MIXTAPE: Hardly the First Time

I don’t really have any good updates for you, as I’m the slowest mover ever and I’m trying to get my life together. I’m not really able to look people in the eye when they ask me how my progress is going, because, um… it’s not. My furniture was moved a week ago, so I’ve been sleeping on the floor since then. It’s been alright! Only a few carpet burns.

On a side note if you want any posters of bands I don’t care about anymore (and you live in the DFW area), you should hit me up. I have amassed a small collection of them, and my days in college radio are making it really hard for me to toss them.

Lots of features on this tape, right?

Hardly the First Time by Neophyteblog on Mixcloud

Tracklist:
1) Never Be Another feat. Devlin – Delilah
2) Without Me feat. Kelly Rowland and Missy Elliot – Fantasia
3) Take Care of Me Baby feat. Pusha T – Cassie
4) Fuck U All the Time feat. Natasha Mosely – Jeremih
5) Forget – Lianna La Havas
6) Do My Thing feat. Janelle Monae – Estelle
7) Terrible Angels – Charlotte Gainsbourg
8) Grammy – Purity Ring
9) Counting (Remix) feat. Mykki Blanco – Autre Ne Veut
10) Hard to Love Somebody feat. Nas – Arlissa

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.

Walking the Tightrope

I was originally going to write a post about androgyny in music videos, but when I was trying to use Janelle Monáe’s video for “Tightrope” as an example, I felt that it would be unfair for me to only spend a marginal amount of time on it.

There’s a distinct intersection between race, mental illness, femininity, and discomfort that all come to play in the span of a three minute video. It starts by declaring that it’s set in “The Palace of the Dogs” an asylum where “dancing has long been forbidden for its subversive effects on the residents and its tendency to lead to illegal magical practices.”

The dancers inside the asylum are all wearing tuxedos– a head-nod to the lack of identity in such institutions, as well as a subversion of the subordinant dynamic. Instead of a drab uniform, the tuxedos are an indicator of rebellion – a hold of dignity that the mentally ill are often stripped of. The fact that everyone in the video is wearing a tuxedo is the tribute to sameness; there’s still lack of individuality (which could also be read as “we are all in this together” ), but the identifier takes on a higher class level of dress (though the suit is still a signifier of servitude, instead of wealth).

In Sounding Like a No-no: Queer Sounds & Eccentric Acts in the Post-Soul Era, Francesca T. Royster looks at the racial implications of the asylum scene:

“In “Tightrope,” Monáe reminds us of the many ways the prison industrial complex infiltrates our lives by means of surveillance and the heightened fear of black bodies in motion.”

The fact that the dancers in the video are all black is not a coincidence – as Royster says, it’s a reaction to the fear of black bodies, specifically those that don’t “behave” (in this sense, behavior is tied in with the correct behavior or an asylum patient: the rebellion is the dance and celebration in an otherwise solemn venue). The joy that the dancers exhibit is contradictory to the purpose of the institution, as it has “[a] tendency to lead to magical practices,” which could also be read as racialized fear of the unknown, as the white majority exhibits a general distrust and unease about practices it’s not familiar with.

janellemonae

Monáe’s choice to wear a suit is, in her own words, an examination of (and tribute to) class:

“When I started my musical career I was a maid, I used to clean houses. My parents—my mother was a proud janitor, my step-father who raised me like his very own worked at the post office and my father was a trash man. They all wore uniforms. And that’s why I stand here today in my black and white and I wear my uniform to honor them.”

As a successful musician she has moved beyond the suit (or uniform), but continues to wear it as an acknowledgment of where she came from. There’s a parallel between the invisibility of the mentally ill and the invisibility of the working class — the uniform worn by the working class is both meant to make them distinct (to those who require their services), but also very easy to ignore (by those who don’t). The same could be said of patients who are actually in asylums (or as they’re presently called, Behavioral Health Centers), as they’re typically noted for stripping patients of identity, individuality, and agency.

Monáe’s video simultaneously acknowledges this lack of agency and playfully subverts it. The dancing-as-rebellion can’t be done without agency, so even though she and the other dancers are similarly clad in work clothing, they’re participating in behaviors that aren’t allowed. It’s the type of rebellion that goes on in secret — when the faceless guards walk by, Monáe and her crew act as though they aren’t breaking any rules.