I'll be honest with you: I had not heard of Janelle Monáe before this morning. I didn't know it, but I've seen her on TV before. Her music isn't something I would run across in my normal course.
But, she did something cool this week.
"I am a dirty computer..."
The release of her new album, Dirty Computer, is accompanied with the release of a narrative short film. It begins:
They started calling us computers. People began vanishing, and the cleaning began. You were dirty if you looked different. You were dirty if you refused to live the way they dictated. You were dirty if you showed any opposition at all. And if you were dirty... it was only a matter of time.
Indeed, the world it portrays is a dystopian place where counterculture represents "bugs" in your programming. Janelle begins the piece playing the part of one of these "dirty computers", having been designated Jane 57821, who is brought in for 1984-style re-education, which consists of things like the selective deletion of unsuitable memories, and the guidance of a "torch", who leads the way "from the darkness to the light".
Songs from the album are featured in flashbacks and clips from the "unsuitable" memories. The music itself ranges from tender to playful to dead-serious, and spans a wide range from R&B to pop, sometimes with throwback homages to Prince or Cyndi Lauper-style feel-good 80's music.
The imagery is aesthetically pleasing... vivid and colorful. It was mesmerizing and hard to look away at times. The lyrics, however, are not always so playful. In one album's worth of work, she deals with racism and blackness, patriotism, feminism and inequality, sexuality and freedom of LGBT and queer expression... she pulls no punches, and nothing is too sacred.
I get the feeling she's subtly hinting at some sort of symbolism here...
Concept art and media fusion
I'm becoming a fan of this mixed-media concept art. This thing is put together incredibly well, and what she's trying to say comes through to me far more effectively through the combination of the story and the music than it could have as an album alone.
I've seen artists do this before, like with the Year Zero "alternate reality game" that I was obsessed with for weeks back in the day. It's a Hard Thing to do and takes considerable amounts of talent and collaboration, but I wish more artists would dip their toes into this pool.
It seems to me that movies are a medium where people are more willing to step outside of their normal boundaries than they are with musical tastes - as an album alone, I likely never would have run across this, but presented to the world as a short film (and, I'm a sucker for a dystopian), I had a few minutes to give it a look-see.
Albert Camus said that "Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth". It's one of my favorite quotes, but it only touches on the notion of why fiction can actually be more effective at moving people than events in the world that have actually happened. There's something about the combination of aesthetics in the color schemes and the near-magic of music that puts our brains in a mode of being receptive to the message that comes along with it.
Janelle Monáe and her production team exploited this quite aptly, and I enjoyed it.
You can watch the short film in its entirety here on Youtube (content warning: contains nudity, sexual content, alcohol).