Like the collage artists of the Pop art movement, Janelle Monáe works with materiality, using found objects to create fascinating music remix not only other artists and their particular brand of sounds, but merging and distilling genres to create something unique, arguably more innovative than its source material.
Having seen Monáe in-concert in October 2011 supporting her debut album, The ArchAndroid, it must be said that her live show is a revelation. She flew around stage with boundless energy, only gasping for breath and drowning herself in bottled water at the recess of each song. In a set that remixed much of the last 80 years of music, the woman was left physically drawn from such an exuberant performance. But what was fascinating most about Monáe’s concert was the seamless flow from a diverse musical palette with which she painted beautiful pictures. Among her sources of inspiration are legends such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Jimmy Hendrix; even elements from minstrel shows of the 1920s and singer-songwriters of the 1960s. Journalist Bernadette McNulty wrote, “I begin to worry for a moment that Monáe may not just be a humourless science-fiction nerd, but actually an android herself, created in a laboratory as a super-musical cross between James Brown, Judy Garland, André 3000 and Steve Jobs, invented to test the desperate incredulity of music journalists” (McNulty, 2010).
McNulty was certainly not the only one to heap such high praise on Monáe, nor the only one to try and box Monáe into an easily digestible bite of genre. Slant Magazine’s Huw Jones penciled her in as “a unique gray area between neo-soul, funk, and art-rock” (Jones, 2010). Monáe remains too complex and too wide-ranging to be simply stamped categorically as one thing or another, or even a mixture of the two. Perhaps it’s because Monáe herself describes he own musical inspirations as so diverse they might never be seen in the same Grooveshark playlist or Pandora stream. Monáe describes The ArchAndroid’s influences as “all the things I love, scores for films like Goldfinger mixed with albums like Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind and David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust’, along with experimental hip hop stuff like Outkast’s Stankonia” (Lewis, 2010).
A number of authors have noted the ease at which music and parts of music pass via digital transfer. Whether it’s a hook from a 70s Disco track like “Ring My Bell” or just a bass track from Swizz Beats, the circulation of samples and pieces of other musical influences circulate freely in the digital realm. Monáe’s “The ArchAndriod” uses this context as a license to play with influences and genre. Everything is game, and the entire catalog of music for the past 80 years serves as the source material, as if Monáe was writing from her own eclectic playlist. Her own references to time travel (NPR, 2010) emphasize the freedom she feels in playing with these influences, creating connections others might not see between musical genres. Replicating this approach in her timeless tuxedo, Monáe feels both like she could fit anywhere on the American music cultural timeline, and yet is distinctly of this era. Monáe’s work is made possible through this age of digital music remix. Listening to her album from start to finish feels like listening to an ipod on shuffle. While the tracks do blend together to form a cohesive whole, the mix of genres replicates this distinctly 21st century musical experience.
Critics love Janelle Monáe for all of these reasons. Not only is her work an homage to many of the musical greats of the last century, Monáe is also a lover of literature, specifically science fiction, and the intertextual nature of her work in echoing themes of Philip K. Dick and Octavia Butler. While her most recent album, The Electric Lady, made a quieter debut, she has also been a commercial success. Through more commercial pop hits like “Tightrope” and “Wonderland,” Monáe brings a remixed musical future to the mainstream.
Jones, H. (2010, Dec 8). Janelle Monáe (London, U.K. – December 5, 2010). Slant Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.slantmagazine.com/music/feature/janelle-monae-london-u-k-december-5-2010/243
Lewis, P. (2010, July 12). Janelle Monae: Funky sensation. Blues & Soul. Retrieved from http://www.bluesandsoul.com/feature/554/janelle_monae_funky_sensation/
McNulty, B. (2010, June 25). Janelle Monae interview: The android has landed. The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/rockandpopfeatures/7854112/Janelle-Monae-interview-the-android-has-landed.html
NPR (2010, May 14). Janelle Monae: Dreaming in science fiction. NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126833378