Janelle Monáe is not willing to explain herself to you. She's not trying to fit into neat boxes of interpretation, and she'll follow her vision regardless of where that may lead in terms of commercial success. She also happens to know -- no, not think, know -- that "Electric Lady" is the best album of 2013. There's something about the way the ascendant Monáe talks about her work that is refreshing in its unwillingness to succumb to the faux humility or transparency expected of artists today. In many ways, she is one of the only truly defiant artists of her generation, and that's a good thing.
If you read really any interview with Monáe (who will occasionally instruct her representation to request that she be addressed only as Miss Monáe), you'll find an almost scripted quality to her responses. That's not to say she's more articulate than the average artist (though she is), but that she is noticeably careful, to the point of being guarded. As explicitly noted by Pitchfork in her September profile, Monáe's reserve is often marked by defiant unwillingness to demystify herself, even in the face of seemingly non-invasive questions.
Perhaps the most notable of these exchanges may be found with The Guardian's inquiry as to what exactly she meant when she referred to herself as "part-android" (initially to The Vine in May of 2012):
You once said: "I'm part-android." Has that revelation haunted you?
No. It's true. I am part-android.
In a metaphorical sense, you mean? In the sense that we are all wired up to some big theological or epistemological mainframe? Or in the literal sense that you're part-machine?
Oh yeah. I am rewarded with singularity. My mind works at an exponential rate.
But you don't have actual electrical cables running under your epidermis, do you?
I am the Electric Lady. Have you listened to my album, 'The Electric Lady'?
It's a little more confusing when it comes to sci-fi understandings of her past (wait, is she literally an android?), but when we talk about identifying sexual preference or identity there is a certain power to Monáe's refusal to participate in the media cycle associated with her rising level of fame. Why should we be privy to that personal information or have access to yet another means of classifying her? "The lesbian community has tried to claim me," she told Rolling Stone, when asked yet again about how she identifies. "But I only date androids. Nothing like an android -- they don’t cheat on you."
On a professional level, Monáe works through a myriad of genres and her look transcends our ability to understand precisely what place she fits in pop culture. Her androgynous flair for tuxedos and a monochromatic color scheme reads as an active resistance of both gender and race, yet she does not directly categorize her look as a socio-political act, as much as a look that (as she told Huff Post Entertainment), "makes me feel 15 feet tall."
Monáe says her look was initially inspired by the idea of a uniform, worn by her parents, when they worked as janitors and at the post office during her childhood. "It turned into a fashion, but it really was [intended] to keep me connected to the people," she said. "When I put on that outfit, that uniform just lets me know that I have a lot of service and a lot of work to do for the community, for young girls and just as an artist.”
At the same time, Monáe does not condemn sex positivity. "It’s always been about being in control of our bodies or our image. I see nothing wrong with showing skin or wearing a tuxedo," she said. "I just think it’s up the artist and the woman. There should not be any pressure that they apply to themselves because of media, men or women."
There is a clear emphasis in Monáe's discourse, and across her public presence, that works against stereotyping, ultimately insisting that we allow her to just be herself. Yet, Monáe's uniqueness has not managed to immunize her against the niche categorization of "black female artist." Despite her better efforts, reviewers consistently attempt to understand her as just that. For example, Flavorwire points to Jody Rosen's review of 'The Electric Lady' over at New York Magazine. As writer Tom Hawking notes, Rosen "seems to punctuate every second paragraph [...] with a mention of Monáe’s race," describing her as "an excellent concept" and concluding with an observation that "the only people who like a black bohemian more than fellow black bohemians are white rock critics."
Janelle Monáe performs at the St. Regis Hotel for Starwood Preferred Guest's "Hear The Music, See The World" series on Thursday, June 19.
It's unlikely any of this analysis constitutes reading too much into Monáe. Her penchant for ambiguity leaves room for interpretation, but there's no question of the brilliance behind her conceptualization. Consider her android narrative, which she has built up as both a defense mechanism (see the above quote re: her sexuality) and a metaphor. As she described it in a Sirius XM interview with Sway back in September: "[W]hen I speak about the android, it’s the other," said Monáe. "And I think, again, you can parallel that to the gay community, to the black community, to women -- we have so many things in common, and we sometimes don’t know it when we allow small things to get in the way."
The thing about Monáe that is clear above all else is that this disposition of reticence and ambiguity does not mean she does not try or care. In terms of trying, we can look to her discussion of why she identified "The Electric Lady" as the best album of 2013. "I sought out to make sure I was creating quality music, and I was not giving people something I just did overnight," she said. "To me, when you listen to it, it makes you feel better about life. It empowers you, it inspires you. I think people want to be taken somewhere [...] It has all those core values that nurture people and take them higher. Announcing the album was the best was not so a hubristic declaration, so much as a faith and confidence in work that we should not expect her to be humble about.
In terms of caring, we might look to a recent show for no more than 50 people at The St. Regis Hotel for Starwood Preferred Guest's "Hear The Music, See The World" series, where Monáe might have been expected to mail it in (or, at least, relax a little given the size of the crowd). Instead, her performance of hits like "Tightrope" played with just as much energy as we saw on her network television debut, when she sang her heart out and danced like her feet were on fire a top David Letterman's desk.
It's too easy to look through Monáe's interviews and call her apathetic or wonder if she might literally be a robot. There's a certain brilliance to the way she carries herself, and depicts her very specific vision of what it means to be an artist right now. She may well never explain what she means by being "part-android" or any other aspect of her intentionally enigmatic public persona, but we can easily understand her passion, intelligence and talent. All the other stuff? Well, as she put it in her own words (during an interview with Pride magazine): "I won't allow myself to be a slave to my own interpretation of myself nor the interpretations that people may have of me. I just live my life, and people can feel free to discuss whatever it is that they think and use whatever adjectives they feel. It's a free country."