JANELLE MONÁE – ‘DIRTY COM­PUTER’

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VOX

Dirty Com­puter tells the story of “Jane 57821” (Monáe), a de­fi­ant free spirit who lives in a near-fu­ture dystopia and takes joy in cel­e­brat­ing her­self, her love for fel­low rebel Zen (Tessa Thomp­son), and the queer black com­mu­nity that ac­cepts them both. But when we meet her, she’s strapped to a chair in a stark fa­cil­ity, where a dis­em­bod­ied voice tells her she’s “a dirty com­puter” due for a clean­ing.

Through­out Dirty Com­puter , we see Jane strug­gle to main­tain her iden­tity as two (white guy) lab tech­ni­cians watch and wipe her most pre­cious me­mories. We see glimpses of her and Zen fall­ing in love. We see Jane find­ing power in her­self and the beau­ti­ful weirdos she sur­rounds her­self with. We see all these “dirty com­put­ers” cel­e­brat­ing the hope and joy of just be­ing them­selves – and then we see them fade away.

It’s not a co­in­ci­dence that ev­ery sin­gle song on this al­bum is united by one overtly po­lit­i­cal sen­ti­ment: The pow­ers that be think any­one stag­ing a re­bel­lion – sex­ual, po­lit­i­cal, or oth­er­wise – is a “dirty com­puter” that needs fix­ing to fit in with their bland, blank im­age of per­son­hood. As Monáe told Rolling Stone, she her­self used to be­lieve she had “a com­puter virus” that needed to be purged in or­der for her to suc­ceed.

THE IR­ISH TIMES

Dirty Com­puter is the dreamy, neon haze of Black Mir­ror’s San Ju­nipero episode, meshed with the ten­sion of

The Hand­maid’s Tale and the vi­brancy of Soul Train. It couldn’t feel more now. While in­ten­tion­ally pay­ing homage to the dar­ing and an­drog­y­nous Prince through­out

Dirty Com­puter, in a world where women are kept in sec­ond place, when Monáe em­braces her own fem­i­nin­ity, it feels fear­less.

Pynk, her grungy and tit­il­lat­ing pop col­lab­o­ra­tion with Cana­dian elec­tropop wiz­ard Grimes, repack­ages fem­i­nine soft­ness – rep­re­sented by the colour pink – as a type of strength, with the video act­ing as an un­abashed ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the fe­male form. On the su­per flir­ta­tious and funk-laden Take a Byte, she main­tains a light-hearted and un­in­hib­ited ap­proach to sex. The hon­esty feels rev­o­lu­tion­ary.

While this dystopian uni­verse may be a way to soften the very hard and per­sonal truths that Monáe hits, the al­bum is ac­tivism in sonic form. Dirty Com­puter is flam­boy­ant and re­silient, fun and hard-hit­ting and, if you’ve ever felt so­cially and po­lit­i­cally op­pressed, a spot has been saved for you in this brave new world. Monáe closes the al­bum by invit­ing you to break free from this bro­ken and dis­torted Amer­i­can dream. All you have to do is sign your name on the dot­ted line.

AT­LANTIC

Black, fe­male, and – she re­cently con­firmed to Rolling Stone – queer, Monáe wants to turn the con­ver­sa­tion about “in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity” into some­thing lively and tan­gi­ble. Her songs de­scribe dis­crim­i­na­tion with fresh ver­biage, and in­clude some of the most mem­o­rable protest lyrics of the Trump era (sam­ple: “Hun­dred men telling me cover up my are­o­las / While they block­ing equal pay, sip­pin’ on they Coca Co­las”).

Ste­vie Won­der makes an ap­pear­ance to preach uni­ver­sal love, but un­like a cer­tain other pop idol’s es­pous­ing of such no­tions re­cently, this is hu­man­ism with a pro­gres­sive edge. The fact that most any­one can en­joy Monáe’s tune­ful de­fi­ance is key. She’ll hap­pily draw in lis­ten­ers whose big­gest so­cial trans­gres­sion is, say, danc­ing alone. But she’ll do so to help her more ur­gent cause: fight­ing so­ci­ety’s ex­clu­sion of peo­ple based on im­mutable char­ac­ter­is­tics. She wants, in essence, to make ev­ery­one nor­mal – no mat­ter what they look like, who they love, or how they dance.

The most af­fect­ing mo­ment comes on the slow-crest­ing ser­mon of So Afraid, in which this “dirty com­puter” cops to very quo­tid­ian fears of fail­ure and loss. Else­where, on the widescreen an­them Crazy, Clas­sic, Life, she pines for a sort of ac­cep­tance that is rad­i­cal only be­cause it hasn’t been fully granted.

VUL­TURE

The time-travel con­ceit sep­a­rates

Dirty Com­puter from the more dream­like and im­pres­sion­is­tic stag­ing of re­cent vis­ual al­bums like Bey­oncé’s Lemon­ade. Where

Lemon­ade laid its breath­tak­ing po­etry, dance, and per­for­mance-art se­quences out like me­ta­phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tions of Bey’s rage, Dirty Com­puter is, at its root, a list of ways that strong, young, black, queer women ter­rify the world just by ex­ist­ing, and a re­buke to the work that goes into si­lenc­ing their voices.

(When you re­alise that Jane’s only “crime” was en­joy­ing what looked to be a care­free triad re­la­tion­ship with her two part­ners, Zen and Ché, played by the ac­tress Tessa Thomp­son and the model Jayson Aaron, the sys­tem­atic de­struc­tion of a string of mo­ments of hap­pi­ness shared be­tween the three of them is trans­formed into com­men­tary on the hor­rors of con­ver­sion ther­apy. Jane’s story is es­pe­cially poignant con­sid­er­ing Janelle has just come out as pan­sex­ual in an in­ter­view this week that in­cluded a photo of her in a shirt that says “The Ru­mors Are True.” She is be­lieved to be dat­ing Thomp­son, but she won’t say whether she is or not, as she needn’t. Open­ness does not re­quire full dis­clo­sure.)

Dirty Com­puter is as much a cel­e­bra­tion of love as a threat to pow­er­ful mer­chants of hate.

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