I Am the American Cool

The AfroFuturist Metropolis of Janelle Monáe

ORIGINAL POSTING
Cultural Gutter | Nov. 2018

Preamble: This started out as a simple article about science fiction’s influence on the music of Janelle Monáe. Then it became a fiery little article about championing “the other,” opposing toxic fandom, and celebrating diversity in science fiction. And then, one thing led to another, and, well…if Fritz Lang’s Metropolis can be 153 minutes long, and Janelle Monáe’s Metropolis can span three albums, I figure I have the right, inadvisable though it may prove, to spread out a little.

Suite 1: The Mechanics of Myth

I think the first time I became aware of her was a photo in a magazine. It was 2010, either leading up to or shortly after the release of her second album. “This woman,” I said, possibly out loud to the entire room, “is the coolest person in America.” Eight years later, with her fourth album having recently come out, I not only stand by that assertion; I will double down on it. Janelle Monáe is the coolest person in America…in a time when America deeply, desperately needs some cool.

Back in 2010, it was Monáe’s expertly-tailored image that initially caught my eye, but it was something that operated on a deeper level than just that natty attire. Sure, the sleek black and whites, the flash suits, the fab shoes — those were parts of it. But there was more. There was an attitude exuding from those photos, a confidence, a sophistication that was not exclusionary but rather promised that, if you were open-minded, you could come along. Right then and there, I wanted to be this woman. There was something about her that transcended gender, race, age…everything. Something iconic, perhaps even mythic, without being old-fashioned, while still being fresh and new. Classic but modern.

Images led to the album, The ArchAndroid, which I promptly purchased despite being something of a laggard when it comes to music. And, upon learning while in the store (we still had some music stores back then) that The ArchAndroid was a “part two,” I went ahead and picked up part one, Metropolis, as well. From the cover, it was plain that both albums drew heavily from science fiction. Across those two albums, and the eventual conclusion of the trilogy, 2013’s Electric Lady, Monáe creates an Afrofuturist epic set in a dystopian future and about a time-traveling android revolutionary named Cindi Mayweather who fights against the oppressive, repressive secret society known as the Great Divide. Mayweather’s primary weapons: hope, love, defiance, open-mindedness, and an indomitable spirit that means even when she’s down, she’s never out.

The Master of Darkness

The inspiration for Monáe’s sprawling science fiction epic was another sprawling science fiction epic, as you may guess from the title: Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking 1927 film, Metropolis. Specifically, it’s the line which ends the film: “The mediator between the hand and the mind is always the heart.” Lang would become one of the most revered names in cinema, directing in Germany and, later, the United States a string of classics that is almost unparalleled and often deal with matters of a shadowy nature and earned him the nickname “Master of Darkness” from the British Film Institute. He was born in Vienna in 1890, the son of an architect. For most of his early life, he seemed on the trajectory to follow in his father’s footsteps, studying civil engineering at the Technical University of Vienna. However, something in his college experience sparked a change, and he switched his focus to art. Later, he went on an international walkabout, finally settling in 1913, as many did, in Paris, where he took up painting. His time in Paris, however, was short. The Great War broke out in 1914, and Lang returned to his native Vienna and enlisted in the army of the crumbling Austro-Hungarian empire. He served on the Eastern Front, where he was wounded in 1916. While recuperating, he began toying with the idea of writing for film. After the war, Lang found work on the Viennese theater circuit. It was there that he met and began working for a man named Erich Pommer.

For years, Pommer ran the Berlin outpost of France’s Gaumont film company, and later took a position with French camera company Éclair, which stationed him in Vienna. Pommer spearheaded Éclair’s entry into the motion picture production business, producing his first film, Das Geheimnis der Lüfte (Le mystère de l’air), in 1913. The outbreak of the Great War found Pommer fighting on the Western Front, and after that experience he traveled to Berlin and founded his own company, Decla, an offshoot of Éclair. Decla was the first company to hire young Fritz Lang as a screenwriter. Lang quickly assumed into the role of director as well, making his first films in 1919. Among them, and reflective of his time traveling the world, was Harakiri, a drama set in Japan. leased with Lang’s work, Pommer assigned him to direct a horror film, the curious tale of a mad doctor and a sleepwalking ghoul. Lang, however, was occupied filming an action-adventure epic that did not wrap in time for him to take on the horror film. Thus did Lang pass on directing The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in order to finish Die Spinnen (The Spiders). Missed opportunities aside (Caligari did just fine with the director it did get), the most important thing to emerge from The Spiders was Lang’s fascination with the clash between the ancient and the modern, between science and mysticism, between the natural world and civilization.This theme would recur in many of his most famous works, including the epic follow-up to The Spiders, the opulent Mysteries of India (aka The Indian Tomb), written by Lang in collaboration with the woman who would become the most important figure in his career.

Thea von Harbou was the daughter of a German noble and a keen student of ancient myth and epic tales. She pursued a career as a writer and an actress, much to the disapproval of her family. Her taste in fiction led her into a collaboration with German director Joe May, and from there, screenwriting became a passion. May directed the two-part epic Mysteries of India, an adaptation of von Harbou’s 1918 novel Das indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb). He contracted Fritz Lang to work on the adapted screenplay with von Harbou. The two worked so well together that the pairing became a lasting partnership, not to mention a love affair that eventually became a marriage after Lang’s ailing wife passed away under tragic and suspicious circumstances (it was ruled a suicide — she had just discovered her husband’s affair — but more than a few people suspect she was murdered, possibly by Lang himself) and von Harbou divorced her current husband.

From 1921 through 1933, every film Lang directed was written by von Harbou. If Lang was interested in the clash of the modern and the mythical, his writing partner Thea von Harbou was interested almost entirely in the myth side of the equation. That the two of them lucked into a career together is one of the great synchronicities in cinema history. Influenced no doubt by his time abroad, Lang’s cinematic vision was huge in scope, encompassing many different locations and cultures. von Harbou’s writing was similarly grandiose, reveling in the sort of operatic bombast that would lend the right sort of weight to Lang’s visual excess. This period included many of his most famous films, films than defined the silent era and included titles such as Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler and Die Nibelungen, based on ancient Teutonic mythology. And then came Metropolis.

Throw Down Your Tools, Rally in the Streets

There is a striking visual continuity between Metropolis and a Soviet predecessor,1924’s Aelita: Queen of Mars. There is also a strong thematic current running through the films, both of which involve a utopian futurist society built upon the backs of exploited proletarians. This plays out against a backdrop of fantastic art deco visions of the world to come, inspired by Fritz Lang’s visit to New York. If Lang was looking for inspiration that jibed with his interest in the ancient colliding with the modern, he couldn’t have asked for a better source than Manhattan in the 1920s. Although hardly an old city by the standards of Europe, Manhattan in the Jazz Age was nevertheless a glorious and confusing cacophony of eras and styles, with the towering behemoths of the skyscraper age butting against moody cathedrals and symmetrical Federalist homes; with art deco and beaux arts and Gothic architecture crammed together in streets that went from the winding labyrinths of lower Manhattan and the West Village to the imposed order and rationality of the East Village and midtown’s grid system. It was a city where futuristic elevated trains whisked people around town while horses and buggies still trundled down streets populated by everything from impoverished immigrants to glamorous luminaries.

Working once again with Thea von Harbou, Lang spins an epic tale of a future split between two worlds. One, the surface, is a playground for the rich, with every modern convenience and every luxury provided for the well-heeled inhabitants of Lang’s sprawling Metropolis. But like Mars in Aelita, the city harbors a not-so-secret secret, that beneath its streets workers toil endlessly in horrifying conditions to provide the grease that powers the glamor. These workers have just about had it with their miserable lot in life, forever forced to toil to power pleasures they themselves will never be rich enough or free enough to experience. Guiding them in their struggle is the Mother Jones-like Maria, played by Brigitte Helm (who went on to appear in G.W. Pabst’s The Love of Jeanne Ney in 1930 and director Henrik Galeen’s creepy horror film Alraune before fleeing Nazi Germany). Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the son of one of the city’s wealthiest captains of industry, encounters Maria when she brings a group of children to the surface so they can see how the 1% lives. The privileged young man becomes smitten with Maria, following her into the bowels of Metropolis and discovering the horrible conditions in which so many of the city’s inhabitants live and work. Still naive, he returns to his father to report on what he’s discovered, only to realize that his father and the other rulers of the city are well aware of conditions beneath the city and see no problem. Angry and disillusioned, Freder returns to the under-city, masquerading as a worker in order to further explore what’s going on and, perhaps more importantly, track down Maria.

What’s going on is the workers are planning a revolution. Freder’s father approaches a mad inventor named Rotwang (a brilliantly unhinged Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to assist in quelling the growing discontent. Rotwang, with copious amounts of insane clutching at the sky, unveils a robot he intends to use to foment discord among the workers. Employing a sinister combination of science of mystical ritual, he animates the robot and makes it look exactly like Maria. He sends it out among the workers to confuse and, ultimately, incite them to violence that, while damaging some of the city’s core machinery, will also result in the workers’ quarter flooding and, with any luck, killing a whole bunch of unruly proletarians and their children. Fredersen’s plan isn’t quite as clever as he thinks, however. Unbeknownst to the overlord, Rotwang has sworn to avenge himself against the time Fredersen stole away the woman the mad scientist loved. And for Rotwang, there’s no more elegant vengeance than making sure newly idealistic Freder is a casualty of the coming violence.

Rudolf Klein-Rogge was one of the few experienced actors in Metropolis, having worked with Fritz Lang since almost the beginning of Lang’s feature film career. This, despite the curious relationship binding him, Lang, and von Harbou together — because the husband von Harbou left after her extended affair with Lang was none other than Rudolf Klein-Rogge. They must have come to some understanding though (it was the Weimar era, after all, and things were pretty weird), because Klein-Rogge appeared not just as Dr. Mabuse in Lang’s first big hit, but worked with Lang and von Harbou on Die Nibelungen and again on Metropolis, as well as Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse in 1933, Lang and von Harbou’s espionage thriller Spione, and two films von Harbou wrote and directed herself, Elisabeth und der Narr and Hanneles Himmelfahrt. Rotwang is one of the great mad scientists in cinema history, and perhaps the template from which all other mad scientists were and continue to be drawn, right down to clutching at the sky, proclaiming that the fools will regret laughing at him, and sporting a head of outrageous hair.

Metropolis is the culmination of Lang’s fascination with science and magic, embodied by the sky-clutching inventor-cum-alchemist Rotwang and his greatest creation, the seductive automaton version of Maria, a creation that draws from one of the greatest horror films of the silent era, Der Golem, and the Jewish legend upon which that film was based. The golem myth is central to Metropolis, and it is central to Lang’s long-standing interest in telling stories in which the mystic runs headlong into the scientific. Perhaps nowhere in his filmography is this more obvious than the scene in which the mad scientist Rotwang animates the robot. In a film showcasing the sleek art deco futurism of the industrial age Manhattan skyline, Rotwang’s laboratory and science seems to have more to do with ancient sorceries and alchemy than with robotics and computer science, regardless of how many Jacob’s Ladders he has running. Rabbi Loew’s esoteric incantations have as much science in them as Rotwang’s science has alchemy. His futuristic lab is scarcely any different than Loew’s workshop. The walls are even covered with occult symbols. From Rabbi Loew’s golem to Rotwang’s maschinenmensch, and even to Victor Frankenstein’s own famous monster in a film that is as much a remake of Der Golem as it is an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s famous novel, the melding of science and magic that so fascinated Fritz Lang is at the very core of the myth. Although there’s no golem to speak of in Aelita, there are manufactured beings. As for Frankenstein, whatever the science behind his experiment, he is still stitching together flesh with the same ultimate goal as any ancient necromancer: to defy death. To create life. To join that rarefied class of scientist-sorcerer that has earned the right to clutch madly at the sky and shout “It’s alive!”

Metropolis was the most massive undertaking since the early spectacle films of the silent era. It included huge sets, hundreds of extras, massive matte paintings, and far more special effects (devised by FX pioneer Eugen Schüfftan) than any film that came before it. Lang was a draconian perfectionist during shooting, demanding dozens upon dozens of takes for even the most incidental of scenes and forcing his cast to work under conditions nearly as harrowing as those depicted in the film itself. Rotwang’s robotic Maschinenmensch was designed by sculptor Walter Schulze-Mittendorff and inhabited by star Brigitte Helm, who suffered endless discomfort and frequent cuts and bruises while working within the confines of the costume. When it was released, critics lauded the movie’s stunning technical achievements even while lambasting its ham-handed writing and uneven pacing. The version released in the United States was cut substantially, kicking off one of film’s history’s most bizarre and frustrating stories, as the original cut of Metropolis soon disappeared, leaving nothing but edited versions of varying run time and comprehensibility. It wasn’t until 2010 that missing elements were rediscovered, allowing archivists to reconstruct the film to a run time of 148 minutes — shy of the original 153 minutes but the most complete it will likely ever be.

Lang himself later criticized the film as politically naive and clumsy, dismissing the film’s notion that “the intermediary between the hand and the brain is the heart.” As he stated in an interview with director Peter Bogdanovich’s 1998 book Who The Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors, the film had the political sophistication of a child’s fairytale, despite being a political film. He was deeply dissatisfied with much of it, though he did admit to still being infatuated with the film’s style and, more directly, its machines. To some degree, he is correct. The philosophical script of Metropolis does not match the film’s astounding visual sophistication. But directors are often the harshest critics of their own work, and as a visual work, Metropolis is perhaps unmatched by any other film in the silent era. Like Stanley Kubrick later, Fritz Lang may be more interested in his machines than his people, but it’s easy to forgive when what he accomplishes with those machines is so breathtaking.

Janelle Monáe would disagree with Fritz Lang’s critical assessment of the hand, the brain, and the heart.

We’re Off to See the Wizard

It’s easy to find parallels in the lives of Lang and Monáe (I mean, besides the bow ties), though it’d be a stretch past the breaking point to consider them kindred spirits. Monáe was born in Kansas City, MO. Her mother worked as a janitor; her father was a truck driver. The Wizard of Oz‘s Dorothy inspired her to chase her dreams of being an artist, and that chase led her, like Fritz Lang, to New York, the city that had inspired Metropolis. She attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy and the Freedom Theatre in Philadelphia before relocating once again, this time to Atlanta, where she settled into that city’s vibrant community of artists, some of whom joined her in founding the Wondaland Arts Society. It was in Atlanta that she met Big Boi, one of the two creative forces comprising the musical group Outkast. And if Monáe is not exactly Fritz Lang, Big Boi is definitely not Thea von Harbou, though he, like von Harbou with Lang, was instrumental in collaborating with Janelle Monáe.

Which, I guess, makes Sean Combs the Erich Pommer of this story.

Impressed by her energy and talent, as well as a self-released EP titled The Audition, Big Boi approached Combs about promoting Monáe. Combs listened. In 2006, Monáe signed to his Bad Boy label. The goal was not to craft her; she was already doing that herself. Nor was it to manufacture a hit single. The goal was simply to let Janelle Monáe be Janelle Monáe, to let her music, her style, and her attitude grow organically—just with a larger distribution network. She went to work, surrounded by a growing family of friends and fellow artists who fed her creativity. In 2007, 80 years after the release of Fritz Lang’s film, Monáe released her own Metropolis.

Good morning, cy-boys and cyber-girls! I am happy to announce that we have a star-crossed winner in today’s heartbreak sweepstakes. Android Number 57821, otherwise known as Cindi Mayweather, has fallen desperately in love with a human named Anthony Greendown. And you know the rules! She is now scheduled for immediate disassembly…

Janelle MonAe, “March of the Wolfmasters”

Suite 2: This is a Cold War

As it turned out, the success of extravagant films like Metropolis had no bearing on the continued production of such opulent films in Germany, the United States, or anywhere else. On October 29, 1929, the U.S. stock market crashed. In short order, the abrupt economic collapse in the United States caused a domino effect around the world. The Great Depression had begun. With the economy in shambles, with as much as 25% of the population unemployed, and with massive crop failure in the midwest, the US film industry didn’t see fit to continue dumping huge piles of money into films. The scope of productions shrunk considerably. In Germany, the economic woes that plagued the Weimar era never really relented despite the influx of artists and the international influence of the country’s film industry. Metropolis proved to be, in many ways, a last hurrah for the excessive Weimar days that had given rise to everything from Lulu to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. A new type of government was on the horizon, bringing with it a new type of film. It was a cultural shift for which Fritz Lang would not stick around.

Adolf Hitler came to power on August 2, 1934, though by that time he and his surrounding apparatus had already grown into the most significant new cultural influence in Germany. Lang, half Jewish, was appalled and terrified of the Nazis. Like many, he could see the writing on the wall and chose to leave the country. Thea von Harbou did not feel the same. In fact, she had become an enthusiastic supporter of Hitler’s regime, causing a rift between husband and wife that culminated in their divorce in 1933. von Harbou stayed in Germany and worked under the new minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels (who, incidentally, seduced actress Lida Baalova away from her fiancée—Metropolis’ Gustav Fröhlich). She wrote and directed two films and wrote screenplays for dozens more. As Germany’s fortunes declined over the course of the Second World War, she found herself in a British POW camp. Even there, she continued to write and direct stage plays mounted by fellow prisoners. In fact, she kept writing screenplays nearly up to the very moment of her death on July 1, 1954.

Brigitte Helm, who terrified and seduced viewers in Metropolis, also left the country, despite Hitler being a fan of her work. She was reportedly in the running to play another golem resurrected by science, as the titular Bride of Frankenstein, but that part went to the wild-haired Bohemian Elsa Lanchester. In 1935, Helm appeared in her final film, An Ideal Husband (Ein idealer Gatte), directed by Herbert Selpin, then fled the Nazis and resettled in Switzerland, never to appear in film again.

In 1934, Fritz Lang left for Paris and then, eventually, Hollywood, where he would continue to direct exceptional films, starting with Fury in 1936, a tense crime drama about mob justice starring Spencer Tracy. He would not return to Germany for decades. When he did, the film he made was the two-part Indian Epic—Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb—a lavish color remake of the film that brought he and von Harbou together.

Do You Know What You’re Fighting For?

I’m trying to find my peace
I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me
And it hurts my heart
Lord have mercy ain’t it plain to see

Janelle Monáe’s 2007 album Metropolis, later expanded and released by Big Boy records as Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), begins with an announcement that the android Cindi Mayweather has been targeted for termination for the crime of falling in love with someone she’s not supposed to. As in Fritz Lang’s film, the society of Monáe’s Metropolis is rigidly segregated. As in parts of the United States until well into the 1960s, miscegenation is, if not explicitly illegal, then at least strictly taboo, punishable (regardless of the law) by death. Where Lang drew on his experience during the War and, later, his horror at the rise of Hitler, Janelle Monáe draws from a depressingly rich American history of racism, bigotry, homophobia, and misogyny. In Cindi, and in the androids in general, Monáe explores various aspects of being an “other”—black, female, non-binary, LGBQT, or just a little different. We’re currently steeped in a culture where vitriol, outrage, hate, and fear are the coin of the realm. When Monáe speaks or sings of love and acceptance—but never surrender—it carries weight because we live in a world where the powerful stay that way by selling the public on despising one another. Or rather, despising “the other.”

She names everything from Goldfinger to Stevie Wonder to David Bowie to Prince as having played a part in leading her in the musical direction she explores. There’s also a good helping of Earth Wind & Fire, especially their ’80s output. As far as I can tell, the world Cindi Mayweather is trying to save is the same one as in EW&F’s “Magnetic” video. There’s a reason you never know where to classify her music and can find it filed under R&B, soul, hip hop, rock, alternative, and experimental. She’s like Prince in that regard, or her friend and collaborator Big Boi’s project with Andre 3000, Outkast. Among contemporary artists, her style and energy is as at home next to Bruno Mars as it is Franz Ferdinand. She even incorporates elements of exotica and easy listening, including the sort of shadow choruses made famous by composers like Ray Conniff and the exotic orchestration of Les Baxter. There’s a dash of upbeat dancy pop (a song on The ArchAndroid, “Locked Inside,” could be a Cardigans song). By the third album in the trilogy, you can even hear Euro composer like Stelvio Cipriani. My personal favorite track from Metropolis, “Sincerely, Jane” boasts a horn section that would do John Barry proud.

Metropolis is a short album, just an EP. Like most sequels, The ArchAngel is longer, more grandiose, and more epic in its scope. Cindi has achieved a messianic status among the oppressed, a figure inspired by Brigitte Helm’s Maria in Metropolis, the heroine who leads the oppressed underground workers in revolution against the overlords of the surface. Crumbs of this narrative are scattered throughout; it’s a concept album but not a rock opera, with Janelle just singing the plot. Initially coy about her personal romantic life, Monáe has since become a powerful voice in the LGBTQ community, but since the beginning her songs have been about acceptance of difference and diversity. The ArchAngel contains one of the most powerful allusions to the struggle of being black, queer, a woman—basically anything other than a straight white guy—in the song “Cold War.” The lyric “I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me” is a simple lyric but every time I hear it, it sends shivers down my spine. It’s heartbreaking.

But this is Janelle Monáe. A lament is not her style. “Cold War” is a fierce song fueled by an indefatigable commitment to combating that sort of oppression, to clenching your fists and fighting back, resisting the violence, the hate, the abuse that is heaped upon people who in some way or other are perceived to differ from “the norm.” She wages her war with hope. Clenched fists are signs of determination, not violence. As heartbreaking as that oppression and alienation is, there is profound beauty, to the point of reducing a fella to tears, when some lost, lonely kid who has spent their whole life being told they are an abomination, an inferior, perverse, or wrong suddenly has someone like Janelle step up to them and tell them, “Nah, you’re good.” At it’s core, that’s message Janelle is delivering. You’re not broken just because you’re different. You’re beautiful. And you’re not alone.

We Were Unbreakable

And I remember the smell of guns
War lived in me, but love finally won

The saga of Cindi Mayweather concludes with The Electric Lady, with the more overt science fiction references receding naturally into the background as Monáe, a more experienced and seasoned performer and writer by this point, becomes more introspective and yet more explicit with her references, relying less on symbolic representations of the other and more on directly speaking of them. Like The ArchAndroid, it is a seamless mesh of styles and influences that boasts one line that destroys me every time I hear it, but rather than being heartbreaking, it’s empowering. “War lived in me, but love finally won.” These assholes with their pathetic racist hatred of Kelly Tran Loan, their need to attack every woman or minority from behind the screen of Twitter—you know, fuck those guys…BUT…what’d rather do than waste breath on them is spend it supporting every woman, every transgendered person, every gay or lesbian or bi fan, every minority, that has come to the bus and demanded their rightful seat. Be the ally. Be the Janelle Monáe.

I think it’s been established that I think science fiction only benefits from a diversity of voices, styles, and experiences. There is a particular segment of science fiction fandom that disagrees with me. They have their reasons, and I don’t have time to listen to it. A while back, I was leaving the theater after having watched The Force Awakens. In front of me was a girl who was absolutely losing her mind over how cool she thought Rey was, bopping around excitedly, so happy that she was unable to construct a fully coherent thought. There was such unbridled joy, such enthusiasm—what kind of unconscionable asshole would want to take that away from her? What sort of person is so lacking in basic decency and empathy that they make it their mission in life to rob that little girl of her happiness? A happiness that we (“we” being me—grown-up white dudes) have been granted so often that it doesn’t even occur to us that it is so often denied others, or that our unwillingness to pass it on is such a vicious, petty act.

Systems rarely benefit from a lack of diversity. Monolithic societies crumble. Getting up in someone’s personal choices that have no effect on you is uncool. Objecting to someone’s lifestyle because it confuses you, or because it’s different than what you’re used to, is uncool. Racism, misogyny, bigotry—seriously un-fucking-cool. And America used to be cool. Shit, we had our missteps, no reasonable person will argue against that. But we always had something in reserve. Jazz, cocktails, blue jeans, rock and roll, kicking Hitler’s butt, Miles Davis, Elvis Presley, Casablanca. Muhammad Ali, Harry Belafonte swimming in the hotel pool. Rosa Parks saying “Nah.” Hip hop, breakdancing, The Ramones. I have a dream. Michelle Obama. Janelle Monáe. That little girl who loved Rey. Keep on keepin’ on. You’re awesome, and we’re going to better because of you.

With The Electric Lady, Janelle may have closed the book on Cindi Mayweather, but she wasn’t finished with science fiction…

Suite 3: I Am Not America’s Nightmare

With the release of the third and final album in her “Metropolis” trilogy, Janelle Monáe was at a creative crossroads. Where do you go once you’ve finished the story that has defined your entire professional output? Who are you when you put your alter ego to bed? For Monáe, the answer was there, evolving through her music, as each subsequent album became more explicit in its thematic intentions. It was time, she said, to step out from behind the veil of Cindi Mayweather. She would come out. Come out as pansexual. Come out as a crusader for the outsiders, the oppressed, and the odd. Come out as a voice for womanhood, for minorities, for the LGBTQ community. Come out as Janelle Monáe.

Time passed, and though she kept busy, she was also taking her time with writing and recording a fourth album, the first not as Cindi Mayweather but as Janelle Monáe. In 2016, she took time out from music to star in two of the best films of the year, Moonlight and Hidden Figures, the story of the black, female engineers and mathematicians who played a crucial role in the success of the American space program. In 2017, she appeared in the Amazon series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, in the episode “Autofac.” The episode is about survivors in the post-apocalypse who find themselves combatting, of all things, a fully automated factory which, despite the end of the world, is still spewing out consumer goods and destroying what little remains of a livable environment. Monáe stars as Alice, the factory’s android hospitality unit who is dispatched when the rag-tag band of humans devise a plan to get the factory’s attention in an attempt to reason with it. “Autofac” explores a number of concepts that reoccurred throughout Philip K. Dick’s writing. This is, after all, the man who gave us Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the book upon which Blade Runner was based.

There is, obviously, something ironic about an episode about a massive, unstoppable producer and shipper of consumer goods being produced by Amazon. The future is a confusing and sometimes contradictory place.

“Autofac” also shares more than a little with “Demon with a Glass Hand,” an episode of the original Outer Limits which, coincidentally, was shot in the Bradbury Building — the same Los Angeles location used for many of the scenes in Blade Runner. Written by Harlan Ellison, “Demon with a Glass Hand” tells the story of Trent, a man pursued by shadowy assassins and who has a computer in place of a hand. He is sent back from the future in an effort to protect humanity from being exterminated by alien invaders. Unfortunately, the time travel process is imprecise, and the computer attached to him that was meant to assist him in his mission is damaged, and his own memory is spotty. He’s also didn’t come through the time portal alone. Harried by killers from the future, he struggles to repair the computer and unravel the mystery of his mission and his own existence. It is, for me, the finest episode of the series. If you can’t find it, you can always listen to Cabaret Voltaire’s “Solenoid,” an industrial electronica epic from their 1992 album Plasticity that samples from and recreates the story of “Demon with a Glass Hand,” including its shocking final revelation…one not entirely unlike that of “Autofac.”

Science fiction isn’t just a trapping for Monáe. It’s a core influence and passion, as permanently integrated into her art as David Bowie, James Brown, and Prince. Monáe, “Demon with a Glass Hand,” and Philip Dick share a common bond in their use of science fiction and androids to explore questions of human existence. How real is real? When is the outsider, the artificial, the other as deserving of life as a “normal” human? Monáe would address these questions, and much more, in 2018. That summer, she completed work on and released her new album. Anyone who thought the science fiction of the previous albums would be shed along with the Cindi Mayweather persona wasn’t paying attention. When the album, Dirty Computer, dropped, it didn’t drop alone. It came with a full-on science fiction mini-movie to herald its arrival.

Pink is the Truth You Can’t Hide

Dirty Computer: An Emotion Picture is structured like The The’s groundbreaking 1987 movie Infected. Both of them take a series of music video and use a connective narrative device to weave them into a single experience. As she did in the “Metropolis” suite, Monáe sets her album in a dystopian future, this one styled after Brave New World, in which emotion is discouraged and aberrant. Those who exhibit emotions or a rebellious streak are deemed to be “dirty computers,” a designation that reminded me of Ana Lily Amirpour’s maligned but worthwhile film, The Bad Batch. Dirty computers a’re hunted down and brought in for re-education and, if need be, erasure. Obviously, Janelle is one of these dirty computers, and she’s brought in front of a technician (Thor: Ragnarok‘s Tessa Thompson — more on her later) to have her memories examined and, ultimately, erased. But Janelle, of course, is no push over, and during the process she manages to slowly turn the tables on her tormentors.

Each memory is a video for a track from the album. They vary in style — including one that boasts an overt reference/homage to Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain — but they are united by a common cause: the promotion of acceptance, the championing of “the other,” and the celebration of everything that makes people unique. They are also united by a theme running throughout the songs: that it is tragic, lamentable, and deeply troublesome that non-white, non-male people are punished when they ask for even the most basic of rights afforded to and assumed by white men. “Crazy Classic Life” is a particularly painful exploration of the different ways things shake out depending on the shade of your skin. Monáe isn’t asking for anything particularly outrageous; the right to be silly, to get into shenanigans, to have the same traditional American upbringing as everyone else. But where the occasional transgression against authority gets you a mild, sometimes even amused, rebuke if you are white, it gets you thrown in prison — or killed — if you are black.

Seriously, if you have a problem with this being America, we got nothing else to talk about.

Upon release, by far the most talked-about segment was “Pynk,” featuring Monáe, Tessa Thompson, and a chorus of fellow women wearing pantaloons of a rather striking design. The video sparked a lot of talk about the relationship between Monáe and Thompson, and eventually Monáe announced that, yes indeed, they were in love. Thompson was more shy about coming out, citing her tendency to be more of a private person, but she too spoke out, echoing the sentiment of Monáe and Dirty Computer as a whole: that you should not feel alone. That if her coming out in public fashion makes it easier for someone else having a hard time of it, then it was worth doing. Dirty computers like Janelle, like Tessa, should not be ashamed. They should celebrate what makes them different, and the differences that bind everyone together. And if you feel alone, if if you feel attacked, then know that Tessa and Janelle have your back.

The album ends with “American,” and there’s no better song to sing in the face of Trump’s America, Brexit, and the grim, fearful little men and women who would turn us against each other and turn the clock back to less enlightened, less interesting era. The song plays out as a point-counterpoint and reassures, in the end, that as dark as it may seem, the devil is a liar. The dirty computers will eventually win. Janelle Monáe, for example, recently launched Wondaland Pictures in partnership with Universal, to produce and promote films my marginalized populations. Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie survived Thanos’ snap. We stumble, and sometimes we stagger backward, but in the end, we lurch forward, even if it’s painful and seems hopeless at times.

We don’t need another ruler
We don’t need another fool
I am not America’s nightmare
I am the American cool

Just let me live my life.

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