“Electric Ladies”: Janelle Monae

Sometimes, when the winter skies are gray and you need some cheering up, a music video is just the ticket. And Janelle Monae—spiritual heir to Prince and acclaimed musician—is a speculative artist who can cheer you up and make you think all in one catchy beat. Most recently, her music video “Pynk” has made waves for its unabashed embrace of all things—or one very particular thing—woman. But the larger album, Dirty Computer, is accompanied by an extended “emotion video,” which, as Aja Romano of Vox explains, brings Monae’s examination and revisioning of classic science-fiction narrative “to a head.”

Monae is fascinated by the body of speculative fiction, especially that of Philip K. Dick (her music videos feature locales such as the Electric Sheep nightclub and one of her many acting gigs has been in the anthology series based on Dick’s work, Electric Dreams). She argues that the “android represents the new ‘other’.” As such, her android characters (including her own persona of Cindi Mayweather) fight against rigid and stifling Bladerunner-esque societies. They weather, as it were, oppression to emerge triumphant with music and dance (again, the Vox article is a fascinating analysis of the cumulative narrative of her work). This call to rebel is grounded in the explicit rhetoric of race, gender, and sexuality as Monae navigates the dystopian landscape of contemporary privilege. This privilege extends to the male-centric visions of Dick. Monae’s lyrics free android women from male gaze and male control: “Will you be electric sheep? / Electric ladies, will you sleep? / Or will you preach?”

Before you check out the 48-minute-long emotion video—the word itself overlaying the often male-dominated field of motion pictures with a term typically denigrated as feminine—check out these videos and brighten your day.

Q.U.E.E.N.: Enemies of the state who dared to use music as a weapon are frozen in a museum where they are on display for gawking tourists. But they won’t stay trapped for long. In a possible reference to Shakespeare, Monae sings “I heard this life is just a play with no rehearsal.” Which calls to mind another Shakespearean quote: “If music be the food of love, play on” (Twelfth Night).

Tightrope: Questioning the mental health establishment, Monae advocates dance as magic, a cure for what ails you.

Many Moons: The video depicts an android auction, an eerily-upscale version of a slave auction, at which Cindi Mayweather is performing. The lyrics make frequent references to America’s own dark history of slavery and its consequences. A title screen at the end reimagines Mayweather as an abolitionist leading slaves to freedom: “I imagined many moons in the sky lighting the way to freedom.”

Primetime: Janelle Monae plays the manager of the Electric Sheep nightclub, where she must navigate her own romance while fighting off the untoward advances of older white men who have gathered to watch the android dancers.

As a whole, Monae’s work seeks to elevate women of color and to expand and complicate what it means to be a woman at all. She uses classic sci-fi tropes as an effective means by which to do so, uncovering many of the white and masculine assumptions we so often take for granted. The lyrics of “Django Jane” boil much of this criticism down into one song with a plethora of references to the industry of Hollywood, the title itself an implicit criticism of less-successful rewritings of history. As Monae argues in the song, “We gave you life, we gave you birth / We gave you God, we gave you Earth, /We fem the future…”