Monday, December 6, 2010

Janelle Monáe

Janelle Monáe, producer of thrilling music, great style, and general foxiness, is producing music with themes of anti-oppression and racial and class empowerment; though in some ways she is queering the way black women can perform gender and sexuality in pop culture, her music is not overtly criticizing homophobia or subverting heterosexuality.

Ruth Goldman's “Who is that Queer Queer?” discusses queer theory's tendency to ignore race and class in its project of disrupting heteronormativity, and thus calls for greater attention to race and class. In the case of Janelle Monáe, the marginalization of black and working class people is what she is critiquing. However, despite her displays of open support for the queer community and her habit of leaving her sexual orientation ambiguous (saying in an interview with Rolling Stone that “I only date androids” without specifying who qualifies as an android), some of Monáe's most popular music does not overtly address the oppression of sexual minorities. Thus, Monáe's work in some ways exemplifies Goldman's articulation of the alienation of people of color and working class people from queer theory due to its tendency to universalize the experiences of white, middle-class people and leave out people of color and working-class people.

Monáe is queering a number of things: she performs working class identity and a sort of androgyny by donning a tuxedo, bowtie and saddle shoes, terming it her uniform in homage to her working class roots: “My mother was a janitor and my father collected trash, so I wear a uniform too.” In her song “Many Moons,” she interrupts the song's melodic verses with a spoken litany of often marginalized characteristics or identities (Many Moons: minute 3:39), including 'hood rat,' 'crack whore,' 'closet drunk,' 'outcast,' 'black girl,' 'welfare,' 'HIV,' 'overweight,' 'tomboy,' 'heroin user,' 'coke head,' and 'Jim Crow.' Monáe names these markers of oppression – mostly class- and race-based with brief mention of size oppression and gender identity marginalization (tomboy) – as a call to those whose “freedom is in a bind” to “just come and I'll take you home” to Shangri-La, a mythic utopia. However, in comparison to her overt messages about race and class empowerment, homophobia and oppression based on sexual identity go remarkably unmentioned in this song. It's a bit of a bummer, really, that she doesn't take this opportunity to include a critique of the marginalization of black queer people.

Despite this leaving out of queer people, Janelle Monáe has set up her music, message and aesthetic as a powerful medium of criticism of social and injustices and oppressive systems; she could perhaps quite easily incorporate the oppressions of sexual minorities into this critique. I'm rooting for her, too, because she's already indicated that she supports queer rights, and because her presence on the music scene is so vibrant, thrilling, and powerful that if she gave a critique of sexual and gender normativity, people would listen.

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