When Janelle Monáe’s new album, The Electric Lady, began streaming last week, I urged you all to listen to it if you care about Afro-futurism, delicious pop music, and in particular, science-fiction world-building. Monáe’s spent years spinning elaborate fantasies about the adventures of a robot named Cindi Mayweather who’s a leader in a movement to gain full societal acceptance for androids, a mission that’s taken her from fashion catwalks, to stylish asylums, to the clubs of a fictional city called Metropolis.
But she isn’t alone. Robyn, the Swedish pop star who transformed herself from teenbop bait to indie dance sensation when she went out on her own with a titular album released through her own independent label in 2005, has also repeatedly invoked robot imagery, whether she’s imagining herself as a high-capacity Fembot or contemplating being left at home by a work-obsessed robot boyfriend. And the robots that Monáe and Robyn have conjured into being aren’t just, as Monáe suggested in an interview with the AV Club, flexible metaphors for the oppressions experienced by various groups of people who have been defined as the other. They’re terrific stand-ins for the challenge of being a particular kind of ambitious young woman.
The robots in question look perfect. In her videos, Monáe’s androids are impeccably dressed and coifed, whether they’re wearing tuxedoes, riding habits and helmets, black-and-white striped dresses, or rockstar furs. Robyn’s “Fembot” is “a very scientificly advanced hot mama / Artificially discreet, no drama / Digitaly chic titanium armor.” It’s always been something of a joke about the lack of sexual success of geeks that men building robots would bake their fantasies into the plastic and metal. But for Robyn and Monáe, too, being an android or a fembot means being a perfected woman, perhaps without the requirement that you have to style your tin-foil hair every morning.
And for both Monáe and Robyn, robots are hyper-competent. Androids, in the vast science fictional world Monáe is building, are rebel leaders, artists capable of concealing revolutionary messages in music, paintings, and visuals, and capable of traveling through time. That capacity, for her, involves responsibility: as Monáe demands at the end of one track on The Electric Lady, “Will you be electric sheep? / Electric ladies, will you sleep? / Or will you preach?” And just as she did in the boastful track “Curriculum Vitae” that kicked off Robyn in 2005, in “Fembot,” on the 2010 album Body Talk, Robyn took listeners on a tour through her technical specifications, explaining that she is “Fresh out of box, the latest model / Generator running on full throttle / Can I get a fuel up? Hit the bottle / (Reboot) / I’ve got a lotta automatic booty applications / Got a CPU maxed out sensation / Looking for a droid to man my station.” To be a robot is to take pleasure in everything you’re capable of doing, to refuse to diminish yourself for anyone else’s comfort.
But there are hints of danger and disappointment in operating at full capacity all the time. When Robyn takes on the persona of a woman dating a robot in her collaboration with Royksopp, “The Girl and the Robot,” rather than a fembot enjoying her full capacities, she finds herself left behind. “I go mental every time you leave for work,” the song begins plaintively. “You never seem to know when to stop / I never know when you’ll return / I’m in love with a robot.” And “Fembot” may be a boast about Robyn’s capabilities, but it keeps returning to a similar idea: “I’ve got some news for you / Fembots have feelings too / You split my heart in two / Now what you gonna do?” Modern technology may provide robots with gleaming, impregnable chrome outsides, but what’s inside can still be squishy–you can’t make a robot enjoy sex and capable of falling in love without increasing the complexity of her source code, a product that seems to involve an added risk of vulnerability.
And the stakes aren’t just emotional: in Monáe’s short film for “Many Moons,” her alter ego Cindi Mayweather burns herself at the height of a frenetic performance. And for all her capacities, the advent of the apocalypse or the special capacities that come with being an android don’t seem to eliminate mundane up-and-coming lady concerns. “She’s so freaked out worrying about the bomb but / You bought a house but I’m allergic to the house pets / Credit cards / They bought a new wife for shiny little lonely men,” Monáe sings in “Dance Apocalyptic,” putting home ownership, wife-shopping, and a zombie outbreak in the same litany of woes. On “Q.U.E.E.N.,” a track that slyly walks around the question of Monáe’s sexuality, Monáe poses the question of divine acceptance in the language of robotic code, asking: “Will he approve the way I’m made? / Or should I reprogram the programming and get down?” Amping up your capacities to deal with the world doesn’t actually eliminate the dilemmas of living in it, whether you’re working to force massive political and social change, trying to find a good place to live, or worrying about divine sanction for the very things that make you remarkable.
Having it all is hard even if you’re a robot revolutionary with access to a truly fantastic wardrobe. And the complications of modern life that Robyn and Monáe have explored so cannily in their music don’t even get at a significant, unspoken factor they’re leaving out. Robots are sterile, which means that Cindi Mayweather and Robyn’s fembots aren’t going to face some of the work-life balance issues that the flesh-and-blood women who count themselves among their admirers do. Being an android or a fembot might be a convenient fantasy for young women anxious about the prospect of an accidental pregnancy and the way it could interfere with their professional ambitions and unfettered pursuit of their personal lives, but it also raises the prospect of not being able to get pregnant when you’re ready for a family.
That’s a lot to deal with, even with a high-end central processing unit. Is it any wonder that, as Monáe tells Miguel on their sumptuous duet “Primetime,” “Tonight is me and you alone / Won’t make a call, won’t even write a song,” or that Robyn would tell a lover whose affections threaten her integrity much in the same way that a hard drive might be vulnerable, that, despite the risk “I’m gonna love you like I’ve never been hurt before / I’m gonna love you like I’m indestructible.” Electric ladies and fembots may have more capacities and better armor than our mothers. But that doesn’t make us invulnerable.