Q.U.E.E.N. and the Ruling Class

Further cementing my opinion that Janelle Monae is an important lady, the video for “Q.U.E.E.N.” was released this week.

Monáe and her crew (including Erykah Badu as “Badoula Oblongata”) have been frozen and preserved as dangerous rebels who disguised freedom movements “in songs, motion pictures, and works of art,” but come to life when two girls start to play “Q.U.E.E.N.” on a record player. We find out later that the rebellion is class-oriented (“They be like “ooh let them eat cake”/ but we eat wings and throw them bones on the ground”), and the crime in the rebellion is artistic expression. Monáe starts by wearing an authoritative fringe suit (rebel gear), but periodically switches to a striped dress that (nearly) matches her backup dancers. Every time she wears the same dress as her backup dancers, their hair (which was previously different on each woman) turns to the same short trim cut. It’s a commentary on individuality (which should be hammered in by the line “am I a freak?”), because while they are all conforming for brief, sporadic periods, Monáe’s dress is still slightly different, with longer sleeves and different stripe placement. I didn’t catch that until I viewed the video for the second or third time, so it’s a subtle but important reminder that even when we appear to conform, it’s kind of an impossibility.

Monáe’s dialogue at the end (“They keep us underground working hard for the greedy, But when it’s time pay they turn around and call us needy”) is part of her well-documented acknowledgment of class struggles, and the video is a celebration of art-as-social-rebellion (think of the man on the typewriter: “We will create and destroy art movements in ten years”). Monae also asks “will you be electric sheep/ electric ladies, will you sleep?”, which is a reference to Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Monáe has previously fashioned herself as the android Cindi Mayweather as a statement on alienation, so the electric sheep who dreams of the android is the person who strives for individuality.

The struggle for individuality and the lower class are pretty closely intertwined, as the symbols of the lower class (Monáe’s uniform tuxedo, for example) are largely based on the stripping of singularity and the focus on servitude. Monáe wears her suit (at the end of the video) to pay tribute to the serving class that she came from, but subverts the meaning of the suit by being a rebellious individual. For her, the suit is a fraction of the past that she keeps with her, and a symbol of solidarity to those who remain in the same position. The “Q.U.E.E.N.” video is largely a tribute to those class struggles, and an affirmation that it’s something that’s important to her.