Janelle Monáe, Erykah Badu
The Electric Lady
queerness · counterculture · funk · pride · empowerment · sexuality·
Girl, this is crazy... let me tell ya...
The song opens with a strong, sexy riff: an elastic bass guitar twang that stretches upwards before snapping back in on itself, a tambourine tapping out a pulse. The riff repeats, and a bright synth blossoms colourfully - a sparkly, spacey sound that defines this song in its most jazzy moments. A snare kicks open the bar and the guitar jams as Janelle Monáe begins to sing, the synths introducing themselves playfully into the background.
Her voice is dynamic and flexible. She has bent it many different ways over her three albums, from the almost almost medieval crooning of Sir Greendown all the way to the punk roar of Come Alive (War Of The Roses). She is a consummate performer, more often than not appearing under some version of her alter ego: Cindi Mayweather - an android from the year 2719.
It would take me a lot more space than I have here to go into all the references and lore from her concept albums so far, although it is fascinating: leave that to Laura Sterritt in this detailed article from 2013. I will say that she uses the figure of Cindi to explore all manner of ideas to do with love, sexuality, personality, gender, oppression, escape - and cultural revolution, as she eventually becomes a messiah to the androids in her version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
Here, she is confident and clear, even carefree:
I can't believe all of the things they say about me
Walk in the room, they throwin' shade left to right
They be like, 'Ooh, she's servin' face'
And I just tell 'em cut me up and get down
Monáe said in an interview that the acronym in the title 'definitely is an acronym': 'the Q represents the queer community, the U for the untouchables, the E for emigrants, the second E for the excommunicated and the N for those labeled as negroid.' Indeed, the word queen itself is the first of many references to queer culture in this track. 'Throwin' shade' (disrespecting) and 'servin' face' (here, trying too hard) are both terms with their origins in drag culture that have made their way into mainstream language.
The song is 'for everyone who's felt ostracized', she says in that same interview. Echoing an all-too-common experience among marginalised people, Monáe sings about people talking behind her back. She pays them no mind, however, and merely dances away, too busy with her own progress to deal with negativity. The beat kicks in once more as the glittery synths swirl a little stronger.
They call us dirty 'cause we break all your rules down
And we just came to act a fool, is that alright?
(Girl that's alright)
They be like, 'Ooh, let them eat cake'
But we eat wings and throw them bones on the ground
Here she speaks as the rebel, the free spirit, crashing through glass ceilings with her partners and having a blast while doing it. She invokes the famous (and probably invented) 'Marie Antoinette' quote 'let them eat cake' - a classic trope of oppressing forces uninterested in the welfare of the oppressed. Unbowed, she and her crew don't just eat dainty cake; they eat wings, getting their fingers dirty, discarding the remains on the floor in contempt at the oppressors' attempts to contain them.
As she throws down the bones, so she throws down the groove: the guitar climbs upwards and launches into the hook, all the instruments now truly in concert. A backing chorus sings the main lyrics in a simple, catchy tune, Monáe dropping in on the offbeat with ad-libs like 'queer...' and 'don't judge'. The chorus asks an unapologetic question: is it good to be different? If so, can I get a break when I'm just trying to do my thing? The resounding answer is clear in the celebration as the synths slide and shimmer in ever more alien fashion.
Am I a freak for dancing round?
Am I a freak for getting down?
I'm cutting up, don't cut me down
And yeah I wanna be, wanna be, queen
Cymbals clash to lead us into the second verse, the bass riff in the background now brasher, a little distorted, mirroring the fiery defiance of rebellion. As the wall of sound parts for a moment, Monáe evokes relatable moments of 'weird' behaviour. 'Is it peculiar that she twerk in the mirror?' she asks, as the synths twirl peculiarly in the background. 'Am I weird to dance alone late at night?' She laughs off the limiting ideas that such behaviour is abnormal or unstable - she and all those marginalised and demeaned do not need approval, and Monáe dances away once more as the instrumental intensifies.
I heard this life is just a play with no rehearsal
I wonder, will this be my final act tonight?
And tell me what's the price of fame?
She ponders the fleeting nature of life - for many, life really is fleeting - and contemplates the kind of life she wants to live. If any day could be your last, why waste any time pretending to be someone you're not? At the same time, she has to be cautious: voices harmonising behind her, she considers that too many have found themselves on the wrong side of fame as a creative, most notably late queer culture hero and key influence Prince, who infamously felt so exploited and manipulated by his label that he walked around with the word 'slave' daubed on his face and changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol as a protest against the commodification of his person.
Monáe has a fine line to walk, between appeal and integrity. It's an ideal both explored in her own art (see the diplomatic balancing act of Tightrope) and exemplified in the creative environment she cultivates around herself with her collection of artists at Wondaland. Of her approach towards making thoughtful conscious music, she said in a Guardian interview that: 'Sometimes when a child has to take medicine it must be delivered inside his favourite food. You have to figure out how you can make your message palatable for those who may not want to hear.'
Lastly, Monáe asks sardonically if she is 'a sinner with my skirt on the ground'. She affirms in this interview with PrideSource that her 'gender bending' androgynous style of uniform black-and-white tuxedos (a somewhat more relaxed dress code these days) is a source of pride for her; likewise, her rejection of the skirt, a symbol of female limitation, is loaded with feminist ideals of independence and self-determination.
The fabulous chorus zigzags back into view, Monáe ad-libbing more passionately now, effortlessly spiralling up and down her range. As she revels in her identity and radiates solidarity, the tambourine keeps a steady rolling rhythm, the instrumental twisting with verve and energy.
The synth buzzes like a groovy little insect, the bass guitar absent for this verse to give focus to the words as Monáe addresses the audience directly, this time focusing on another central source of oppression: organised religion. In recent years the most vocal opponents of queer liberation have been conservative religious groups - and she challenges them here, asking yet more sarcastic questions: will they have to 'save my soul from the devil' because she likes the way another woman 'wears her tights'? Is it 'rude to wear my shades' - i.e., to be herself, even if she seems out of the ordinary? She continues, doubling down on her withering criticism of institutional repression:
Hey sister, am I good enough for your heaven?
Say, will your god accept me in my black and white?
Will he approve the way I'm made?
Or should I reprogram, deprogram and get down?
These lines work on multiple levels, alluding to the marginalisation of social groups along all the boundaries of the title's acronym, variously rejected and ostracised from communities on the basis of caste, colour, creed and sexual calling. The call to 'reprogram, deprogram and get down' can be taken both ways: as a surrender to the oppressive systems that wish to control you, or as a destroying and reforming of preconceptions so that one can be more mentally free. All this weaves another careful thread into the complex cyberfeminist, afrofuturist tapestry of Monáe's work, as her voice rockets upwards, triumphant and full of pride.
As the chorus struts into centre stage again, all pieces of the sound commit to the jazzy ensemble: the snappy bass guitar; the skittering, twizzling synths; the vibrant, syncopated drumbeat. The hook comes to a close, but the backing remains, jamming with the joyful chorus vocals for a few more bars as Monáe intones, calmly but firmly as if reciting a self-determination mantra: 'Even if it makes others uncomfortable, I will love who I am.'
With a swift but smooth crescendo, the instrumental slides into a different, looser ambience. The atmosphere is more relaxed, less urgent, and the flashy synths are gone; a few moments of calm amongst the funky chaos. The bass guitar remains, but muted, gently bouncing away in the background - as the soulful sounds of Erykah Badu waft into the foreground.
Badu has a long and storied history of being a weirdo exemplar of counterculture herself (she even has a son with serial oddball and next-level creative André 3000), as well as being a vocal advocate for the downtrodden and marginalised, especially as concerns those in working-class communities of colour - making her a perfect choice to feature on this song. Indeed, she was a crucial part of its conception, according to Monáe herself. She has pioneered her own brand of delicious neo-soul, and brings that more nonchalant musical style to the mix here, in contrast to Monáe's assertive, theatrical delivery. Badu rides the beat gracefully, fitting her voice into the waves of rhythm, bending some notes artfully and delivering others staccato - all the better to inhabit the funkiness of the groove.
Her lyrics are laid-back, the attitude more spontaneous and off-the-cuff: 'Oh, shake 'til the break of dawn', she sings quietly, gradually joined by refined violins that rise and fall gently in the background, carving out a breezy nook in the vibrant proceedings so far. She recites empowering little couplets almost under her breath: little poetic snippets like 'Baby, here comes the freedom song / Too strong, we movin' on' and 'Been droids for far too long / Come home and sing your song'. Badu is less rehearsed than Monáe, and therefore seems more close to nature; her contribution is more about the mood she brings. Finally, as the verse winds down, she finishes with a deep truth:
But you gotta testify
Because the booty don't lie
It would be easy for this to pass over the ears as a vacuous pop cliché - but that would be a mistake, for the phrase is saturated with meaning and symbolism, especially as it regards Monáe and Badu as African American women. The 'booty' has long been the locus of Western society's fetishisation of black women, from the racialised, sexualised degradation of women like Saartjie Baartman to the hypersexualised objectification and commodification of the 'bootylicious' black female form in modern popular culture.
Badu pivots around this line, mulling it over as she flips the usual notion on its head, celebrating instead the pure spirit of dance and movement as well as her own subjective sexual agency. She recognises the kinds of knowledge black women can learn about themselves and their society by practicing self-love and understanding their heritage. There is also a universal message to this: trust your body, and trust the groove - there are human truths only accessible through the radical freedoms of movement and dance. Don't be afraid to get weird.
The words falls away as a soft saxophone drifts lazily into the space, swirling around sensually as the idea of the gyrating booty swings in the air. The whole track takes a few moments to relax, to chill out; still compelling your toe to tap, but perhaps now also encouraging your eyes to close and your head to bob gently. The gentle scatting of the backing singers gives structure to the easy flow, the vintage 'squeaking' of the vinyl and finger-snapping adding to the rough, stripped-down vibe.
After a few mellow bars, Monáe's voice returns to speak, casually, as if going off-script. 'Yeah, let's flip it,' she drawls, 'I don't think they understand what I'm trying to say...'
Without breaking a sweat, she slips into a powerful rap, like a preacher at a pulpit, dispensing unadulterated truth to her disorganised congregation of misfits and revolutionaries. As she speaks, the violins soar beneath her words, lending her an air of majesty and drama. Her technique and rhyme pattern is straightforward, the better to convey her message, which is one of unflinching strength, pride and perseverance in the face of persistent injustice.
Are we a lost generation of our people?
Add us to equations but they'll never make us equal
She who writes the movie own the script and the sequel
So why ain't the stealin' of my rights made illegal?
As society becomes more progressive, so the letter of the law changes and becomes more egalitarian. But the legacies of racial segregation and the cultural stigmas around queer culture are deeply ingrained in our communities. True economic equality and social equality are a long way off for those who need it, and the overriding mechanisms of capitalism don't make things any easier. Monáe alludes to the workings of the entertainment industry, musing aloud why the theft of financially lucrative intellectual properties are fought against with what seems like more energy than is afforded the struggle for civil rights. These lines could also be a comment on the carefully woven stories that become established as history by the dominant classes: if you write the history books, then you control the narrative into the future, often deeply influencing how those in oppressed groups perceive themselves.
As the daughter of blue-collar working people in Kansas, she is acutely sensitive to the economic exploitation of the working-class. She laments the attitude of those in power who 'keep us underground, working hard for the greedy', but are quick to brand those asking for welfare from the state as 'needy'. She continues:
My crown too heavy like the Queen Nefertiti
Gimme back my pyramid, I'm tryin' to free Kansas City
The reference to the famous Egyptian queen is very deliberate: her iconic bust has developed in the West a symbol of African female power, and both singers have drawn on its empowering imagery before: Badu in her huge headdresses and Monáe in the cover of her second album The ArchAndroid. The Egyptian pyramids, too, are commonly (if perhaps inaccurately) cited as symbols of slave labour, countless lifetimes of underclass work claimed by those with power that ought to be rendered back to their rightful owners.
She namedrops her inspirations: tireless creatives like Bernie Grundman, who has mastered no fewer than 37 Grammy award-winning albums; and civil rights icons like self-freed abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who personally arranged for the emancipation of enslaved families via the Underground Railroad (and whose face will grace the new $20 bill). Relishing her power to take control and express herself in spite of the weight of prejudice and silencing, she raps, 'You can take my wings, but I'm still gon' fly / And even when you edit me, the booty don't lie.'
Police brutality has been on everyone's lips this year, but on the lips of African Americans for far longer. Wondaland artists even recorded a powerful anthem for the names of the dead, entitled Hell You Talmbout - and the topic surfaces here, too, as Monáe describes her exhaustion at the same old stories, the narrative seemingly unchanged since Marvin Gaye's 1971 track What's Going On, where he sang 'Don't punish me / With brutality'.
Layering on theme after theme, refusing to be contained, Monáe affirms her intention to remain eclectic and unpredictable, both as a woman and an African American, her voice powerful and self-possessed: 'Categorise me, I defy every label'. Finally, the backing vocals swelling magnificently, she brings this incredibly dense verse to a close with a clear call to action: she urges all women listening to her words not to stand by idly and follow the paths and behaviours expected of them like 'sheep', but to educate themselves and others - to truly elevate the modern consciousness so that real progress can be made.
Will you be electric sheep, electric ladies?
Will you sleep?
Or will you preach?