Mon
Jun 14 2010 1:44pm

Frequency Rotation: Janelle Monáe, “Neon Valley Street”

Janelle Monae The ArchAndroid

Each week, Frequency Rotation examines a different song with a speculative-fiction theme. Genre, musical quality, and overall seriousness may vary.

Everyone from Gary Numan to Daft Punk has written songs about androids. Predictably, many of these songs sound like androids made them—as if synthesizers, vocoders, and mechanistic instrumentation were prerequisites for making music about men made of metal. But R&B prodigy Janelle Monáe—who, at the age of 24, already has a Grammy nomination and considerable amount of well-earned buzz under her belt—has raised the robotic bar with her new full-length, The ArchAndroid.

The disc is a gorgeous, allegorical concept album that, in a nutshell, tells the tale of a futuristic society in which androids are a repressed ethnic class on the cusp of discovering their own consciousness and identity. But rather than forcing form to follow function, Monáe gives the album a mostly organic rather than cybernetic feel—a delicate, moody, at times even Classical atmosphere that complements the programmed beats and sporadic digital flourishes. Humanized, even tenderized, Monáe’s sprawling story-songs echo her basic themes: That people, for better or for worse, must make a moral decision to see (or not see) humanity in whomever or whatever they want.

Radiohead famously took a similar approach with its 1999 hit, “Paranoid Android,” but Monáe gives herself an entire album to flesh out the fleshless, and in doing so crafts a parable about love, hatred, salvation, and human evolution that just as nimbly sidesteps cartooniness and cliché. Monáe herself has said how indebted to the SF canon she is: In interviews she’s gushed about Philip K. Dick, The Matrix, Metropolis (a film she pays visual tribute to on the cover of The ArchAndroid), and most often Octavia E. Butler, a visionary writer whose ethnocentric SF clearly marks her as Monáe’s aesthetic godmother.

Accordingly, sympathetic author Nalo Hopkinson is a big Monáe fan—and, with a song titled “Neon Gumbo,” which could almost be the title of a long-lost Hopkinson short story, Monáe clearly loves her right back. As the following interview shows, though, Monáe isn’t dabbling in SF. She takes the stuff passionately and seriously.

As with many well-executed concept albums, it can be tricky isolating one song from the rest of The ArchAndroid—but Monáe is a pop artist above all else, so she knows how to make chapters of an extended narrative feel like self-contained singles. “Neon Valley Street,” one of the most lush and melodic tracks, isn’t a single per se, but it is an encapsulation of her ambitious, epic-wrapped-in-a-love-song style.

And guess what? Mindful of tradition even as she restlessly innovates, Monáe adds some good-old-fashioned robotic vocals into the chorus when she coldly yet soulfully intones: “We met alone, forbidden in the city / Running fast through time like Tubman and John Henry / But the time was wrong, illegal aliens moaned / It’s such a pity that the city’s just a danger zone / Atomic blues bombing hearts like Iraqis in Babylon / The droid control will take your soul and rate it, berate, slay it / You hate it and debate it, but you don’t get caught / An outlaw outrunning the law.” Instead of sounding kitschy or retro-futuristic, it’s chillingly relevant—and just plain haunting.


Jason Heller writes for The A.V. Club, plays guitar, and enjoys making up stories to gross himself out.

6 comments
JS Bangs
1. jaspax
Yeah, this is pretty great. But you missed what is IMHO the best thing she ever did in this vein: the Many Moons short film, which is awesome in more ways than I can count--an entire science fiction story set to the catchiest tune imaginable.
Jason Heller
2. JasonHeller
I wanted to stick with something newer than "Many Moons," but you're totally right -- it's amazing.
Stephanie Denise Brown
4. Stephanie Denise Brown
She's currently on tour with Erykah Badu. I love Janelle Monáe's music, and I'm happy to read about her spec fic influences. Great article!
LaShawn Wanak
5. LMWanak
I just got both Metropolis and ArchAndroid today. All I can say is wow...wow...wow! I love her slipstream influences, both musically and literary--a little touch of Stevie Wonder here, a bit of Michael Jackson there, with liberal sprinkles of Bon Jovi and Doris Day. I've also had great fun getting to the marrow of her music videos. A couple of weeks ago at Wiscon, someone gave an academic paper on her video "Many Moons". Never knew you can dance to an academic paper, but there you go! :-)
Stephanie Denise Brown
6. MarcusMiller
JANELLE MONAE IS CRAZY!!! I've been following her since she was singing in the fields/yards in ATL. I'm so proud and so glad to see her finally Pop - however, I've just seen a remix with Janelle on youtube with an artist named WONKACHILD....

THIS DUDE IS LIKE JANELLE'S FRATERNAL TWIN!!!!!!!!! The remix on youtube called "Janelle Monae - OZ REMIX" I have that song in constant rotation on my ipod.

All I have to say is that I am following Wonkachild like I did Janelle when she started. Janelle is changing the game - and if this Wonka guy, who is just as funky (if a dare say - even funkier) crosses over, we'll have two big artists who revitalize alternative music as we know it.

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