New Formation: Janelle Monáe’s Radical Emotion Pictures




JANELLE MONÁE has called the 44-minute film accompanying the release of her latest album, Dirty Computer, an “emotion picture,” which is a telling description in a number of ways. Because the genre of the visual album is so totally dominated by Beyoncé at the moment given her two world-stopping (her term) contributions to this format, it is a daunting task for any artist to inhabit this form, let alone a black woman intimately tied to the Knowles-Carter complex. The only artist since Beyoncé to take up this challenge has been Fergie with her 2017 comeback record, Double Dutchess. That project’s failure to find either commercial or aesthetic success might have caused any number of artists to have second thoughts before stepping into those big, sparkly boots.

But whereas Fergie explicitly claimed Beyoncé as an inspiration for her video album, Monáe’s nomenclature of the “emotion picture” signals Dirty Computer’s distinct media genealogy. In some ways, the term evokes the cinematic tradition with which Monáe’s persona has long been entwined. Her debut 2007 EP, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), openly paid homage to Fritz Lang’s 1927 film of the same name, an influence that continued to frame Monáe’s work up through her 2013 release, The Electric Lady. While her android alter ego Cindi Mayweather was deeply indebted to Lang’s visual universe, Monáe’s other favorite early persona was her pompadoured, bespoke homage to James Brown. Although these roles might seem to represent distinct cultural milieus, Monáe’s dual embodiment of them reminds us that the history of the moving image is largely unthinkable without the black bodies who so often animate the visual imaginary.

If Monáe’s work in the past has been heavy on the images, though, it has been somewhat light on the emotion. The braininess of her visual referential field has sometimes gotten in the way of her capacity to make us feel her ideas. Her previous concept albums could groove you and excite you while failing to fully move you. Thus in referring to Dirty Computer as an “emotion picture” we might hear Monáe both announcing an affective turn in her work while also carving out some discrete space within the overdetermined sphere of the visual album. Dirty Computer bears out both of these desires not only by demonstrating that there’s more than enough black girl magic to go around in the visual pop universe but by also insisting that there is no singular or reducible black girl magic in the first place. This multiplicity, in fact, is one of the film’s explicit themes.

Dirty Computer brings together Monáe’s longstanding interests in race, sexuality, technology, and speculative worlds while simplifying its packaging for maximum impact. Monáe’s previous Metropolis concept has always been a bit convoluted in its execution. Dirty Computer, by contrast, offers viewers a relatively simple story from the “love conquers all” playbook: a girl, played by Janelle Monáe, and a girl, played by Tessa Thompson, along with a mostly ancillary boy, meet and fall in lust and then love. Living in a repressive society that considers humans to be “computers” subject to state control, the trio are eventually hunted down in order to have their brains forcibly wiped clean, their outlaw memories extracted, viewed, and erased. But even as their minds are wiped, their love for one another is never fully destroyed. The three ultimately escape their mind-eraser prison, embracing their status as dirty computers as they flee into the sunlight.

The revolutionary power of love has long been the stuff of movies, but few films have depicted a love quite like this. Placing two black women and a black man at its center, the film turns this age-old theme into something more revelatory. Popular culture has given us few representations of black love, let alone black queer love, let alone black pansexual gender-fluid love yoked to a broader ethos of total liberation (!). Despite its futuristic setting, the film embeds the relationship between its starring trio within a matrix of social and cultural milieus that they either have to disrupt or remake in order to just “live my life,” as Monáe implores on the song “Crazy, Classic, Life.”

Monáe has always been an astute student of motion and pictures, but the multitude of homages and personas that have fueled her image-making in the past have also worked to protect Monáe from having to ground her allegorical representations of suppression in any personal reality of her own. As Monáe herself has insisted in recent interviews, Dirty Computer finds her stepping out a bit from behind (if not entirely eschewing) the brilliant robots and stars she has masterfully conjured in the past. The line between her filmic protagonist Jane and Janelle is fast and loose — especially given Tessa Thompson’s ambiguous status as Monáe’s real-life partner. We still find Monáe in the film paying canny homage to a dizzying number of sources and inspirations, but these nods are anchored by Dirty Computer’s foundational and unmistakable investment in a vision of black freedom rarely captured by mass movements for either racial justice or gay liberation.

While the erasure of Jane’s outlaw consciousness is the frame for Dirty Computer’s plot, the music videos comprising most of the film foreground the memories forged primarily between her and Tessa Thompson’s Zen before their capture. The first few video-memories find Monáe clearing some countercultural space for her own vision of black women’s communion. The first video-memory wiped from Jane’s dirty computer is set to the album’s second track, “Crazy, Classic, Life.” The song and its visuals address a vision of youthful rebellion that has rarely included blacks as more than props helping white people along their journey to transcendence. The video features Monáe’s band of black afro-punks crashing a party of markedly counter-cultural figures, most strongly punctuated by bored and boring white Bowie-lookalikes. One can’t help but imagine Miley Cyrus of the Bangerz era as an underlying referent here given Cyrus’s love affair with twerking if not the black women who gave birth to this way of moving. Monáe’s rap on the track crystallizes the video’s visual message, insisting that while whites are celebrated for pushing boundaries, blacks are often harshly punished for the same transgressions. “Me and you was friends, but to them, we the opposite,” she raps, noting that for “the same mistake, I’m in jail, you on top of the shit.” “All I wanted was to break the rules like you,” Monáe laments as the police ultimately swarm the party. Even in the future, it is the black partygoers who become the fiercest targets of state violence. “Crazy, Classic, Life” asks us to think about the racialized limitations often placed on the abstract notion of living your truth.

But Monáe is not done reclaiming spaces that have been set up to exclude her, next turning her attention in Dirty Computer to reimagining masculinist visions of black revolutionary power. “I’m tired of hoteps trying to tell me how to feel,” Monáe announces in the video for “Screwed” before transitioning into the world of “Django Jane,” where Monáe puts her own stamp on black power iconography. Huey Newton’s trademark wicker chair is transposed into a white floral throne, while Monáe wears tailored suits that evoke the Nation of Islam, now paired with white leather stiletto boots. The video essentially fuses the Nation of Islam with Rhythm Nation, as Monáe both attends to and exceeds the contours of the masculinist fantasia that is commonly taken as the black revolutionary imagination in popular culture. Across Dirty Computer, we occasionally hear the words of an unpictured black orator who speaks in the cadences of Martin Luther King Jr. if to ultimately give voice to a broader vision of justice or equality than he or Malcolm X or Obama for that matter could actually articulate: equal pay for equal work, queer liberation, mobility for poor whites, and an end to police brutality and the criminalization of Latinos and Latinas.

If the first half of the film finds Monáe establishing herself in the cultural zones that have been reluctant to have her as a full-throated member, the second half of the film finds Monáe inhabiting aesthetic landscapes all her own. When I first saw the video for “Pynk,” released separately in advance of Dirty Computer’s premiere, I audibly gasped (and maybe squealed a little) at its playful audacity. While the celebration of pussy power is a long-running theme for female hip-hop and R&B artists, Monáe’s representation of black women embodying a tender and playful intimacy with one another reorients this trope. By now, the “girls doing it for themselves” turn is a staple of pop female stardom — a moment typically circumscribed by men who turn out to be the true audience for all this sisterhood. But Monáe’s vision of black female intimacy is like little we’ve seen. Surrounded around a group of joyful black women, Monáe coos to us that she’s “got the pink.” While the song’s lyrics coyly refer to pink as “the lips around your, maybe” and “the skin that’s under, baby,” the video is filled with much more explicit referents including pants legs outfitted to look like pretty fluttery vaginas and black female asses rising and falling in choreographed perfection.

Even as Monáe insists that “we’re all pink inside” and the song is a collaboration with the white electropop artist Grimes (who never appears on screen), the video foregrounds black women celebrating their own intimacies with and among one another. The video is explicitly sexual while making room for the range of intimacies that can exist between black women. In this video’s tonal range from sexy to goofy (see Monáe’s merkin), the term “emotion picture” gets yet another meaning — revealing Monae’s commitment to depicting a spectrum of black and queer intimacies. Homages to early TLC appear across Dirty Computer, and with “Pynk” we seem to get a visual nod to TLC’s “Baby-Baby-Baby” video, which featured collegiate black women lounging together in dorms. And yet, even as TLC dared to put black women’s relationships with one another at the visual center of their music videos, the lyrics of “Baby-Baby-Baby” nonetheless appeal to a longed-for man. Not so here.

With Lemonade, Beyoncé too drew from a large literary-cinematic vocabulary to depict black female intimacy; but the specter of Jay-Z’s infidelity and Beyoncé’s ultimate reclamation of her devotion to him perpetually haunted and occasionally tempered the power of this vision. It’s one thing to be inspired by the look of Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust — borrowing its beautiful costumes while writing out the queer relationship at its center. It’s another to take up that film’s message of black feminist collectivity in order to decentralize conventions of love, family, and respectability that, as Monáe insists, have left her and those like her stranded outside of both mainstream queer communities and black communities. It is when Dirty Computer stops being homage and starts inventing that its power is most felt.

By the film’s conclusion, you realize it’s not Beyoncé as much as Kendrick Lamar with whom Monáe is in conversation here. Dirty Computer represents Monáe’s claim to be the most radical black musician on the pop culture scene. Just as Lamar pays homage to a black masculinist radical tradition stretching from the Black Panthers to 2Pac, Monáe, too, tips her hats to similar precedents. But she also never lets us forget that these past revolutionary visions of freedom often did not make room for someone like her, allowing Monáe to take what strength she needs from the past and leave what she doesn’t need behind to forge another vision. Whereas Christianity provides the framework for Lamar’s ultimate vision of salvation, on “Americans,” Monáe portrays the black church as a constrictive institution for those like Jane and Zen who are forced to find other routes to emancipation.

Dirty Computer’s visuals actually help the record to transcend what I take to be the one influence that threatens to overshadow the record’s sound — its overwhelming indebtedness to Prince. Monáe is so good at imitating the anointed black male performers of yore (and dare I say often beating them at their own game), but sometimes this sonic kinship can be a bit too absorptive. In the wake of Dirty Computer’s visual interest in the communion of black women, the album’s sonic indebtedness to Prince feels a bit smothering at times. As much as “Make Me Feel” is a banger, it is so much in Prince’s imprint that I have a hard time finding where Monáe ends and Prince begins. But Monáe’s “emotion picture,” thankfully, manages to nod to Purple Rain while carving out its own visual universe that is productively compared to Prince, Beyoncé, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and Fritz Lang, while being none of them.

It is on the track “I Like That” where Monáe most successfully inhabits a distinctive sound, one that still operates within a nostalgic sonic framework — here it’s doo-wop — but gives it a futuristic and sultry spin. It is fitting, then, that this song most pronouncedly articulates the film’s broader ethos. The song begins by invoking Rita Dove’s poem for Billie Holiday, “Canary,” which ends with the following three lines: “Fact is, the invention of women under siege / has been to sharpen love in the service of myth. / If you can’t be free, be a mystery.” Dirty Computer seemingly takes these first two lines as its organizing philosophy as Monáe wields both myth and love as weapons for confronting repressive regimes seeking to sublimate her. But the first lyrics of “I Like That” revise Dove’s concluding line with Monáe declaring that, “sometimes a mystery, sometimes I’m free.” This revision underscores her newfound freedom to be Janelle and Jane, android and computer and pop star, rapper and songstress, and most importantly here, confessional and mythic as it suits.

“I Like That” finds Monáe at her most sonically resplendent, particularly during the song’s rap interlude where she insists that despite having been bullied as a kid, she nonetheless tells us that she “always knew I was the shit” while looking dead at the camera and challenging the viewer to tell her elsewise. (In fact, all of Monáe’s raps on Dirty Computer are stellar — something she does not get enough credit for in ways that recall Lauryn Hill’s reception a generation prior.) Although the film’s most beautiful moments feature Monáe in communion with her lovers or her bad-ass dancers, here a chorus of Janelle Monáes back up her claim that “I don’t really give a fuck if I was just the only one who likes that.” While such a boast might feel solipsistic coming from others, from Monáe it becomes a declaration of her commitment to occupying inbetweeness come what may. Fluid reinvention is an old pop maneuver, and Monáe doesn’t fully reorient this trope. But she does make us feel her urgency when defining freedom in her own terms.

The closing lines of the Combahee River Collective Statement read as follows: “As Black feminists and Lesbians we know that we have a very definite revolutionary task to perform and we are ready for the lifetime of work and struggle before us.” Even as Dirty Computer mythologizes its revolutionary task, few films, let alone pop music ones, are so committed to the spirit of these lines. Whereas Beyoncé commands us to get in formation, Monáe pushes us to think about the multiple types of formations we might discover in the groove, in the sheets, and on the streets while also blurring the line between these contexts. With her “emotion picture,” Monáe asserts her debts to genres of feeling and film, of sound and movement, and of black radical imaginaries that precede her while also willfully scrambling, suturing, and signifying on these antecedents. Dirty Computer finds Monáe not only inserting herself into traditions that can’t fully contain her but also resculpting them in her likeness. Janelle Monáe might not care what we think, but she gives us many compelling reasons to keep doing so.

¤

Adrienne Brown is associate professor of English Languages and Literature at the University of Chicago and the recent author of The Black Skyscraper: Architecture and the Perception of Race.


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