Janelle Monáe, ‘Dirty Computer,’ and exploring social deviance
Five years after the release of her second album, “The Electric Lady,” Janelle Monáe just dropped her newest album, “Dirty Computer.” Both the album and accompanying “emotion picture,” or narrative film that accompanies the album, trace what it means to exist in a world in which you are incessantly told you do not belong. Monáe’s album navigates the myriad emotions involved in being socially deviant and outcast for that deviance.
One of the most notable ways Monáe accomplishes this is through the album’s “emotion picture,” which traces the evolution from humans to computers. The film opens on Monáe’s narration, explaining the dystopian “cleaning” process that “dirty computers” (people) are forced to undergo. Computers, she explains, are deemed “dirty” if they “refuse to live the way they dictate” or if they “show any opposition at all.” The inevitable cleaning process strips the computers of all of their memories and, thus, all of their individuality. The emotion pictures walk viewers through Monáe’s character’s experience in the cleaning facility, and occasionally diverge into the memories that they are erasing.
While the overarching narrative of Monáe’s album critiques our society’s exclusionary tendencies, it also counters this very tendency through the “memories” being erased, especially by effectively creating spaces for and representation of queer women of color. This is particularly notably accomplished in the song “PYNK,” a queer anthem that sends a unifying message to women, encouraging them to embrace their femininity and eroticism. The “emotion picture” that accompanies this song follows a love story between Monáe and another woman, portrayed by Tessa Thompson, with whom it is rumored Monáe is in relationship. The video asserts pride in imagery that is usually looked down on, including the color pink, vaginal imagery, and queer love. The David Bowie-esque pink pants Monáe and Thompson wear suggestively portray the openness, vulnerability, and power of claiming one’s vagina. Not all of the women in the video wear these pants as a symbol, however, suggesting that not all women need to have vaginas in order to have “the pynk.”
The release of this video also notably occurred at about the same time as Monáe’s “Rolling Stone” cover, in which she came out as pansexual. In the article, Monáe states, “‘Being a queer black woman in America, someone who has been in relationships with both men and women — I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker." While she initially identified as bisexual, she continues, "I read about pansexuality and was like, ‘Oh, these are things that I identify with too.’ I'm open to learning more about who I am.”
Monáe’s album is a beautiful illustration of this artist’s self-exploration, all while warmly embracing a broader culture of afrofuturism. Monáe has previously described afrofuturism as "the intersection between black culture, technology, liberation and the imagination, with some mysticism thrown in, too,” adding that “it's a way of bridging the future and the past and essentially helping to reimagine the experience of people of color." She creatively reimagines the use of technology in society while also furthering her examination of how technology has the potential to be used to silence people when in the hands of an oppressive force. Her clearly futurist imagery blends with the themes of her album to create a space for black artists and queer people of color while acknowledging how often the world seeks to silence them.
Ultimately, this album is an incredible afrofuturist production that seems to be truly emblematic of Monáe’s larger body of work and greater artistic mission. The album in and of itself acts of a form of liberation for Monáe and similarly situated listeners, which is arguably an afrofuturistic act in its own right.
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