When I think about the present cultural ubiquity of Lady Gaga, I’m thankful that artists like Janelle Monae exist.
Stacy Germanotta, AKA lady Gaga, has, since the release of her debut album in 2008, been everywhere in popular culture. From the airwaves to the blogosphere to a Glee episode, she’s the face that launched a thousand fashion mag covers. And I’m tired of it. Here’s why I’m tired of it; I’m tired of her clothes. Yes, gaga has worn some great outfits; Alexander McQueen’s (may he rest in peace) designs, especially of the lacy and metallic variety, work quite well on her. But, and I know I’m not the first person to say this, the flash of fashion obscures the fact that Gaga’s music is so-so, and not much more. Yes, it’s catchy. So is Katy Perry’s.
So I’m offering an alternative musical icon to those sick of Gaga’s fashion antics – Janelle Monae. Her latest album, The Archandroid, is stunningly diverse, sliding from pop to hip-hop to folk to rap and back with ease, flair, and swagger. The fact that her voice sounds just as at home playing mo-town diva as it does running verbal circles around Lupe Fiasco’s guest rap spot on the “Tightrope” remix shows that Monae is both aware of and steeped in the dedication and practiced polish of her influences. When people talk about Lady Gaga, they don’t so much reference the artists like whom she sings (a poor man’s Christina Aguelera?) as the pop-stars her makeup resembles (a more masculine Bowie?). But to listen to Monae sing is to hear threads of Ella Fitzgerald, Lauryn Hill, and, yes, Gwen Stephani spun, braided, and – at just the right moments – frayed.
I further mention Monae as a more enjoyable and talented alternative to Gaga because Monae has an equal talent for careful, detailed grooming of her artistic image. Monae sports what I can only call an “afro-pompador”, and is a frequent model in Vogue. She sports, almost exclusively black-and white formal-wear of a masculine variety, of which she raps on Tightrope: “Black and white tux, ain’t no need for no other colors. / Talking about ‘why don’t she change her clothes’. / Well they ain’t seem to mind the last three times I posed in Vogue”. Elsewhere, Monae has explained that the tuxedo communicates that she’s working, that music is a job. Then again, those tuxedos are made by Thom Brown, and she cites Katherine Hepburn as a golden-age tux inspiration, so contextually the concept “job” seems squarely located in the world of art and entertainment, and not so much a blue-collar labor union. Still, her philosophy of clothing impresses me more than Lady Gaga’s, which is, from what I piece together from quotations, something about how wearing weird clothes expresses the fact that she (and, presumably, America’s youth?) feel weird and freak-ish on the inside. Yawn?
My point here is that Monae is a fantastic, maybe even game-changing pop-artist that can play the fashion game with the best of them, but clearly spends her most careful and passionate creative energy on making good music, music that will, I predict, sound fresh and perfected long after “Bad Romance” goes the way of “Genie in a Bottle”.