21 February, 2011
This young girl called Janelle Monae arrives on stage on the shoulders of a giant. In front of her is a symposium crowd with, left and right, some fans that have actually bought a ticket to see either her or Neon Indian (who plays a little bit later) perform. So some people in concert attire, the rest looking like they have just wandered in from a, ehrm, well, symposium. This girl, dressed like she is in a 1930s Jazz band with the all black and white fanciful look, plays some songs from her EP. She goes all out on the theatrics, at different points during the performance standing on a stool, painting a painting, and diving into the audience. The audience, some of whom might or might not have been to a live gig ever before, are well surprised and barely catch her during the stage dive.
This didn’t happen last week, obviously. Because this time around she plays for a sold out crowd of people who all have come to see her, and her alone. A tour with of Montreal, opening for Prince, some showings on MTV and whatever more: it all got her quite the fan base. Where previously it was basically her and her guitar player, this time she’s got the whole shebang with her, including a two man horn section and enough balloons to make Atlantis rise to the surface again. Where that very first time I saw her she had to work with stools and with crew members to get the theatrical into the show, this time around she has got a projection screen, her band members have multiplied, and she’s got dancers and masks and costumes. Everything says, Hey guys and girls, I am a star now.
A star, by default, lets you wait. I saw Grace Jones once, and it seemed as if she deliberately waited for the first Boo birds to arrive on stage. The doors open at 19:00, and without an opening act the crowd has to wait for two hours for Miss Monae to arrive. The crowd – which was becoming just a tiny bit restless – seems to immediately have forgotten the wait when the big screen shows Monae doing an opening monologue in character as cyborg Cindy Mayweather. After that Monae gets into overdrive from the get go with ‘Dance or Die’. She plays about the first couple of songs from her last year released debut The ArchAndroid before turning to some of her old staples, the classic Chaplin song ‘Smile’ and the EP hit ‘Sincerely, Jane’, which I still think is on par (if not even better than) any of her new singles.
Those singles, ‘Cold War’ and ‘Tightrope’, are saved for the end of her regular set, and the ten minute encore solely consists of an extended free for all version of ‘Come Alive’, which seems to take after Jimi Hendrix. The middle part of the concert is home to some of the more ballad-like songs, during one of which she paints, something that was absent from her previous show in Holland. The singles and ‘Sincerely Jane’ certainly get the crowd going, but for people not hardcore into the material I can see why the middle section could be a bit of a lull.
However, what I like most about this performer is, first of all, how she deliberately creates this collage of influences and works them into the show. Both on the screen behind her, in her performance, in the music, as well as in the playlist before and after the show she uses all the people she loves and admires to craft the thematic ideology that runs through her show. Before and after the show we hear Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie for example, on the screen behind her we see Muhammad Ali and images of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and in her songs and performance it is hard not to see the influence of James Brown, David Bowie and even contemporaries like of Montreal. Monae succeeds in translating her ideology onto the stage, an ideology rooted very much in the science-fiction of Lang, Bowie and Philip K. Dick and her African-American Roots like Jazz, Soul, Funk (the attire of the old swing bands, the cape of Brown, Hendrix booming out of the stereo before and after her gig) and Muhammad Ali. These influences are all deliberately embedded in her performance to further create and put into performance her ideas.
After the show is long over she comes back on stage with the whole band and crew to light-heartedly auction off the painting she made during the performance to the person who can answer one of the questions she poses. Where during the performance she always seems in character, here she seems at ease, relaxed, and informal. A divide between the performer and the performance on one hand, and the woman Janelle Monae on the other. That she has the tunes to skyrocket her into stardom I think no one doubted, but the most impressive thing for me – and what I think sets her apart from a whole host of other mainstream artists – is how she is so post-modernly able to convey her ideas and put them into a well-crafted performance. Maybe there are better pop shows out there where the hits keep on coming and coming, but what Monae does is not only pop, it borders on performance art, and that is what sets her apart from the pack for me.