It’s not quite as aggressively science fictional as her phenomenal video about a droid auction-slash-rock-concert for “Many Moons,” which she released more than four years ago, but the video for Janelle Monae’s excellent collaboration with Erykah Badu “Q.U.E.E.N.” is a reminder of just how important her contributions to science fiction — as well as to music — have been since she broke out onto the national scene:
Monae is hardly the first musician to situate her musical persona in science fiction. Psychadelia gave us Jefferson Starship. George Clinton has a long and deep engagement with spaceship iconography and science fiction more broadly. On “Roses,” a caustic anti-love song with no other particularly science fictional elements from his The Love Below album, Andre 3000 entreated the woman being addressed in the track to “come back down to Mars.” When you read music as narrative fiction, locations beyond Earth and times far removed from ours are common settings. But in a few short years, and across multiple songs and videos, Monae has created a particularly coherent universe full of robots sold as luxury goods to decadent, exceedingly well-dressed droids and rebels, institutions that house revolutionary figures, some of whom can walk through walls, and electrifying musical performances.
And the coherence of her music video universe isn’t the only thing striking about Monae’s ouvre, or that marks her as a science fictional thinker. As I wrote on Wednesday, Hollywood tends to portray technology and our loss of control of it — or misuse of it — as a major factor in the creation of radically altered future. Monae’s music videos frequently operate from the premise that cultural tools are at least as powerful as technical or physical ones.
In the video for “Many Moons,” Cindi Mayweather, an android who Monae presents as an alter ego, gives an electrifying performance at an auction of extraordinarily expensive androids. Her music, which makes reference to a wide range of social and political issues, is initially treated as dance music for frenzied, regimented revelers. But when her performance literally shorts her out, what was intended as a classy backdrop to an ugly transaction disrupts it. The musician becomes an activist through her passionate dedication to her performance. In the introduction to “Q.U.E.E.N.” a voiceover explains that visitors are at a museum where revolutionaries who disrupted society with music have been archived for public consumption. They’re resurrected by a record snuck into the facility, which frees Monae’s character to ask questions that begin in the personal, like “Am I a freak for dancing around? / Am I a freak for getting down?” and move to the political: “I asked a question like this / ‘Are we a lost generation of our people?’ / Add us to equations but they’ll never make us equal. / She who writes the movie owns the script and the sequel. / So why ain’t the stealing of my rights made illegal? / They keep us underground working hard for the greedy, / But when it’s time pay they turn around and call us needy.”
Monae isn’t the only person with the idea that cultural power can create dramatic inflection points in the evolution of the future. Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit From The Goon Squad culminates in a concert by an artist who begins the book as an extraordinarily broken man and reemerges as a children’s musician. The concert starts as a marketing gig for one of the characters in the novel, but it turns into an astonishing experience that united two generations, one similar to the Millenials, and the one that followed, who have embraced digital communication but rejected drug use and tattoos. It’s an amazing conclusion to the novel in part because it’s strikingly different from much of what we see in science fiction in a number of ways: it’s set in the near-future instead of far off, it’s hopeful instead of apocalyptic, and it’s collective and artistic instead of individual and technological.
To a certain extent, the place where Egan ends is the one from which Monae blasts off. Given Monae’s extraordinarily precise sense of visual style, the concepts she’s pulled together and expressed with directors with a range of visual styles, and the way her lyrics would fit in larger narrative settings, I’d love to see what planet she’d land on if she had the opportunity to tell stories over 120 minutes instead of six of them.