C. Leigh McInnis, Psychedelic Literature
Many of y’all have asked if I’ve seen Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer, and, if so, what do I think of it. Since it’s easier to send one email rather than several, I’ll try to make my response as quick and painless as possible. Monáe’s Dirty Computer is an interesting/excellent retelling of a much-told narrative about Big Brother (the Government) working to oppress anyone it deems as “the other” or dangerous for being different and having individualized ideas. (See Brave New World, 1984, George Clinton’s video for “If Anybody’s Gonna Get Funk Up It’s Gonna Be You,” etc.) As an older person, I’ve learned not to discredit something because it is derivative of something older if the new thing manages to present the subject matter in some new way or provide some new understanding of it. That is what Wordsworth meant when he asserted that the job of the poet is to make the familiar unfamiliar so that we can re-recognize it. Or, that is what T. S. Eliot meant when he asserted that the job of the poet is to know the canon of history so that one can, then, carve a unique place for oneself. (Unfortunately, Eliot’s “canon” was really, really white, but the gist of his point remains.) That is also what my own Pops indicated to me when I had written this excellent poem in which I called Ronald Reagan “Ron the Ray Gun,” and he said, “That’s nice son…almost as nice as when Gill Scott-Heron used it twenty years ago.” Clearly, I needed to study the canon more. With all of that said, I not only love the cinematography, movingly creative music, and imaginative lyrics of Dirty Computer, I love that she, like Prince, openly and invitingly, builds on the past to create something new rather than just rehashing the old and never adding anything to it. Knowing that Monáe loves and worked with Prince, I find the title Dirty Computer interesting because in The Lyrics of Prince I state that Prince’s Dirty Mind (1980), “presents the understanding of sexual thoughts (and other rebellious thoughts) as being normal. In its promo for the album, Warner Bros asserts that ‘behind the frequently shocking lyrics is a deep belief that by removing the taboos and allowing youth to express its sexuality in all of its forms, we will achieve a more wholesome society’” (179). I also add:
“Once I got a glimpse of it, looking at the Dirty Mind cover was a revelation. There is this skinny black kid wearing nothing but a raincoat and drawers, looking as if to say, ‘If you find something wrong with this picture, there is something wrong with you, not me.’ At that moment I realized that there were others out there attempting to find their own voices and identities, which need not be validated by a group. Even at this point, I do not believe that I was asserting the political identity of those blacks who see more to gain by ingratiating themselves to whites. I am talking about the fundamental notion that denying rights to a race is tantamount to denying rights to individuals and vice versa. I am talking about forcing both whites and blacks to deal with blacks on interpersonal levels and thus exploring the totalities of our human self, especially in the arts. This, of course, can only be achieved when African Americans are willing to remove themselves from the white-controlled social and economic institutions and risk the losses of economic gains to retain control of their humanity, which is reflected through their art. This is essential since white Americans have a definite history of not being able to conceptualize the idea of the African-American individual because we, as a country, have not yet begun to deal with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and the economic and political invisibility of black people” (17-18).
So, yes, Monáe’s Dirty Computer causes me to think/remember all those thoughts and emotions, but I never think that she is merely copying or imitating Prince in the way that my Pops never saw Prince as merely copying or imitating Little Richard, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, or Smokey Robinson. As Prince was learning from the past to craft new ideas for the current problems rooted in past ills, Monáe is doing the same. Rightfully, folks will compare Dirty Computer to Beyoncé’s Lemonade, but I would offer that they also remember Andre’ 3000’s videos for The Love Below for the visual and lyrical similarity as well as the videos from Janet Jackson’s Control and Rhythm Nation 1814 albums as conceptual counterparts. Of course, from a film perspective, Dirty Computer is the niece-child of Prince’s The Beautiful Experience, featuring Nona Gaye as one of his love interests, and distant cousin of his Love 4 1 Another. Like Prince and many others before her, Monáe shows sex and sexuality as socio-political canvases and tools. In short, if you think that most of Prince’s “sex” songs are exclusively about “sex,” you just haven’t been paying attention. (Since I don’t have time to explain all of that, here is a link to an online excerpt from the chapter “Sex,” from The Lyrics of Prince.) Monáe has chosen to stand firmly on Prince’s use of sex/sexuality for the intersection of how America’s major issues of race, gender, and class are rooted in the white supremacist need of heterosexual white males to dominate (which can mean to exploit, fetishize, and/or destroy) everything that is not a heterosexual white male. More specifically, Monáe has decided to ask her patrons just how “woke” they really are by asking them if they understand and agree with the notion that the same evil that creates racism and sexism is the same evil that creates homophobia? As such, the storyline of Dirty Computer does not separate racism and sexism from homophobia. Being of a different race, being of a different gender, and being gay are all viewed as equally evil by the villainous government entity that is seeking to “cleanse” or make “normal” all the “dirty” people for being, again, of “the othered,” be it racial, gender, or sexual preference or orientation. To Monáe’s question, I must reply with, god-help me, Marlon Wayans’ answer that I might just be “woke-ish” but not quite woke.
Before I address my being “woke-ish” and not quite “woke,” there are four songs/videos from Dirty Computer that I’d like to address briefly as the film’s highlights. The visual for all of these songs and the entire narrative is stunning. The use of color and camera angles, especially how colors and camera angles represent singular emotions and ideas and how the blending of colors and the shifting of camera angles represents the blending, blurring, and shifting of emotions and ideas, works well to punctuate the narrative. Next, Monáe is an excellent poet/storyteller. Even when the music doesn’t always move me, her lyrical imagery always paints a clear picture of why I should be interested in a particular song’s message. “Crazy, Classic, Life” is funky, soulful, bouncy, and soft simultaneously. It allows one to dance, rock, sway, bob one’s head, or just escape within the groove. And, when she states, “I’m the American dream, not the American nightmare,” she is making it clear that this entire body of work is not her making a plea to be accepted by the establishment but her declaration that those who are unable to see her and the entire rainbow of humanity as “normal” and “beautiful” are the ones who are perverted and should be reeducated. Next, “Screwed” is a straight nod to the 80s—visually, musically, and lyrically—combining funky guitar, bouncy beats, and undercover socio-political lyrics in the vein of Nena’s “99 Luftballons” or Prince’s “Party Up,” “Sexuality,” or “Ronnie Talk to Russia,” especially when Monáe chants, “See, if everything is sex/ Except sex, which is power/ You know power is just sex/ You screw me, and I’ll screw you too,” which is a really interesting way to understand Aretha Franklin’s “Who’s Zooming Who?” which essentially means “who’s fucking who?” which was always meant to be understood literally and metaphorically as it relates to gender and traditional politics if one also understands what Franklin is really discussing in her song “Respect,” which is a cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” with all of its gender and traditional politics. (So, yes, children, songs about sex are not always just about sex, especially when there is a creative artist working.) As for “Make Me Feel,” if you know that I’m a fan of da Funk, you don’t have to ask why I like this song. Either you are funky or you ain’t. And, if you don’t like “Make Me Feel,” then you just ain’t funky. Let’s move on. When one combines “Screwed” with “Pynk,” which is probably the most creatively metaphoric and soulful song of the project, one realizes that Monáe is working within what I call the Prince sexual trope where sex becomes a metaphor for engaging, understanding, critiquing, and offering a solution to the neurosis of humanity by realizing that the neurosis is often, not always, connected to one’s narrow or perverted notion of sexuality or human sexual nature. First, “Pynk” opens—pun intended—by comparing the vagina to other body parts and other aspects of life that are essential for survival. Then, after asking how they can make the best parts of life “last forever,” Monáe provides “‘Cause boy it’s cool if you got blue/ We got the pynk,” which is a really interesting answer/resolution/solution for a couple of reasons. On the one hand, this is the classic notion that men and women need each other. Monáe is working, symbolically, within the notions of blue being the color of male and pink being the color of female. As such, if “you/males” got the “blue,” then “we/females” got the “pynk.” Thus, Monáe seems to be asserting a similar point that I stated of Black Panther that
“viewers learn that the natural state of male and female energy is not to be at war with each other but to supplement and complement each other so that duality becomes holistic human existence, which can function to reduce domestic violence and sexist hiring and promotion practices while also adding even more brainpower to reduce ills, such as global warming, the growing amount of food deserts across the United States, and the absence of economic infrastructure in inner cities.”
And, yet, on another level, with much of the imagery of Dirty Computer showing same-sex relationships as normal, even the scenes of “Pynk” show Monáe’s character with a female lover, and with Monáe recently proclaiming herself as pansexual, the notion of “pynk” being the healing agent to “blue” connects with and tropes that mystic and healing notion that Prince often gave to the female characters in songs, such as “Lady Cab Driver,” “Anna Stesia,” and others. Monáe, building on Prince’ sexual trope legacy, is presenting pynk, the vagina, or its essence as something physical and metaphysical. The vagina becomes a symbol of woman or womanhood as the womb/creation of humanity and as humanity’s primary healing/salvation agent as well. But, this healing can only occur when humanity is made aware of the power of the pynk. Further, for Monáe, this awareness can only occur when people relinquish what she views as their rigid, prescribed, and man-made notions of sexuality. In contrast, a pansexual is one who views all human behavior as being based on sexuality and is one who engages sexual activity with people of any sexual orientation or gender identity. So, a pansexual is not limited/restrained or made “blue” by limited/restrained gender identities, which is also portrayed in “Make Me Feel” when Monáe switches back and forth between male and female dance partners, ultimately ending sandwiched between them in her own pansexual ecstasy. Additionally, by understanding that the term “pansexual” has its etymology in Pan, the Greek God of “music,” “sex,” and “ecstasy,” the Prince connection seems even more clear as, of course, Prince, for much of his career, presented himself as a “raceless” and “genderless” highly sexual being. Unlike Michael Jackson who often presented himself as an “asexual” being until he was accused of child molestation, Prince, like the Greek God Pan, was a very sexualized being who combined sexual pleasure and spiritual pleasure in ways that failed to conform to the sexual confines of others. And this is the rub for Dirty Computer, which causes me to wonder if I’m just “woke-ish.”
Because “Screwed” and “Pynk” are before “Make Me Feel,” viewers understand that “Make Me Feel” is a part of the larger narrative’s discussion of otherness. “Make Me Feel” is the apex of the racial, class, and sexual liberation and utopia to which Monáe has been working and that the government agency of the narrative has been seeking to locate and “cleanse.” To the funkiest groove of the entire narrative, Monáe’s character pimp strolls, with her female partner, into this ambi-racial and ambi-sexual utopia like she’s the ish and like this is what life is always meant to be. In addition, it seems that being funky, liberated, and tolerant are the only requirements to access Monáe’s utopia (Uptown, the New Breed, or the New Power Generation). At this moment in the narrative, she is as comfortable, fearless, and unapologetic as Prince is on that Dirty Mind album cover. And to make sure that viewers all understand completely what she is doing, Monáe throws in a “Good God, I can’t help it” to make it clear that she is troping the same musical and metaphorical tradition that Prince was troping from his mentors. Now, with all of that firmly established on top of this hot as fish grease groove, Monáe poses one final question to viewers like me. Can I accept racism, sexism, and homophobia as the same types of evils? And, that’s where I may just be woke-ish.
From the time I was eight until now, I never saw Prince as a gay man, and I have no reason as to why I never saw him as a gay man. I don’t know if it was because I was already inundated with the gender-bending of glam rock, but I never once looked at Prince and thought “gay.” Interestingly, enough, the only thing that raised an eyebrow for me was in 1991, after years of having other people ask me about his sexuality, when Prince grinded on the floor with his male dancers and I thought, “Okay, I get how someone could think dude is gay,” but, by then, ironically, Prince was actually moving more toward the traditional/stereotypical persona of masculinity. Yet, what I didn’t realize until my late twenties and early thirties, by reading Prince fanzines, such as Uptown and Controversy, and fansites, such as Housequake.com and Prince.org, is that a good number of people found their sexuality though Prince’s challenging the sexual norms of masculinity. While I was just seeing a dude, particularly a black dude, simply not allowing anybody to tell him what to do or how to be, others, particularly those of the LGBTQ community, were seeing someone say it is okay for them to embrace, love, and be themselves openly. (Prince was for many of his generation of the LGBTQ community what Sylvester was for many of his generation, and I never made or saw the connection even though I knew who Sylvester was. It was impossible for most black folks not to know who Sylvester was because “You Make me Feel (Mighty Real)” was all over black radio, black clubs, and the skating rinks.) Still, although I never saw the connection between Prince and Sylvester, I can’t deny that others saw the connection as it has been one of the prevailing themes of articles written about Prince since his death, and probably half the articles/talks at the Prince from Minneapolis Symposium at the University of Minnesota addressed some aspect of Prince’s impact on or relationship to the LGBTQ community. So, I don’t find it odd that at her most creative moment, through which she is also channeling and connecting with Prince, one of Monáe’s major themes is fighting against the oppression of same-sex relationships or connecting the struggle of the LGBTQ community with the struggle against racism and sexism.
As an artistic product of the Purple Funk, Dirty Computer’s connecting racism, sexism, and homophobia causes me to question whether I am a hypocrite because I will sign a petition by poets that denounces the legal discrimination/oppression of someone based on sexual preference even though I still view the male-female relationship as the normal romantic relationship. And, to be clear, I don’t take my words lightly because I understand that the connotation of my statement is that same-sex relationships are “not normal,” which is the way of thinking from which Monáe is attempting to liberate me. According to Slavoj Zizek’s “Courtly Love, or, Woman as Thing,” when it comes to sex, both genders and all sexual orientations are caught in hierarchical dilemmas posed by the bottomless inhuman partner that dwells, Oz-like, behind the curtain of the lover’s image; that is, the Real. According to Zizek, “The problem is that once the relationship between the two sexes is conceived of as a symmetrical, reciprocal, voluntary partnership or contract, the fantasy matrix which first emerged in courtly love remains in power.” Thus for Zizek and Monáe, thinking of romantic relationships as being dependent upon gender or gender identities is a false and oppressive construct or structure rooted in women being submissive to men and all other constructs or structures being deemed as flawed or perverted. This concept is also thoroughly explained in works, such as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s “Infection in the Sentence: The Woman Writer and the Anxiety of Authorship,” Judith Butler’s “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” and lots of insightful writing by bell hooks. Beginning with Zizek and navigating my way through Gilbert, Gubar, Butler, hooks, and Monáe, this is complicated for me because I currently don’t attend church because I have yet to be able to reconcile the notion that a perfect God can create an existential universe, which simply means that my notion of the male-female relationship as the “normal” romantic relationship is not based exclusively on religious notions. Still, this is a line that Monáe and others have drawn in the sand. If racism is bad and sexism is bad, why is not the oppression of someone because of their sexual orientation not equally as bad? The conundrum for me is that I agree that all three acts of evil/oppression are equally as bad, but I still hold to the structure that the male-female relationship is the only relationship that can perpetuate humanity through childbirth. However, I must face the hypocrisy/irony of my desire never to have children because being a writer was more important to me. Additionally, for me, one of the two greatest issues facing African people, along with white supremacy, is too many people having babies they don’t want or can’t afford. So, it is ironic that I’m basing my notion of the male-female relationship as the “normal” romantic relationship when, again, I think that life would be better if less than half the people on the planet had children. So, in raising the issue of same-sex relationships in this creative manner, Monáe has done her job as an artist, forcing a recipient to think more thoroughly about one’s notions regarding the issue. Unfortunately, while challenging art is often the most useful art, it is usually not the most popular art. As James Baldwin asserted, love has never really been a popular agenda because most people don’t really understand the definition of love. Yet, this doesn’t answer Monáe’s ultimate question. And, at the core of Monáe’s question is the demand for receivers of her art to contemplate what actually defines homophobia. Further, is someone like me, who thinks it is wrong for anybody to be legally denied a marriage license or to be legally denied service of any type simply based on one’s sexual orientation, a hypocrite because I still have the notion of male-female romantic relationships as the norm? Can I fight against the socio-political oppression of the LGBTQ community while simultaneously perceiving the male-female romantic relationship as the norm? Is my position the equivalent of a white person saying, “Well, I think that black people should have legal rights even though I think white people are the norm of humanity”? And, if anyone thinks my comparison of the two ideas are extreme, consider a great line from the film, Assault at West Point: The Court-Martial of Johnson Whittaker in which the so-called liberal white person says to the black person he is helping, “I want you to be free not equal.” While I continue to ponder this issue, I appreciate someone like Monáe for using her art to have people think about how these issues connect and relate. We may not always agree. But, if I don’t, at least, consider the relationship of racism and sexism to homophobia, I can never really consider just how enlightened or “woke” I am when it comes to treating others as I want to be treated. What I don’t want to be is someone who mindlessly moves to music without thinking critically about the work’s message. Fortunately, Monáe is the type of artist who makes that almost impossible to do.
--- About C. Leigh McInnis