I attended the Janelle Monáe concert at the Rebel nightclub in Toronto on July 16, 2018. The audience was filled with a gorgeous mix of multi-racial queer 20 and 30-somethings. The energy during the show was electric: everyone was singing and dancing along with Ms. Monáe. She started the night out with “Crazy, Classic Life,” and played through most of the songs on the Dirty Computer album (see the set list). For me, the high point was the song “Pynk” during which she and her dancers wore pussy pants – wide flowing pants made to look like vulvas.
What strikes one about Monáe’s stage persona is how relentlessly positive she is about the variety of sexualities, bodies, and gender expressions—paying particular homage to women, people of color, and queer people. At one point during the song, “I Like That,” she pointed to one audience member after another, and said things like: “I like your pink hair,” “I like your stare,” “I like your style.” The song itself is about spending time alone, confidence, masturbation, and being at home with oneself. At the same time the song doesn’t celebrate narcissism but encourages us to notice the fascinating things about others and ourselves. (Having just seen Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the Mr. Rogers documentary, her approach here reminded me a bit of his: everyone is worthy of love and of loving! “I like you just the way you are.”) At another point, during the song, “I Got the Juice,” she invited willing participants to dance on stage with her and gave each person the full stage to strut their stuff for a minute or so. The crowd went wild for them and their pure joy in moving their bodies. Overall, I would not be surprised to hear that most people at the show (her fellow “dirty computers,” as she said) left that show feeling more body and sex positive. Shame is not welcome.
And this brings me to a broader point about Janelle Monáe’s work. She shows remarkable versatility in her oeuvre: sometimes her sound is reminiscent of early Jackson 5 (as in “It’s Code”), other times of Stevie Wonder (in “Ghetto Woman”), Beyoncé (in “Cold War”), Pharrell Williams (in “Tightrope”), or the Beatles (as in “Mushroom and Roses”). Monáe is a shape shifter. She can sing and groove in many styles and genres. One might be tempted to deem this a kind of cheap postmodernism or deconstructionism – and if one were uncharitable, apply the same well-known critiques of deconstruction to her work: that it has no true soul, no authenticity, no truth. But people who think that about either Monáe or deconstruction are wrong.
Derrida said regarding the practice of deconstruction itself that there is also an undeconstructible. For Derrida this is a deep ethical responsibility. He said once in an interview, “If anything is undeconstructible, it is justice…I am tempted to regard justice as the best word, today, for what refuses to yield to deconstruction, that is to say for what sets deconstruction in motion, what justifies it. It is an affirmative experience of the coming of the other as other, the priceless dignity of otherness.” In John Caputo’s wonderful obituary of Derrida, he writes that what the critics of Derrida missed “is that the destabilizing agency in his work is not a reckless relativism or an acidic skepticism but rather an affirmation, a love of what in later years he would call the ‘undeconstructible.’ The undeconstructible is the subject matter of pure and unconditional affirmation—‘viens, oui, oui’ (come, yes, yes)—something unimaginable and inconceivable by the current standards of imagining and conceiving.”
An uncharitable reading of deconstructionism is that it blows with the wind, that’s it’s just fancy relativism, that it is not radical enough because it lacks principles. And an uncharitable reading of Monáe’s work is that she has no center, no core style. But she does. She is the epitome of queer in the best possible reading of that concept. She queers not only sexuality (she is proudly bisexual) but also genre. But queerness is decidedly not everything to all people. It is not “tolerance” of everything in Marcuse’s sense. We needn’t be and shouldn’t be tolerant of racism, queerphobia, misogyny and patriarchy. Monáe is clear on her commitment to certain leftist principles: protection and love for refugees, justice for the poor, dignity and respect for women, and justice for people of color. Her lyrics are solid on these principles no matter what her style and when she speaks in between the songs at her shows, this is also made clear. Being queer requires a political commitment “We’re gonna crash your party …You fucked the world up now, we’ll fuck it all back down.” So STAND UP! And also dance! “A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having.”