There was this provocative song that debuted over the summer. It’s full of booty bass and slithery swagger, rude boasts and sexual bravado. Dripping in liberation talk and individual agency, or sexual exploitation, depending on your point of view.
No, it’s not Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” or Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop.” It’s the song that didn’t spawn a thousand homespun think-pieces. It didn’t even hit the radio.
I’m talking about my music blerd of the moment, and perhaps of the century: Janelle Monáe. And a little song she wrote and performed with Erykah Badu called “Q.U.E.E.N.”
If you don’t know who Janelle Monáe is, here’s the short version: Blend the R&B of James Brown, Prince, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, with the operatic chops of Marian Anderson, and the high-minded sci-fi of Metropolis and Asimov novels, then you’re arrived somewhere in the town where Janelle Monáe lives.
Oh, and she does all this while delivering concept albums built around the alter ego of an android, Cindi Mayweather, who falls in love with a human and goes on the run before she can be disassembled.
It’s beautiful, the black android.
The concept squeezes bigotry, oppression and resistance to racism and homophobia through the prism of sci-fi.
Janelle Monáe’s latest album, The Electric Lady, is filled with these androids.
Not just androids with black faces, but androids with blackness programmed into them. The Electric Lady is broken up with sketches featuring these black androids speaking robo-jive (“power up, power up” gets said like “power to the people”) on the 105.5 WDRD radio station as DJ Crash Crash incites rebellion through music and dance.
“Make love not war, we are tired of the fires, quiet no riots … don’t throw no rock, don’t break no glass, just shake yo’ ass,” DJ Crash Crash says, knowing that even shaking said ass can be rebellion in of itself.
And “Q.U.E.E.N.” is protest music.
Funky, booty-popping protest music for women who are not afforded even the opportunity to express their sexuality without the double-yoke of racism and sexism as developed in the ideas of propriety and the good woman. “They call us dirty ’cause we break all your rules down / And we just came to act a fool, is that all right? / They be like, ‘Ooh, let them eat cake’ / But we eat wings and throw them bones on the ground.”
The hook gets right in it. This party is a statement that goes beyond the drink-drugs-sex of “We Can’t Stop.” Janelle Monáe sticks a finger in the listener’s face: “Am I a freak for dancing ’round? / Am I a freak for getting down? / I’m cutting up, don’t cut me down / Yeah I wanna be, wanna be a queen.”
Miley Cyrus gets to stay in her rich-kid house of privilege, boasting about how she gets to make her own rules and party whenever she wants. Which is fine in its doses, but it’s tough to call that true rebellion. Even her embrace of hip-hop elements and filling her house with her new black friends is about as tired a rebellion trope as you can find.
All the same, Cyrus is the young, white pop princess who will be queen. And as such, she gets the privilege of people promulgating open letters of concern, questioning her motives, holding her up as a victim of rape culture, depicting her as an unwitting racist, but all with the same motive – to save her from our crass culture, to rescue her from herself. (Imagine if Taylor Swift did the same about-face as Cyrus; the world would explode.) No one talked about saving M.I.A. from herself, or rescuing Rihanna, or delivering Beyoncé from evil when she was busy shaking her ass.
In “Q.U.E.E.N.,” Erykah Badu slithers onto the scene and sings straight up, “you gotta testify because the booty don’t lie.”
Cyrus appears to know that the booty don’t lie, but her artlessness leads itself to grabbing and sticking her tongue into an overstuffed black booty as if that alone is rebellious. In fact, it makes her more like The Man than she may or may not know, going all the way back to Thomas Jefferson forcing himself on his slave Sally Hemmings, and Sarah “The Hottentot Venus” Baartman being gawked at in London and dissected upon her death in France.
It’s that mix of fascination and revulsion at this savage, oversexed thing that you never truly want to be, but don’t mind pretending to be now and again. It’s not the ass-grabbing in of itself that is artless, because if Cyrus were truly talented and good, then she’d find a way to make it artful. But she isn’t, so it ain’t.
A very, very poorly twerking Miley Cyrus gets open letters of concern instead of just admitting she’s not good. Meanwhile, the Twerk Team women and Big Freedia get no credit for a dance that’s been around for years and follows a long, long tradition of rump-shaking majesty on the African continent and the worldwide diaspora.
It doesn’t even get respected as dancing – from the mainstream culture to in-house discussions of respectability.
At the end of “Q.U.E.E.N.” in a coda that drifts from OutKast-style bass and Prince synths to the swirling strings of “What’s Going On?”-era Marvin Gaye, Janelle Monáe raps, “She who writes the movie owns the script and the sequel / So ain’t the stealing of my rights made illegal?” To everyone who thinks twerking started with the VMAs, she’s talking to you.
When Janelle sings “Is it peculiar that she twerk in the mirror? / And am I weird to dance alone late at night?” she is talking to those who think the twerking girl on the YouTube video is upholding sexism when she may just be enjoying her own body and doesn’t mind sharing it. And that we can’t be respectable and “get down,” in Janelle’s words. It’s that sad combination of sex-negativity and sexism that have oppressed, warped and confused us.
Respectability ethics in a world of sex-negative means to deny. But remember, the booty don’t lie. And the only way to make the booty respectable is to change the world in which one is devalued and the other exalted, all in the name of control. And this is why “Q.U.E.E.N.” is truly rebellious.
“Q.U.E.E.N.” grabs that good-girl talk and redirects it through the bad girls as they ask, “Why are we bad?” In the voices of two black women, this song dings what gets held up as a good woman by voicing the ostracized. “You can take my wings but I’m still gonna fly / And even when you edit me the booty don’t lie.” Just, yow.
So, while the mainstream pop culture was too busy agonizing over rich white girl Miley Cyrus, there was poor black girl Janelle Monae who made a real protest song.
Anything with true artistic rebellion needs some artfulness.
“We Can’t Stop” is a rich kid at a party saying that someone can’t tell her to stop partying at a party. Who’s saying Miley Cyrus can’t party at her party in her house? No one.
“We can love who we want to” and “we can kiss who we want to” are generic compared to “Hey brother can you save my soul from the devil? / Say is it weird to like the way she wear her tights? … Am I a freak because I love watching Mary? (Maybe) / Hey sister am I good enough for your heaven? … Will he approve the way I’m made?”
All of that gets fused to a booming beat fit for Cyrus’ shout-out to “my homegirls here with the big butts / shaking it like we’re in the strip club,” to whom she offers the pablum of “Remember only God can judge ya / Forget all the haters ’cause somebody loves ya,” before going back to talking about kids “trying to get a line in the bathroom” in the next couplet. Janelle Monáe raps, “And while you’re selling dope, we’re gonna keep selling hope.”
“Q.U.E.E.N.” is protest music. It’s adult music. You know, for grown-ass people. Not the kids. That’s why it’s not on the radio. That’s why you never heard it.