Janelle Monáe - Q.U.E.E.N. (ft. Erykah Badu) - By Volume

Understand that I am only as he made me: a faithful servant to all of the noise, all of the lights, all of the flashing in my head. Laura Stevenson - Wheel

Janelle Monáe – Q.U.E.E.N. (ft. Erykah Badu)

Adam Downer gets to the bottom of some oddly shallow social commentary on Janelle Monáe's latest song, Q.U.E.E.N. Author: on May 31, 2013
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There’s a point towards the end of “Q.U.E.E.N.,” right after Erykah Badu mumbles away all of the song’s confrontational momentum, where Janelle Monáe says: “Let’s flip it. I don’t think they understand what I’m trying to say.” As a member of the implied audience, I found this pretty insulting the first time through. The entire song she’s blaring her M.O. through a megaphone with her middle fingers practically forced in an upright position. She does her, does it well, and no one can tell her different. Got it. I am so there. Hell yeah! Right on! and such. What could I possibly not be getting?

The attitude Janelle adopts on most of “Q.U.E.E.N.” leaves me somewhat cold towards it. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a damn fine pop song. It’s got a killer guitar hook, sass seething out its pores, and a booty that just won’t quit (or lie). The lyric, “Let them/eat cake/ but we eat wings/ and throw them bones on the ground” is nothing short of hot fire and will surely stick in several critics’ heads by the time of year when its necessary to list top pop singles. Having it stuck in my head as I wrote this piece definitely did not suck. In short – yes, it’s enjoyable and for all intents and purposes that’s probably the most important thing about it. It’s just that there’s something about the apparent explicitness of the song’s message, the way it draws a line in the sand and taunts the listener as if he/she is on the other side, that stifles emotional connection, prevents its brashness from really landing, renders it “just” a damn fine pop song when its ambitions seem higher.

The song is a pretty straightforward “fuck you,” but not necessarily an inclusive one. Monáe’s sarcastic tone and the coyness of her lyrics set up the listener as her enemy, which makes her difficult to identify with even if one agrees with her. She poses a series of ironic rhetorical questions to the femininity police in an effort to express that people should be able to perform their gender however they want. A fine goal, but the technique falls well short of political impact because the questions themselves are disappointingly base. For example, she asks questions like “Is it rude to wear my shades?” or “Is it peculiar that she twerk in the mirror?”, questions that, for the left-leaning, forward-thinking demographic she plays to, are answered quickly and correctly in the negative, leading to a song that one nods along to rather than ruminates on. It’s as though the implied audience she’s taunting is so politically behind the times that her jibes come off like mere regurgitations of the liberal status quo rather than a minority voice expressing anything tremendously thought provoking, which, for a song that’s as unapologetically brazen as “Q.U.E.E.N.,” seems vital to the song’s success.

The exasperated sass is obviously the central point of the verses and chorus, but for a song tackling larger issues of gender/identity politics, it feels a little too much like social justice shade, a rant that by nature is less effective in producing the desired political response than sincere rhetoric. Compare “Q.U.E.E.N.” to “Cold War;” when she sang “I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me, and it hurts my heart,” that lyric felt like a genuine moment because it came so distinctly from a personal desire to feel strong, and as a listener one could identify with that sentiment and realize Janelle’s grander point about inner strength being muddied by social constructs. On “Q.U.E.E.N.,” the strength is already there and the sincerity is cut for smirks like “Is it weird to like the way she wear her tights?” The message of “Q.U.E.E.N.” doesn’t quite land because Monáe opts to maintain confrontational distance to a bigger issue that, musically, could use more heart.

But, as she promises, this all flips at the last minute. The preceding four are catchy yet ultimately lack emotional branches for listeners to grab onto. When Janelle clarifies what she’s “trying to say” by breaking into a fiery rap that cuts the dull playfulness, she recalls the woman who brought herself to tears for the “Cold War” video, the one whose political aims match the ambition of her music. She snaps the listener out of the lull created by the simple rhetorical questions, gets explicit, and unleashes some tremendous rhymes; in fact, the lyric “Yeah, I’mma keep singin’, I’mma keep writin’ songs/ I’m tired of Marvin askin’ me ‘What’s goin on?’,” does more to interrogate unchallenged gender politics in music than the rest of the song’s lyrics put together. It’s heart-swelling stuff, a worthwhile moment (if not a saving grace) in a song that’s otherwise a catchy but fluffy reiteration of social justice, one minute of transcendent cultural work against four of snark. Knowing what she’s about, I should have expected that when she said “I don’t think they understand what I’m trying to say,” she would up her game to a level I didn’t predict; here’s hoping she’s there for most of The Electric Lady, and not where she is for the majority of “Q.U.E.E.N.”

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