I had honestly given up on Janelle Monáe’s potential as a popstar a few years back when I first heard her single “Yoga” on the radio. She’s proven to be a talented screen actor since, via roles in Moonlight & Hidden Figures, but there was something dispiriting about “Yoga” that made me lose interest in her music career. It’s not an especially horrendous pop song or anything. I even mildly enjoy it. It was just disappointing to hear a persona once tied up in the weirdo A.I. sci-fi themes of early releases like 2007’s Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) deliver an anonymous pop song about letting your booty “do that yoga,” an adequate tune that could’ve been sung by anyone. I imagine it was the equivalent of longtime David Bowie fans feeling alienated by the relatively personality-free stylings of the objectively-enjoyable “Let’s Dance” in 1983. Like those disenchanted Bowie devotees before me, I was wrong to lose faith in Monáe so easily. Not only did the sci-fi themes of her early career eventually reemerge in her work, they came back louder, brighter, and more undeniably fun than ever. And as a wonderful bit of lagniappe, they also came back queer as fuck.
Janelle Monáe publicly came out as pansexual in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine. This announcement coincided with the release of her latest record, Dirty Computer, and its accompanying visual album, Dirty Computer: An Emotion Picture. A fifty-minute narrative film stringing together an anthology of music videos with a dystopian sci-fi wraparound, the Dirty Computer “emotion picture” delivers on the genre film undertones promised in Monáe’s early pop music career while also advancing the visual album as a medium to a new modern high. We already litigated the value of the long-form music video as cinema here when we covered Girl Walk//All Day as a Movie of the Month selection in the wake of Lemonade’s release in 2016. Dirty Computer easily earns its place among the best examples of that visual album medium by both adapting it to a clearly discernible narrative that unifies its anthology template and by feeling exceptionally personal to the artist behind it. There are seven different directors listed as having collaborated on individual segments of Dirty Computer, but Monáe clearly stands out as the auteur of the project. It’s even billed as “an emotion picture by Janelle Monáe” on the poster. A large part of that auteuism is how the film works as an expression of Monáe’s newly public identity as a queer black woman navigating an increasingly hostile world that targets Others in her position.
Monáe stars as Jane 57821 (not to be confused with THX 1138), a bisexual rebel whose group of friends & lovers have been abducted by a tyrannical future-government for conformity-encouraging brainwashing. In a cruel twist of pure malice, it’s her own previously-brainwashed girlfriend (played by longtime Monáe collaborator and all-around talent Tessa Thompson) who’s tasked with walking her through the mysterious, scientific process that drains her of her vitality & sexuality, essentially leaving her a living robot. This scenario reads like a sci-fi expression of conversion therapy anxiety, to a point where the tyrannical government facility, The House of the New Dawn, is literally draining the gay out of her in tubes of rainbow ooze. The music video tangents featured in the film are presented as memories that the facility is deleting one at a time. Through these stylized flashbacks we see a harsh contrast between the lifeless, oppressed world the government offers and the gorgeous, nonstop party Jane was living with a community of outsiders before they were broken up & captured by police drones. The world’s rebel Others appear to be a Warriors-style collection of varied factions: Bowies, punks, Holy Mountain freaks, Beetlegeese, etc. They party in a swirl of heavy leather, drag makeup, and glittered-up naked flesh that calls into question what’s memory and what’s fantasy. The drone-equipped future-police intrude in each vignette, along with Tessa Thompson’s character (and the couple’s masculine third), to establish a clearly discernible narrative through-line with a Blade Runner/Logan’s Run sci-fi throwback bent.
Like many examples of classic sci-fi, Dirty Computer gets a lot of mileage out of establishing its own futuristic terminology. In the evil future-government’s parlance, social Others are “dirty,” while all people are “computers,” devices that can be “cleaned” and made more useful. Monáe is clearly invested in challenging this kind of constrictive labeling through the film’s conversion therapy metaphor. The music videos read as aggressive challenges to the societal & governmental oppression that she faces as a queer black woman (from the South no less). She sings of being “highly melanated’ and of how “Everything is sex except sex, which is power.” Some tracks include studio collaborations with the since-deceased Prince, which can be heard just as clearly in the synths & guitars as it can be seen in Monáe’s weaponized, politicized expressions of race & sexuality. (At one point she appears in floral vagina pants that would make Georgia O’Keeffe blush; this film is anything but subtle.) I don’t know if I’ve seen or heard such a clear Prince descendant in a major pop star since Beyoncé’s fabulously filthy music video for “Blow.” I was a fool for giving up on Monáe so easily after a brief experience with hearing “Yoga” on the radio. With the recent losses of both Bowie and Prince, her mainstream exposure as a neon-lit queer icon feels like a beacon of hope in the grimmest times Western culture’s seen in decades. The fact that she chose to broadcast that beacon through a long-form, sci-fi themed music video about queer rebels who like to party might just be my favorite thing she’s done in her career to date, even with the awkward “emotion picture” branding.