A longwinded review of The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III) (2010)
Prefix “album” with the word “concept” and you have my immediate attention. It’s my old/young Prog-Rock soul refusing to give up, (or grow up, as the case may be). I’m still a sucker for any artist who gets ambitious and creative with lofty ideas, especially when there are traces of philosophical science-fiction coursing through the work. Characterisation, story-arcs, juicy narratives, thematic structures, signature musical refrains, songs segueing into each other, elaborate artwork, I dig all the trimmings that constitute a true concept album.
So it was no surprise to find myself poring over Janelle Monáe’s debut in my faded Pink Floyd t-shirt, barrelling toward Metropolis in the year 2719, following the story of an Alpha Platinum 9000 named Cindi Mayweather (aka 57821), a self-actualised android who breaks the law by falling in love with a human, and must rise up to face her messianic destiny, while being pursued by bounty hunters and, well, you get the idea.
Pretty cool, huh?
Like author Philip K. Dick, Monáe uses the android as metaphor for exploring the transformative potentials and emotional limitations of us mere mortals and our problematic human condition. And like a lot of great sci-fi, the future is always our present. This album is better than most of the sci-fi films released in the last ten years. A cyborg’s satori as call-to-arms against apathy and indifference. (A bit like Ziggy Stardust telling us: ‘not to blow it, coz he knows it’s all worthwhile.’)
This album is a continuation of her 2007 EP, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), which featured some well received (but crazily underrated) singles; my personal favourite being “Sincerely, Jane”, (it was #1 in a parallel universe, I’m sure) with a chorus asking: ‘Are we really living or just walking dead now?’ (with such a pointed intensity that its hard to know whether she’s talking about androids or the cloned consumerism of Apple Fanboys?). And demanding: ‘Daydreamers, please wake up/ We can’t sleep no more’.
She reminds me of Amy Winehouse in the way she masterfully blends older musical styles and makes them sound contemporary. With Amy, its Ella & Etta & Spector meets Portishead…with Janelle its Michael Jackson & Stevie Wonder & Grace Jones meets Asimov and Neuromancer and Fritz Lang and The Matrix. But really, all those kind of comparisons are a minor footnote. (And only a fraction, coz there’s also hints of Air and Pink Floyd and Daft Punk [even The Beatles]; or James Brown and Prince and The Jackson 5 and Betty Davis and Ohio Players; or Lauryn Hill and Outkast and Erykah Badu; and would you believe Henry Mancini and Exotica-King Martin Denny seem to ghost away in the textured backgrounds)
Her songs effortlessly move between catchy-as-hell high-energy chart-ammo (“Tightrope”/ “Dance or Die”/ “Faster”/ “Cold War”/ “Come Alive”) to swoony Judy Garland meets Floyd-like psychedelia in “Sir Greendown” to the lavish Motown-cum-Folk of “Oh, Maker” and the Abbey Road-ish “Mushrooms and Roses”, all these disparate styles somehow hang together to create a multifaceted world, richly lit and opulent.
The result is fun and bright and detailed and colourful and energetic and smart and sad and poignant and insightful and political and a joy to listen to. The lyrics are filled with funny, vivid and touching imagery, the arrangements are sparkling and sophisticated, and for a debut it’s arguably one of the most exciting and promising things to hit the (relative) mainstream in 2010. She seems to have all the bases covered. She can write: ‘I heed echoes of your laughter in the corners of my mind/ While I memorise each detail of your intricate design/ In your hair there is a symphony/ Your lips, a string quartet/ They tell stories of a Neon Valley Street/ Where we first met/ Now somewhere time pursues us/ As we love in Technicolor’. She can (really) sing in a multitude of modes. She can dance like a plutonium-powered dervish. And her tiny frame (in cyberpunk-ish tux and pompadour) cuts a cool magnetic figure. How is it she’s not HUGE?
As 80s kids we had Thriller. A perfect pop fantasy that transcended itself. Every single was a wonderfully crafted theatrical/musical event. Sure it was sold to us, but it didn’t cheaply pander to us, or shy away, (“Thriller” was so damn good as a kid because the clip was as scary as it was fun) it was thrilling. For young, impressionable imaginations, it was a complete immersive experience, with the coolest songs, by the coolest dude, with the coolest cats doing the coolest dancing you’d ever seen. Its success made musical sense.
What do the kids get these days? Katy Perry? Wide-eyed, vacant, and doll-like, lolling around naked in fairy-floss bed-sheets, sipping gin, and blowing ice-creams while angry sexualised Gummy Bears ‘freak in the jeep’ with ‘toned, tanned, fit and ready’ California Gurls. The mindless candy-striped Willy Wonka porn fantasy orgasming at the end with the volcanic lactation of Katy’s cream-shooting cupcake tits. (I’m sure it won’t be long before she’s cast in a children’s movie.)
Seriously, has it come to this?
(OK, not all Pop is as creatively barren as that. There’s no doubt Beyoncé and Christina are great performers, and I’m sure they both have a hand in writing some of their songs. But they’ve become more like corporations now, with a team of managers and writers and producers and technicians and stylists and minders and advisors, that it’s hard to see them as individual artists who craft an entire ‘thing’ like an album. They’re so over-engineered and over-designed, they can’t fail. They seem less like albums, and more like media events. They seem less like artists, and more like commodities. They should be floated on the open market. [‘Hey, don’t worry about me, the GFC hardly effected me at all, I bought Beyoncé after Goldmember’.] Even when one of them [Beyoncé] slums it with a much lesser performer [Lady Gaga], it still hits, because its been marketed with such precision and balanced with the right amount of pop-culture references [Kill Bill] and kooky visuals [cigarette shades] that even if the song itself sucks, it doesn’t matter, coz its actually got nothing to do with the music, it’s a cross-promotional event, a glossy spectacle, a corporate merger. Coke meets Pepsi. Crossing the streams of such popular brands is the new M.O. of popstars. Their publicists becoming more like the physicists at CERN smashing sub-atomic particles together, watching the icons collide, trying to isolate the unified theory of fame.)
Even if people are intent on consuming music through the restrictive prism of popular karaoke reality/talent shows like Idol and X-Factor and So You Think You Can Dance etc. that increasingly place value on surface-level concerns like technical ability and image, (reducing the arts to a form of sport, where greatness is judged by how high you can jump or how fast you can run) how is it that Katy Perry dominates the charts dancing like a second-rate high-school cheerleader with a voice so gratingly one-dimensional (and off-key) that it requires gargantuan doses of digital filtering? (And still manages to sound awful.)
These shows merely promote an ongoing fixation on superficialities. X-treme style over substance. They don’t promote art at all. It’s not about the wondrous mystery of ideas and inspiration, or about the clear vision and unique expression of the individual. The individuals are interchangeable. It’s about one thing: business. So it’s more concerned with refining the format, identifying the most successful formula, and repeating it over and over again. These shows are to music what Midichlorians are to the Force. ‘Sorry mate, you’ll never be a popstar (or a Jedi), you don’t have the DNA.’
Meanwhile, as our culture accelerates, and technology supersedes itself, and the singularity approaches, and everyone goes gaga over Gaga, Janelle Monáe goes about her independent business, setting up the Wondaland Arts Society as label/art-collective to do her own thing with total control, producing these relevant imaginative works. (Now, I’m not saying she doesn’t have help from a team of producers and collaborators etc, but the team dynamic seems far more creatively driven, motivated by art rather than economics.)
Ultimately this album, this story, is about falling in love with life. It’s about confronting it, and feeling terrified at the personal cost and the courage it requires, and stepping forward, despite the inevitable sadness of both its disappointments and elevations. Things are bad, and they may never change, at least not in our brief lives, and sometimes it’s hard to overcome the equation and choose to live fearlessly, especially for sensitive souls like artists (or androids), who often have a tendency to feel things more acutely than the rest of us.
They say those with the biggest hearts suffer the most. I’m just glad that some still find the reserves to do everything in their creative power to try and change things for the better. Janelle Monáe has something she wants to say, and it’s an empowering message of love and empathy (laced with a subtext that raises cautionary questions about our behaviour in the future, eg: Will we treat artificial people as poorly as we treat each other now?) Not just vacuous irony or cheap softcore gimmicks. Wouldn’t it be nice to replace ‘California girls/ We’re unforgettable/ Daisy Dukes/ Bikinis on top[…]skin so hot we’ll melt your popsicle’ with: ‘Our love will sail in this ark/ The world could end outside our window/ Let’s find forever/ And write our name in fire on each other’s hearts’?
So perhaps Janelle Monáe might signal a shift, however incremental, or at least inspire others to aim for something more, something deeper, beyond the surface. It would be nice to wake up one day and find her topping the charts, to inhabit that parallel universe where things made more sense.
Because despite slipping under the radar for the last few years, I reckon Janelle is destined to rise up (much like her cybernetic alter-ego) and take her place as the new Kingess of Pop and moonwalk up the charts to superstardom. And once there, her righteous replicant persona will expose the current chart-bots like Gaga and Bieber and K. Perry as the true pre-programmed robots in our midst, the manufactured agents of the marketing machine, cynically duping their audience with shallow anthems by way of their auto-tuned cleavage and photoshopped vocals. And I, for one, will cheer. The genuine fake will have arrived.
We found The One. All the Agent Smiths have fallen. Zion is safe.