There’s a lot going on underneath that pompadour. With The Electric Lady, we’re hearing more from the future cyborg world that R&B singer Janelle Monáe has been crafting since her 2008 debut EP, Metropolis: The Chase Suite. Sure, she seems to have a thing with androids, but for Monáe the circuitry is a little more complicated. After all, she’s appeared on many an album cover with wires, buttons, or a barcode. With that, we thought we’d give light to a few reasons why Monáe isn’t your average sci-fi fan.
Ask Her About Asimov
Monáe’s musical influences are many, but she could probably match them in number with writers and thinkers on the sci-fi front. To start, there’s German expressionist Fritz Lang, whose silent film Metropolis gets a nod from Monáe’s debut EP of the same name. Isaac Asimov’s theories on robot ethics figure into her story arc (more on that later). She can also easily discuss writers like Octavia Butler and futurist/director of engineering at Google, Ray Kurzweil, as she did with io9. Then, of course, there are those smaller references in her lyrics to things like electric sheep. The point? When she theorizes in her music on the collision between humanity and technology, she’s studied the established territory. A lot.
It’s All About the Androids
Starting with Metropolis, Monáe constructed a dense world inhabited by androids and humans. Her alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, is an android who falls in love with a human, is sentenced to disassembly, and later becomes something of a messianic figure, to use the most common description. Calling Monáe’s records “concept albums” doesn’t feel quite right because of their intricacy. And while a song like her recent “Q.U.E.E.N.” (featuring Erykah Badu) could exist outside of Monáe’s usual thematic tendencies, words like “reprogram” are never far away.
Ask Her About Time Travel
It’s one thing to create fiction. It’s another to sit straight-faced in an interview and talk concepts like time travel and futuristic digital dystopias as inevitabilities. “Technology is advancing so fast that in two years, computers will have mapped out the human brain to the extent that you won’t be able to recognize the difference between your mother calling to say hello and an android,” she told Telegraph reporter Brenda McNulty in 2010. McNulty wrote that she wondered if Monáe were not actually a robot built to test the incredulity of music journalists. The singer also has said she’s a proponent of time travel. The point is not to walk away thinking Monáe’s jammed her gears. Her level of commitment to the concept proves that this is no one-off gimmick.
It’s Not Really About the Androids
And the chief reason it’s not a gimmick is because Metropolis and all that’s wrapped up within it isn’t really about the androids. Monáe’s human-like robots represent the oppressed. They’re the ones pushed to the margins of society, whether it be for race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other flavor of “different,” or, as Monáe puts it, “ the other.” She told the Chicago Tribune, “Whether you’re called weird or different, all those things we do to make people uncomfortable with themselves, I’ve always tried to break out of those boundaries.”
Well…She’s a Woman
From a demographics standpoint, sci-fi has been largely dominated by middle-aged white males. Those are three things Monáe is not. When women so frequently fall into damsel-in-distress archetypes, Monáe’s alter-ego Cindi Mayweather is the hero, the savior. But it’s not just a matter of the gender she happens to be, it’s how she uses a tuxedo, of all things, to balance retro glamour and utility, to be one of few pop stars not reliant on hypersexuality. “I feel like I have a responsibility to my community and other young girls to help redefine what it looks like to be a woman,” she told io9. Cindi Mayweather would approve.