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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Janelle Monae: Contemporary Queen of Science Fiction

Science fiction is just an exciting and new way of telling universal stories and it allows the reader to come to the conclusion and draw parallels between the present and the future. I don’t think we enjoy when people remind us, today, this is what’s going on in the world. You know, sometimes we’re so used to hearing that this is what’s happening right now that we become numb to it. So when you take it out of this world, [people] will come to the conclusions themselves.
I think it’s important: whatever way you can get the audience’s attention to listen to your message, a strong message at that, then by any means. I think science fiction does that. --Janelle Monae 
I imagined many moons in the sky lighting the way to freedom. --Cindi Mayweather

My second article ever for Storming the Ivory Tower was about Lady Gaga--specifically about the video for Bad Romance and the implications of its science fiction stylings. It pretty much set the tone, framing narrative/persona, and purpose of the blog, and it also led to a whole string of articles on Gaga over the next few years--what her videos have to say symbolically, narratively, and thematically, and how they fit into wider popular culture.

But I'm bringing it up today not because of any of that nonsense but because of the particular conversation I spun out of it on pop music and science fiction which arguably spanned across these four articles. See, I was partly inspired in my analysis by an article (which I can't find now, unfortunately) that suggested that Gaga was one of the most significant voices in contemporary science fiction. That notion fascinated me because up till that point I had generally seen different media treated as fundamentally segregated from each other--you wouldn't see a list of the best Sci Fi stories of all time including a concept album, a short story, a novel, a live action movie, a TV series, and an anime all listed together. You still wouldn't, I think.

That segregation might go a long way to explaining why rapper and R&B musician Janelle Monae is not known to more fans of speculative fiction. Explains, but not excuses, because Monae should probably be crowned High Queen of the Geeks. How can I justify a statement that hyperbolic when a whole segment of my audience has almost certainly never heard of Monae? Well, just for starters, literally everything she's put out has involved a lengthy story involving this character:

Meet Cindi Mayweather, the Alpha Platinum 9000 android: your new Queen.

Let's recap Monae's story as it currently stands. Cindi Mayweather is an android in a dystopian future city--Metropolis--who falls in love with the human Anthony Greendown, and is consequently sentenced to destruction. Cindi isn't going down without a fight, though, and across (so far) one EP and two albums Monae's relayed the story of her rise as a symbol of resistance for other droids... and the realization of her destiny as the savior-figure The Archandroid.

Now, what makes Monae's project so remarkable is not simply the subject matter, or even the sheer dedication of such a massive, multi-album project. No, it's the sheer success of the project that strikes me as remarkable.

Science fiction concept albums are not new. I've covered the at turns remarkably silly and remarkably moving Ziltoid the Omniscient before on here, and Styx's Kilroy Was Here is fairly well known if only for the overture to the album, Mr Roboto. The multi-album and multi-comic project Coheed and Cambria is on my listening/reading list after a number of VERY passionate people on Tumblr told me I should check it out.

But those projects, and concept albums in general, tend to make some sort of tradeoff between story and music. I mean, look, I cut my teeth on progressive rock and before that I listened mostly to showtunes. Give me a bombastic, semi-coherent storyline about the power of ROCK and I'm there.

But the fact of the matter is that concept albums tend to either be super hard to follow because the music is emphasized over the coherency of the narrative, or the music gets a bit narmy because the band is trying to convey a whole narrative via people singing their entire motivations and actions, or both get real goofy because they're just trying to do too much at once and it falls apart. Like, as much as I dearly love The Wall, the fourth side of the album barely holds together musically outside of a handful of solid songs (the most notable exception being, of course, Run Like Hell). Ziltoid the Omniscient dodges some of these problems by being overtly silly, but Devin Townsend's lyrics are so abstract that it's sometimes difficult to figure out what the hell he's talking about or what the hell is happening.

The project closest to Monae's Metropolis series might be Kamelot's retelling of the Faust story across two albums, Epica and The Black Halo, and while both albums are amazing and have some of the flat out best metal tracks ever, as a story... well, most of The Black Halo is just Faustian stand in Ariel moping about complaining to himself. The songs are all GREAT but the story isn't exactly charging dramatically forward, and it gets to the point where you just wish he'd shut up and get in the giant robot, regardless of his lousy relationship with his father Gendo and I'm sorry what were we talking about again?

Monae's three discs are exceptional largely because they dodge these problems entirely by building a network of symbols, motifs, bits of information about the world, and so on. The structure of the narrative is semi-nonlinear, each song does not necessarily correspond to a particular story beat and what song corresponds to what story beat in what context can change (as we'll see with the song Many Moons in a moment). Monae accepts the advantages that come from nonlinearity--it's not just a stylistic affectation but the embracing of a modernist creative technology for a more traditional purpose.

There is likewise a fluidity to Monae's operation. The symbolic and the literal blend together in ways that make it difficult to separate the artist from her invention. For example, Penny Arcade's Andrew Groen seems to recognize, to his credit, that something exceptional at work here, but still cites this strange slippage between Monae and Cindi as "uncomfortable."

This strikes me as missing the plot, somewhat. What makes Monae's work effective is the way she mobilizes science fiction tropes in order to comment upon life as it is lived now. This is something which we might expect from all speculative fiction but which is sometimes (particularly when the lives being analyzed are those of the "Other," as Monae is fond of putting it) treated as an intrusion of external concerns, rather than a realization of the genre's purpose. The fluidity of the narrative and the way in which artist and creation blend is one of the great strengths of the project, because it allows Monae to string together the dense network of allusions and references that make the work consistently rewarding to return to. (And credit where credit is due, Monae's working here in a long hip hop tradition of layered meaning and complex allusions.)

The story of Cindi Mayweather is intriguing precisely because of its applicability--a term I'll borrow freely from Tolkien as a stand in for allegory. Cindi Mayweather as the Other can represent queer folk, women, people of color, immigrants, folks with disabilities of various sorts... anyone shut out and othered, transformed into something other than human, by society.

So when Monae slips in and out of her Cindi Mayweather persona like a misaligned hologram, she's not losing track of her narrative, she's revealing the fundamental applicability and fluidity of that narrative, and the way that narrative refracts across time and space. It's the very slippage that makes her purpose clear, although the multifaceted nature of that purpose never feels one note or repetitive. Is that uncomfortable? Well, yeah, I guess if you're expecting an escapist story about cyborgs, sure, suddenly getting hit with a discussion of poverty and segregation in present day Kansas City would be kinda uncomfortable. But it's a discomfort that is profoundly valuable.

And I need to stress here that I'm doing nothing in the way of analysis at this point. This is all shit that Monae herself talks about. This is an artist that absolutely, positively, knows her stuff and can articulate some extremely complex ideas born of half a century of theory in the context of over a century's science fiction traditions. She's jumbling Critical Race Theory with Phillip K Dick allusions (so many god damn Phillip K Dick allusions), the fight for queer rights with the Three Laws of Robotics, and discussion of the Technological Singularity and the inevitability of hard AI with lines straight from Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

Like, the level at which she's working is the level someone like Grant Morrison is working at, you know? She just happens to be blending the geek cred stuff with a deep and intimate knowledge of R&B and hip hop and civil rights struggles in America, rather than blending it with white 60s counterculture, psychadelia, and conspiracy theories.

I wasn't kidding when I said this is a multi-stage refraction across time and space. Monae is a proponent of time travel and it shows. Do the names have a touch of Arthurian Romance in their ring? Well Janelle plays that to the hilt, dubbing her male lead "Sir Greendown" in one song title, and placing the climax of Suite 3 on the achingly beautiful 57821, which is a straight up folk ballad that wouldn't feel out of place in a tale of knights and princesses, if not for the allusions to binary code and The Matrix, and talk of holograms and serial numbers.

Oh, and of course there's the way she plays with the gender binaries of the genre, Anthony Greendown declaring to his lover, "I saved you so you'd save the world," acknowledging that his role as knight is to facilitate Cindi's own quest, rather than an act of heroism that will conclude the story. And, in fact, the narrative of Suite 3 concludes, as far as I can tell, with the two fleeing, going their separate ways in order to hide from Droid Control. But again, this is conveyed through this net of allusions, with the muffled choral sounds of romantic movies of the 1940s overlaid onto a lick from Claude Debussey, all in the context of Buddhist spirituality and Abrahamic mythology serving as metaphor for their separation and it's all beautiful and heartbreaking and brilliant and way, way too much to deal with emotionally and I cannot believe more people aren't freaking out continuously about the sheer brilliance on display here.

The work is no less valuable and rewarding for the sheer breadth of her source material. In fact, her work, like that of her sometime collaborator Saul Williams who does some of the same stuff and deserves some of the same attention, was valuable to me personally as a path to material that I was unfamiliar with. Was it out of my comfort zone? Well, considering my usual listening choices, yeah, I'd bloody well say so! But my life is absolutely enriched by having that gateway to parts of culture that I'd otherwise remain largely ignorant of.

But fine, this is a pitch and y'all haven't heard the albums yet so let's talk specifics. Here's the video for Many Moons, which unfortunately doesn't exist in any really particularly good HD version at the moment, but is probably my favorite Janelle Monae video so far:

So ok, we've got a big glitzy droid auction. In the first few moments of the film we get to see a whole cast of characters that exist largely to flesh out the world, and man is it an interesting world. We've got the folks involve in the show, including a droid and a hologram:

We've got a crime lord:

And a tech dandy with vampire teeth, that's pretty fucking Cyberpunk:

These guys, who are "punk prophets" apparently:

And the corrupt head of the "Metropolis Polis:"

A lot of the video is just these characters interaction, so we've essentially just got a slew of worldbuilding stuff, a bunch of windows into the world in which Cindi Mayweather exists. It's great because this introductory bit contextualizes what's to come in a way not that different from what Gaga was doing with her own video for Bad Romance (as far as I can tell, a year AFTER this video was first produced!)--these are predominantly men (although some women do show up later!) bidding on androids who are, nevertheless, provided some sort of glamour (as Cindi's transformation early in the video reveals) to appear as black female bodies. So there's some interesting subtext there (like barely even subtext really).

But on top of that it contextualizes certain reactions and interactions later. Like the moment when Chung Knox outbids 6ix Savage, seemingly out of arrogance and spite more than anything else:

It doesn't work out so well for him:

But that provides this interesting window into the world as well because not only do we learn a bit by implication about who Chung Knox is as a character (through body language and visual coding rather than language!) and, more importantly, we learn that Savage is totally willing to use Metropolis city resources to throw his weight around and assert his primacy. This is important later when Cindi Mayweather gets like... like...

...well, it's not clear what exactly is going on at the end of the video. It seems to be something mystical, certainly, but what exactly Cindi is seeing and what its origins are are left somewhat ambiguous. In the video for Tightrope dancing is treated as a source of mystical power, and maybe that's what's happening here--Cindi's dancing unlocks some higher spiritual power. This is seemingly reinforced by this little bit with this little bit with Deep Cotton:

Note that we never see them actually participating in the auction. They seem to just be there to observe. Do they have some premonition of what's to come? Maybe, but they certainly seem taken aback by what they're seeing!

Not as much as 6ix Savage though, who regards the whole scene with surprise and then a kind of understated alarm. Something's going on here that he doesn't understand, but the tension in his body suggests that whatever's happening, he doesn't like it:

The aesthetics of this bit play a big role in our sense of something transcendent happening. There's some great eerie moments in this sequence, my personal favorite being the veiled droids with glowing eyes:

It's amazing how this ending sequence feels clearly alien despite the already unfamiliar setting. Aesthetics and sound cues are used to emphasize that what we're seeing is out of the ordinary even for inhabitants of Metropolis.

Those kind of cues are also used earlier in the video. Consider the heavy use of montage during Monae/Mayweather's spoken word sequence. This is exactly what I was describing earlier--the world of Cindi Mayweather is merging with our contemporary world, and with the world of the past--civil rights, world wars, the achievements of past artists... all are blended together. This is as good a time as any I suppose to note that Many Moons on the EP The Chase does not occupy the same story space as depicted in this video. The Chase features Cindi fleeing from Droid Control after her love affair with Anthony Greendown is discovered, whereas this seems to take place much further back in her storyline, during the growth of her awareness of her position in society and the possibility of a social revolution. It's interesting to note that in this sequence Cindi is complicit in her exploitation and the exploitation of the other droids. "You're free but in your mind/your freedom's in a bind," yeah?

Anyway, this montage is mirrored in a montage within the lyrics:

Civil rights, civil war
Hood rat, crack whore
Carefree, nightclub
Closet drunk, bathtub
Outcast, weirdo
Stepchild, freak show
Black girl, bad hair
Broad nose, cold stare
Tap shoes, Broadway
Tuxedo, holiday
Creative block, Love song
Stupid words, erase song
Gun shots, orange house
Dead man walking with a dirty mouth
Spoiled milk, stale bread
Welfare, bubonic plague
Record deal, light bulb
Keep back kid now corporate thug
Breast cancer, common cold
HIV, lost hope
Overweight, self esteem
Misfit, broken dream
Fish tank, small bowl
Closed mind, dark hold
Cybergirl, droid control
Get away now they trying to steal your soul
Microphone, one stage
Tomboy, outrage
Street fight, bloody war
Instigators, third floor
Promiscuous child, broken dream
STD, quarantine
Heroin user, coke head
Final chapter, death bed
Plastic sweat, metal skin
Metallic tears, mannequin
Carefree, night club
Closet drunk, bathtub
White house, Jim Crow
Dirty lies, my regards

That's a lot to digest but what we've got here is essentially the ultimate example of this slippage between Monae and Mayweather. Contemporary experiences of othering from a female, queer, and black perspective are juxtaposed with her sci fi setting.

And within the setting itself these tropes are endlessly recycled, because that is what we do as human beings:

I love this. Emily Empire, the giant model industrial model android, is given this name that signifies everything about the late 19th/early 20th century American global domination and imperial ambitions that were reflected in architecture and art and helped to inspire Fritz Lang's Metropolis. She's going to the roots of her own source material, wheeling backward through time and exposing in the process a coopting of black female power for the purposes of empire. (Also can we talk about how the very-obviously-bisexual woman who earlier prompts her partner to bid on a particularly sexy model is totally into the giantess thing? It's those little touches, I tell ya.)

Monae's work is full of stuff like this and yet...

For some reason...

It hasn't gotten the attention it deserves. Sure, there've been a FEW articles on a FEW geek culture sites plugging her work but nowhere near the kind of reaction that I'd frankly expect to see. And considering Many Moons came out in 2008, there's been ample time for Monae to be given the same treatment that Gaga received.

I've already touched on some of the reasons why this might be the case, but there's more to dig into with that topic, so that's where we're going to continue next week: with a discussion of the barriers in geek culture to this sort of work getting broader attention and acclaim, and how we might begin dismantling those barriers.

Until next week... my regards.

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