Pop performers have a high-pressure gig. Maybe not a hand-to-mouth, struggling-to-get-the-most-basic-of-needs-met sort of pressure, but a formidable pressure nonetheless. As Stephen Hyden pointed out in the online mag Grantland last month, "pop music is now regarded with an unprecedented level of solemnity." Katy Perry, he argued, responded to such elevated expectations by steering her new album away from her signature DayGlo confections toward serious self-excavation. The following week, he and plenty of other critics interpreted Arcade Fire's latest as a sign that the band had burned itself out by striving to make big statements and sought escape by throwing its version of a dance party.
One of the striking things about Janelle Monáe — who's behind another of the year's most talked-about albums, The Electric Lady — is that she's a rising R&B-pop star who plays it ultra-cool. No matter the critical climate, she doesn't let us see her sweat.
During the 10 or so minutes I had on the phone with the pompadoured, Atlanta-based singer and songwriter, I attempted to tunnel through her established narrative with a handful of elaborately set-up questions. Already an overly ambitious approach, it was further complicated by the lo-fi quality of our conferenced-in connection, which dropped out altogether mid-interview. But my interviewee simply sat back, unhurried, unruffled and, I'd say, unimpressed, offering even-keeled responses.
Monáe is well aware that every creative move she makes, every single she tries to break, every dance step she takes will be interpreted and responded to a million-and-one different ways by cultural critics, academics and fans. She's inspired think pieces galore; references in a book on Afrofuturism and in an academic journal's call for papers on feminist science fiction; fan fiction stories; a shout-out in Bitch Magazine's list of feminist Halloween costume ideas. What she doesn't do is bend over backwards to explain herself.
"I welcome the articles and the discussions that are happening," says Monáe. "I think it's important that people discuss the work, and they go back and forth and look at it and figure out what it all means."
From the moment she entered the spotlight, Monáe has chosen to withhold personal details of her life — no kissing and telling — and unfurl a sci-fi mythology, doing past interviews in the character of her android alter ego Cindi Mayweather, filling her album liner notes with vignettes of genetic cloning, time travel and freedom fighting ("Any droids found jamming to said recordings will suffer instant disassembly in accordance to Code 909.") and taking music videos like "Q.U.E.E.N." to arty, symbolic extremes. Together, it amounts to very forward-looking, high-concept high camp.
"I love to talk about [the future]," says Monáe, "because the future has endless possibilities. ... We can stop all the negative things from happening right now. We can change it. I was actually reading an article the other day [about] how people should really read more science fiction, because a lot of the answers for medicines and just more solutions are found in science fiction. It may give you more imagination to think about how to solve some of these problems."
All that android talk, along with the androgyny of Monáe's chicly formalized black-and-white look, has no doubt contributed to her being described, from time to time, as a less-than-warm performer. But she consciously deploys the chameleonic qualities of her singing, along with stylistic shape-shifting between tracks, stealthy pop smarts and that outsized narrative frame she employs, all to transcendent, stimulative effect.
It's also a politically potent musical posture. As many fantasies and fears — the selfless mother, the sexual temptress, etc. — have been projected upon women, particularly women of color, there's power in playing a character who champions diverse expressions of identity without allowing hers to be pinned down.
When Monáe became more closely involved with Sean Combs' Bad Boy Records, she wrote an open letter to her fans to emphasize that she and her collective, the Wondaland Arts Society, weren't placing themselves under anybody's thumb. On the phone, she says, "I pretty much am in control of my ideas and image, everything that you see."
There's also some sleight of hand in everything that you see. Mythology occasionally gives way to autobiographical confession that packs a punch, as it does in Monáe's Stevie Wonder-esque ode to her working-class mother and grandmother, "Ghetto Woman," and Monáe constantly walks lines between choreography and spontaneity, and between danceability and conceptual heft.
"I think that there has to be balance," Monáe says. "I mean, one of the things that we believe in is the law of the jam, and by that, it's like if it just really moves you when you hear it, you don't wanna compromise that. And sometimes you have to be really careful about concepts; it can kind of stop you from, you know, groovin'. I think a lot of the music that I make [is meant to be] fun, and at the same time, when you are at the club or you're having fun, you have something to go home and think about."