#soundcheck x afropunk fest ’12 – janelle monáe’s elaborate sci-fi world: a look inside metropolis

August 6, 2012

Science-fiction has always been the haven for misfits. You can create a world where the bullshit of our modern era is either mostly figured out, or has deteriorated to a point where there’s no choice but to solve it immediately. And whether dystopian (The Matrix), utopian (Star Trek) or pragmatic (Foundation series), sci-fi enables those of us who never easily fit in anywhere to imagine a world in which we do fit. Or at least one in which we understand the rules. So it makes total sense that one of the most difficult to classify artists of the last decade, Janelle Monáe, has made her career spinning an elaborate sci-fi story through her music.

Inspired by Fritz Lang’s nearly-lost 1927 sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis, Janelle Monáe’s music tells the story of Cindi Mayweather; an android sent back in time to save the citizens of Metropolis. Her story has unfolded over the course of her 2007 EP Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), and her 2010 full length ArchAndroid (Suites II and III). Like David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character, and George Clinton’s Dr. Funkenstein, Janelle’s Cindi is a non-human loosely based on herself that allows her to explore feelings of otherness and alienation. Cindi was created in the year 2719 to a highly stratified society (like the workers / thinkers of Lang’s Metropolis, the Capitol / Districts of the Hunger Games, or you know, the world we currently actually live in). After falling in love with a human, Cindi is “scheduled for immediate disassembly,” and goes on the run. She later becomes a sort of Neo “The One” character, destined be the mediator between the haves and have-nots of Metropolis.

The idea of a mediator is probably Monáe’s biggest debt to Fritz Lang, inspired by the line “the mediator between head and hands must be the heart” from Metropolis. Her conception of robots seems to be more descended from Isaac Asimov’s 3 Rules with little bits of Data from Star Trek‘s longing for humanity, partly filtered through the robots from the Matrix‘s point of view. Like her music itself, which combines pretty much every conceivable genre and sound, the mythology she creates borrows from and references nearly every sci-fi universe from the last century.

Though she wears her influences on her sleeve, this is no mere mash-up. Janelle Monáe traces her musical and storytelling heritage not to one musical tradition but to the entire panoply of music and science fiction that’s come before her. It’s a bold move that flies in the face of the last 30 years of pop music stratification. At the risk of completely oversimplifying, pretty much since the music industry in the 70’s drew battle lines between dance music (disco), raw emotional music (punk), and heady music (prog), most artists have stayed behind their lines; preferring to be marketable than adventurous.
ArchAndroidespecially is astounding just for how wide the influences are. “Cold War” appropriates the beat to “Bombs Over Baghdad” for an uplifting synth-pop anthem, while “Oh, Maker” merges Simon and Garfunkel folk-rock with 2000’s RnB. Throughout the record there are hints of classic film music, and jazz torch songs. She creates a world where the legendary Ella/Duke collaboration involved more drum machines and epic guitar solos.

Her everything-and-the-kitchen-sink aesthetic calls back to the long-gone days when the sort of smash hits that everyone could agree on were a regular event and not an anomaly. It doesn’t matter with what group you identify, if you like music (and I’m curious why you’re reading this, if you don’t…) you like at least one song on Thriller and Purple Rain. We’ve seen increasing stratification in music to the point where genres exist to define one groundbreaking band and the thousands who sound exactly like them. (Don’t get me wrong, I actually like Thursday’s Full Collapse a lot, but I just don’t need an entire subculture of copycat bands.) Just look at how many hyphens are needed to explain where Monáe’s music fits in the 21st century pantheon when really, one syllable should do: pop. In a way, like Cindi Mayweather, Janelle Monáe is a mediator herself. But not between factions of society; she’s the mediator between genres. The heart that binds her brawny beats and the heady concepts she layers on top of them.
Rumor has it Janelle is coming out with 2 releases later in 2012. Will one of these be the originally planned Suite IV? Will she take the George Clinton route, spending the rest of her career exploring Metropolis? Or will Cindi be only one of many persona’s she’ll adopt through her career like her “Make the Bus” collaborator Kevin Barnes from Of Montreal? As long as she continues to make music as compelling and unique as ArchAndroid, will it matter?
For the uninitiated, definitely check out Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Because it was re-edited for the American release, cutting half of the original footage, the original cut may be lost forever. There are a few decent versions floating around. Chances are good Janelle’s fixation came from the Georgio Maroder (Donna Summers’ [link to ]musical soul-mate) reconstruction from 1984. It’s definitely a good place to start, if incredibly 80’s-tastic. There’s also a reconstructed version from 2010 with the original score and some newly rediscovered footage. It’s still incomplete, but much closer to Lang’s original cut.
Janelle Monáe will be playing the 2012 Afropunk Festival. More details are available here.

– Words by Nathan Leigh