JANELLE MONÁE – ‘DIRTY COMPUTER’
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.
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.
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.