DNA: find someone young and talented, anoint them royalty, and then wait and watch their spectacular fall from the throne of pop greatness. Michael Jackson’s the most obvious example, and rap newcomer Drake, who’s highly anticipated debut album leaked this week to lukewarm responses, is one of the more recent ones. But there are others that stretch beyond the musical gamut: President Obama, and probably about 80 percent of number one draft picks chosen in the NBA and NFL over the past two decades. We love our heroes–but only in doses.

It’s no knock to Monáe. I’ve been a fan since I heard her first LP Metropolis two years ago. I’ve raved about her to friends and feigned horror whenever I ran into someone who hadn’t been privy to Her Word. Like other fans, I’d already decided her new album was one of the year’s best without even finishing the first track–which doesn’t even have any lyrics.

It seemed like almost everyone around me felt the same. Chances are if you’re young and of color and even remotely queer, Monáe represents most of the things we at least aspire to be: bold, seemingly courageous, alive. We’re all eager to see and hear different representations of femininity, Blackness, and youth. And for some of us, Monáe is a talented and powerful new portrayal.

What’s probably been most refreshing about Monáe is her eclecticism. By sifting together pieces of musical theatre, science fiction, and flat out talent, Monáe’s able to carefully carve out a place in pop culture where she can make the pain of being Black, a woman, working class, or different something to relate to and, at times, even have fun with. In an age when popular Black music seldom has anything new or interesting to say about being different, Monáe is the latest and most captivating Black female artist to edge toward mastering the art of subtlety in her work. And while she does twist and contort her body to get people’s attention, it’s not in the fragmented, highly sexualized way of many of her contemporaries.

Even now–as I started writing this piece and prayed to the cosmos for something, anything to say about her besides, "She’s amazing!"–I was a little heartbroken when a coworker casually mentioned that she used to perform in denim miniskirts. You mean she wasn’t rocking Oxfords and bowties out the womb? The horror.
After the miniskirt revelation, I started to think about the fact that she’s probably a very talented ordinary person saddled with all the complexities that ordinary people carry. And it’s that ability to be complex that often escapes many popular artists of color, particularly women.

Case in point? The recent controversy over British Sri Lankan singer M.I.A., who after being profiled in a blistering critique by New York Times Magazine writer Lynn Hirschberg, tweeted the reporter’s cell phone number to fans and then posted her own secretly recorded interview excerpts online–along with a special diss track for Hirschberg. The recordings focused on what Gawker would later dub "Frygate;" a portion of the story where Hirschberg describes the singer eating a truffle-flavored french fry while talking about being called a terrorist.

The moment was supposed to reveal how contradictory the singer’s words were from her actions, but as Daisy Hernández pointed out on RaceWire it instead showed how limited the imaginations of white writers can be when examining artists of color. Whatever the intention, it’s clear that the truffle-flavored fries spelled potential doom for M.I.A’s carefully crafted political image, so in the secret recordings she went out of her way to prove that she didn’t order the fried symbols of First World Bourgeois–she just ate them.

But why can’t MIA have her politics and eat her fries, too?

For the most part, Monáe’s been able to escape such polarizing boxes. And while she still enjoys her cult following, she hasn’t blown up on a massive scale. She’s still steadily climbing her way up the popularity ladder, but when and if she finds her footing, it’ll be interesting to see what we all take from it–and her.

Photo: Getty/Sean Gardner