What makes an American icon today? What does the idea even mean? Earlier this summer, Michael Jackson's death served as a jolting reminder of the extent to which fame -- the meaning of it, its allure, longevity, power -- has changed in the last 30 years. Despite his personal tribulations and public humiliations, Michael Jackson was - and will forever be - the undeniable King of Pop. He was a celebrity the way Coke is a soda: an icon whose influence on our culture will forever outshine his missteps and failings.
At his peak, Jackson was more than a being: he was a symbol, a celebrity of proportions unattainable by today's stars. Why? Perhaps, because fame (and talent) has become too common, too fleeting, too meaningless. Or maybe it's just harder to see the magic through the spectacle, our wonderment having been tempered by cynicism, having 'seen it all'. We want our entertainment, but we're finding it harder to be moved by it. We are an uninvested audience; we can consume at will, without risk, knowing another new artist/song/music video/diversion is just a click away.
And yet, as a culture, we aren't satisfied by passive amusement. We're fickle but we're not soulless. We depend on our entertainers to become our icons - our sources of inspiration, hope, even momentary transcendence. As transient or manufactured as they now may be, these living myths are what help us define who we are and what we believe in.
This is hard to believe if you flip through the most recent US Weekly or Rolling Stone. The vast majority of the most well-known pop icons of our generation are hard to idolize, let alone discern. Their sounds are homogenous and styles engineered - for many of them, originality and passion for music seem almost irrelevant.
That's why when an artist like Janelle Monáe comes along, it's worth taking pause. Janelle Monáe, from Kansas City, Kansas, is one of the most inventive, original female artists to attract mainstream attention since M.I.A. introduced her London-Sri Lankan sound with "Arular" in 2005. Monáe's musical style is a genre-bending blend of "scifi, sassy and soul," as Interview Magazine put it. Her voice is brassy and full, without being shrill; her beats bouncy, light, of an other-worldly meter. And she matches her unique sound with an equally original personal style: most days, Monáe sports a throwback crooner look, donning saddle shoes, trousers, and a retro updo to top it all off. She's not a popstar cut-out or hip-hop cliche - she's defiant proof that creativity and success coexist beyond focus group testing and engineered 'personal branding'.
Monáe's persona and her work, particularly her latest album "Metropolis", bucks the staid trends, genres, and expectations of her artistic peers. Her appeal is uncategorizable, and thus, knows no boundaries. Critics and fellow musicians have compared her to Prince, OutKast's Andre 3000, and Gwen Stefani. Diddy, who signed her to Bad Boy/Atlantic Records in late 2007, said she was "one of the most important signings of my career." Fallout Boy's Pete Wentz likes her. "Fresh Air"'s Terry Gross devoted a segment to her. And after a series of impressive live performances this year (including her recent appearance with Erykah Badu on Governor"s Island in NYC), her fan base continues to grow stronger and more diverse.
Through it all, Monáe seems committed to staying true to her unconventional image and music - despite some fearing her 'oddness' could stand in the way of truly mass market appeal. Though the trajectory of her career is still to be seen, Monáe's success is a reflection of a larger story, one in which artists are as genre-shifting, gender-bending, and authentic as they want to be. Her fearless subversion of stereotypes (racial, sexual, and cultural); her unapologetically quirky style; her brave new sound - Monáe is a shining example of all that a true icon is - and should be - today.
[image via Wikipedia]