Janel Monae vs. Madonna/Beyonce/Gaga

So, commenter Andrew asked why I wasn’t including Janel Monae in my series on Afrofuturism. There are a few reasons, including:

1. She’s not a “pop diva”–i.e., she’s a critical darling, yes, but she’s neither a multiplatinum-selling nor an arena-filling household name. My mother certainly knows who Madonna is, and almost certainly knows Gaga and Beyonce (if only for the latter’s film roles). Neither my mother nor Charlotte radio programmers know who Monae is.

2. She’s not a pop musician–i.e., her music is mainly soul with a little bit of other flavors mixed in; it is not contemporary pop, and it is definitely not club music. Madonna, Beyonce, and Gaga all traffic in top-40 radio pop and club bangers. Moreover, Monae’s work is obviously “smart”, whereas the pop divas’ work has two layers: the superficial, mainstream interpretation (e.g., “Single Ladies” is sung literally, a song about hetero monogamy), and the not-quite-so-superficial critical interpretation (e.g., “Single Ladies” is sung sarcastically, as a critique of the wedding industrial complex). Monae’s works tend to lack that easy, mainstream interpretation; they’re more overtly political.

3. This follows from the last point in #2 above: Monae’s work lacks precisely the tension that I’m tracing in Madonna, Beyonce, and Gaga. Their works, I argue, all contain a moment where one has to choose between human-Maria and robot-Maria (to use the language of Lang’s Metropolis). In Monae’s ouevre, that matter is always-already settled.

4. Monae uses Afrofuturist imagery, but her music is actually not very Afrofuturist. Madonna, Bey, and Gaga all, at least at sometimes, call on an Afrofuturist musical aesthetic; they reference disco, house, techno, ringtone rap (just to name a few genres), and make use of Autotune and the Roland family of synths.

Hopefully those distinctions clarify why I’m leaving Monae out of this series. However, I will post an excerpt from a work-in-progress where I read Monae as critiquing visual artist Shephard Fairey.