Janelle Monáe released what might be considered one of the best albums of 2013, but if you looked at her pop cultural footprint you probably wouldn’t know it. The video for her song “Q.U.E.E.N.” garnered only 11 million views on YouTube while songs like Iggy Azalea’s “Work” drew more than 100 million. It’s not that her creative genius has gone unrecognized. The Guardian said that her 2013 album “The Electric Lady” was “brilliantly executed” while Bustle.com lauded its potential “to save pop music.” In a lengthy feature for Pitchfork, Carrie Battan pointed out that Monae’s most recent album was her “boldest bid for pop superstardom to date.”
But her latest single, the brilliant women’s empowerment anthem “Electric Lady” has yet to pierce pop culture’s collective consciousness the way that Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” did in 2008. Despite the well-deserved praise she’s received, the kind of visibility that saturates every corner of our culture and defines what it means to be a successful pop star in 2014 still seems to elude Janelle Monáe.
Some critics have suggested that Monáe’s work is too complicated for mainstream audiences and there may be something to that. As Michael Arceneaux wrote at Vibe.com: “In a then hotly contested review of The Electric Lady, former New York music critic Jody Rosen offered an explanation as to why Monáe’s press doesn’t match the performance of her music: her image may be a wee bit too conceptual, and her music, too referential.”
“I wonder what difference a little more cohesion and simplicity would make,” Arceneaux continued.
I can understand where Rosen and Arceneaux are coming from. After all, it took Monáe’s inspiring speech at the 2012 Black Girls Rock Awards show for me to make sense of what she was about as an artist and to connect with her work.
But I also wonder how much of her so-called inaccessibility is grounded in the fact that she’s packaging Black femininity and sexuality in a way that’s groundbreaking for the American mainstream.
In his review Rosen seemingly dismissed Janelle Monáe, calling her “an excellent concept,” as if the emergence of a serious Black bohemian “feminist Afro-futurist” pop icon was unrealistic.
In an interview Ytasha Womack author of “Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy,” spoke to this question:
“Also, I wonder if people know how to deal with Janelle being a woman. She pulls from a lot of funk and electronica elements. Most of the celebrated innovators in those genres are usually male. Her story just doesn’t fit their usual narrative around women artists, particularly black women artists. She’s not the blues woman, she’s not the R&B starlet, she’s not a sultry vixen and she’s not a dirty rap princess.”
And even though Monáe has couched her messages about women’s empowerment in the radio-playable, well-constructed melodies of songs like Q.U.E.E.N and Ghetto Woman, the fact that she unapologetically centers Black women in her work might explain her marginalization. Like Lauryn Hill and Nina Simone before her, Monáe’s music is art that “sees” young Black women for lack of a better word. If Lauryn Hill was the proverbial big sister that reminded us that we were really gems then Janelle Monáe is the best friend encouraging us to “preach” rather than “sleep.” Her music is designed for young Black women in ways that few cultural products in American pop culture are.
In the realm of pop music, Janelle Monáe is nothing if not a pioneer and that’s a difficult role to have. Rather than being a universally lauded pop icon, her legacy might be that of showing mainstream audiences that Black femininity and creativity can take any form, making it easier for non-conforming Black female artists that come after her to reach Beyoncé-levels of success.