Audrey Slote (MA, music theory; MM, 2015, cello, student of Tanya Remenikova) recently spoke at Sonic Fluidities, an interdisciplinary conference at University of California San Diego, on March 2 and 3, 2018. She presented a paper entitled "'Categorize Me, I Defy Every Label:' Janelle Monáe's Blurring of Binaries and Vision of Utopian Freedom in The Electric Lady."
Title: "Categorize Me, I Defy Every Label:" Janelle Monáe's Blurring of Binaries and Vision of Utopian Freedom in The Electric Lady
At the end of the music video for “Q.U.E.E.N.,” Janelle Monáe raps, “Categorize me, I defy every label!” This statement expresses a project realized throughout her album The Electric Lady. Monáe creates a world through music, lyrics, explanatory text, and videos in which she blurs the distinction between binaries of gender, sexuality, and human/machine identity, while also creating ambiguity with other constructs like the linearity of time. Her deconstruction of binaries is rooted in broader Afrofuturist goals of undermining restrictive norms and asserting agency and subjectivity in the telling of historical narratives.
In this presentation, I will disentangle the threads of binary blurring at play in the album, identifying how Monáe expresses them through layered sonic and visual elements. I will analyze the music video for “Q.U.E.E.N.” as a microcosm of the album’s deconstruction of categories, connecting concrete musical details to the philosophical paradigms of Afrofuturism. Finally, I will suggest that the continuous blurring and breaking down of binaries points to a utopian vision of freedom and wholeness that is specifically Afrofuturist in nature, fulfilled in the conclusion of the album. My approach blends concepts from Afrofuturism, feminism, and queer theory with modes of harmonic, formal, and rhythmic analysis that draw upon theories of J.D. Kramer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Joseph Straus.