Post image for Electric Lady / Janelle Monáe

Electric Lady / Janelle Monáe

by admin on November 14, 2014

Since Sun Ra’s intergalactic Arkestra first landed in Chicago circa 1956, black musicians have toyed with the notion of outer space and its implications for their people. As J Griffith Rollefson explains in his essay, “The Robot Voodoo Thesis,” space is often viewed as an alternative to W.E.B Dubois’s notion of the black double consciousness. In leaving earth, space presents an environment where black people are free from the hegemony of white Western culture and can both continue and reconnect to their African roots. However, Janelle Monáe’s Electric Lady uses the space motifs of this “Afrofutruist” tradition as a way to advance music in a non-racially exclusive way. Her record breaks down the confines of genres by taking a variety of musical tropes and meshing them together in order to launch us into the future of pop music.

As the needle drops on “Suite IV Electric Overture” the echo chamber surf guitar and discordant Moog buzzes make you feel like you are at the premier of a James Bond film in 2050 on Mars rather than experiencing the next outing of a Grammy winning R ’n’ B artist. However, as the vocals kick in, it sounds more like George Clinton’s Mother Ship has landed on the theatre ready to “Funk it Up.” These two seemingly disparate styles slowly mix like a bottle of oil and water vibrating in the cockpit of a spaceship while the countdown is underway. Until, blast off!  Prince himself forces these opposite poles together as he leads you into Electric Lady Land with the equally Acid and Funkified guitar groove of “Give You What You Love”. This album escapes any musical tradition by embodying all of them. Electric Lady is the music of the future by re-contextualizing the past and bringing it to space. Placing these racially or genre specific tropes in a literally alien sonic space Janelle Monáe allows them to be reevaluated and new lines of continuity to be drawn between styles of music previously separated from one another.

Co-producer Chuck Lightning elaborated on this concept in an interview for Wax Poetic, where he claimed that their music is an attempt move out of genre “box(es)” that confine similar artists. He goes on to explain that in the digital age, where one can effortlessly flip through the history of recorded music, we are finally equipped to go about this change and remove stigmas that separate fellow travelers of pop music.  In this regard the music of Electric Lady is not revolutionary as much as it is using the cosmos to speed up a natural redefinition of pop that is occurring. But what is interesting is that Monáe’s reevaluation of pop music is entirely built on already established sounds and aesthetics. From the 60s mod attire she and her gang of Electric Lady’s wear on the album cover to the Donna Summers esque disco beat of “We Were Like Rock ‘n’ Roll”, Janelle seems to be connecting her music together like Lego blocks instead of creating a solution out of her influences.  Even a song like “Dance Apocalyptic” which seems dead set on starting anew with lyrics like, “If the world says it’s time to go/ tell me will you break out?”, is still a pastiche of  sleek modern indie production Outkast playfulness and Bo Diddley pacing. The future for Monáe and her crew is nothing more than smelting and melding of pop music’s past.

This approach to sonic construction again removes her from the heavily modernist Afrofuturist lineage and oddly puts her more in line with contemporary Post Modern Indie acts like Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. By recycling genres with hipster’s stigmas against them, such as Hall and Oats style blue eyed soul, and meshing them with Pitchfork approved influences, Ariel Pink also attempts to reevaluate the lines made by musical cannons. Perhaps if Electric Lady’s prophecy of popular music reevaluation comes true, we will see Areil Pink and Monáe side by side in a new pop music orthidoxy. But, this future starts with us, as Monae says in “Q.U.E.E.N” , “reprogram(ing)” our perception of musical and societal norms and “Get(ing) down” with something we wouldn’t intially think we would relate to.

by James Burns


Atria, Travis. “Nate Wonder and Chuck Lightning talk about their band Deep Cotton and producing Janelle Monae Contemplating the future of music” Wax Poetics: Issue 57.13 Dec. 2013

Reynolds Simon Retromania: Pop culture’s addiction to its past (Mac million, 2011) 348-349

Rollefson, J Griffith The “Robot Voodoo Power” Thesis: Afrofuturism and Anti-Anti-Essentialism from Sun Ra to Kool Keith” Black Music research journal Vol 28 Sept 2008 87-88

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