Everything is sex – except sex, which is power
Janelle Monáe, ‘Screwed’
As soon as I hit ‘play,’ a throbbing, sensuous synth groove begins, accompanied by alternating tongue clicks and finger snaps. Over this funk-inflected hook, Janelle Monáe’s vocals start the song with the suggestive tease ‘Baby, don’t make me spell it out for ya,’ before building to one tantalising crescendo after another. Once again, I am listening to ‘Make Me Feel,’ the first single to be released ahead of Monáe’s Dirty Computer. The multi-talented performing artist’s fourth album was accompanied by a feature film – or, as she prefers to describe it, ‘emotion picture’ – a highly theatrical stage show, and a collection of short stories. In one fell swoop, this song and its video announced the artist’s departure from the ambitious trio of concept albums that had previously established her reputation as one of the most exciting pioneers of neo-Afrofuturism.
Gone were the tightly controlled alt-rock anthems, performed by a stylishly androgynous figure in a buttoned-down tuxedo. ‘Make Me Feel’ was presented instead as the calling card of a new Janelle Monáe: one who was ready to publicly express her embrace of the sensuous, the erotic and the sexual as an essential ingredient in her cross-media world-building. Its music video underlines the extent of her transformation, and the endless struggle to embrace the transformative power of the erotic in the face of a normative culture’s ceaseless attempts to subordinate and oppress. ‘Make Me Feel’ is therefore the perfect starting point for a reflection not only on Monáe’s own negotiation of these energies but also on the broader tensions that delimit eroticism in pop culture – and the risks we run when we unleash its transformative energy.
The track’s powerfully seductive lyric starts by gesturing expressively towards the chasm that lies between the coldly rational world signifiers and the deeply felt affective world that transcends description. The opening verse perfectly captures the impossibility of capturing deeply felt physical desire in words: ‘All of the feelings that I’ve got for you / Can’t be explained, but I can try for you.’ But after summarising her own fluidity as an ‘emotional sexual bender,’ Monáe quickly gives up the attempt, as the chorus simply repeats the deliberately inarticulate words ‘That’s just the way you make me feel,’ qualifying them only with the interruption ‘So real, so good, so fuckin’ real.’
Of course, it is this very ‘fucking realness’ that is at stake here: our inability, or at least our unwillingness, to see mind and body not as neatly separable components, but rather as deeply integrated parts of who we are. Or, even more provocatively, to perhaps come to accept our conscious, ordering mind as secondary to the more real-seeming emotions that are manifested, expressed and shared physically. Appropriately, it is through the physicality of music, rhythm and dance that Monáe communicates this unspeakable but quite universal idea.
Acknowledging, accepting and embracing the primacy of desire, as the lyric so playfully suggests, is therefore felt more palpably in the musical hook that powers the track than it is in the lyric. Co-authored by Prince and reminiscent in many ways of his similarly themed 1986 hit ‘Kiss,’ the track has an irresistibly laid-back funk groove that repeatedly explodes outward into chaos. These moments of musical pandemonium are accompanied by explosive shrieks and squeals, as Monáe repeatedly yells out ‘Good God! I can’t help it’ – indicating the panicked feelings of helplessness when in the throes of passion. Musically, the track’s organisation thereby manages to walk a thin tightrope between the main groove’s tightly organised seductive power and the fear of the chaos that could be unleashed by giving into it completely.
The track’s music video – directed by frequent Monáe collaborator Alan Ferguson – translates this abstract tension into narrative terms. Whether viewed on its own or as a sequence within the longer Dirty Computer emotion picture, ‘Make Me Feel’ shows Monáe’s character being torn between her attraction to two potential partners: a woman portrayed by Tessa Thompson, and a man by Jayson Aaron. This trio’s mutual attraction is played out in the space of an underground club, where Monáe’s character also encounters the physical embodiment of her own desire for sexual liberation. This sprite-like figure is also played by Monáe, visible in the club space with a distinctive blonde haircut, her energetic presence strikingly visualised in a variety of colourful costumes and make-up designs while fronting a group of dancers with her twirls, spins and electric guitar riffs.
While this blonde doppelgänger represents the liberating power of the erotic, the main character’s hesitation to express her pansexual desire is staged by placing her two potential lovers on opposite sides of a pink-and-purple-hued podium, while her blonde doppelgänger runs back and forth, embracing each in turn. This liberating example in the symbolic realm is directly translated to the physical space of the club, where Monáe’s character is subsequently pictured dancing intimately with both her partners simultaneously. The sequence thereby visually and narratively dramatises the struggle for liberation from arbitrary inhibitions, especially those that proscribe binary choices between different ways of understanding one’s sexual desires. In short, her embrace of the erotic allows her to move from a world of ‘either/or’ to one grounded in ‘both/and.’
‘Make Me Feel’ thus announced Janelle Monáe’s full embrace of the erotic as an instrument of liberation – or more pointedly, as what Audre Lorde so memorably described as ‘that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.’1 In her famous essay ‘Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,’ Lorde distinguishes the erotic explicitly from the pornographic, which reduces sex and desire to a purely transactional mode while reducing women to objects to be traded, exploited and dehumanised within a patriarchal social hierarchy.
It’s a crucial distinction that Monáe previously seems to have conflated into a single thing. On her first album Metropolis: The Chase Suite (2008), she had sung the words of warning ‘When you take off your clothes, all your dreams go down the drain, girl.’ This line encapsulates the performer’s own approach to public visibility as a performing artist. Throughout this first phase of her career, Janelle Monáe had obviously been very conscious of the many ways in which young Black women are routinely objectified and sexualised by powerful media industries that seek to profit from their pornographic commodification. By wearing her hair in a tightly coiffed pompadour and donning a black tuxedo as her on-stage ‘work uniform,’ she avoided these traps while at the same time establishing herself as a beloved queer icon.
In hindsight, it was this early-career rejection of the Black Jezebel stereotype that made her later embrace of the erotic possible. The fact that Monáe’s initial celebrity had established her so clearly as operating outside of heteronormative standards of pornification created a space for her to publicly embrace pansexuality and mobilise the power of the erotic in her more recent work. Indeed, her transition from romantic but seemingly asexual android to explicitly pansexual Dirty Computer is all the more powerful for the fact that this new incarnation of her public image builds upon the queer persona she had previously constructed, precisely to avoid the corruption of genuine eroticism that normative straightness always seeks to impose.
Queerness, then, is absolutely central to any understanding of the erotic as something that is both personally and politically liberating. More than just a question of individual sexual orientation, queerness represents a radical rejection of straight, white patriarchal oppression by embracing a fully intersectional understanding of social power. More than merely existing as a gay, bi or trans person, a truly queer subjectivity always thirsts for more of everything that matters: more pleasure, more fun, more justice, more sex, more love, more dignity, more life. Or, as Eve Sedgwick famously summed it up, queerness refers most vitally to ‘the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, or anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically.’2
This transformative force, as embodied in the ‘Make Me Feel’ video by Monáe’s blonde and wholly free-spirited doppelgänger, is expressed on the album most powerfully in the track ‘Crazy, Classic Life.’ This anthemic song effectively opens both the Dirty Computer album and the film (following brief prologues in both media), and it loudly and proudly eviscerates the self-loathing and respectability politics that too often stifle queerness’s liberatory potential.
Throughout this track, Monáe sings about desire as a productive force. Sounding off first with a male voice reading out the most famous passage from the Declaration of Independence, Monáe’s lyric quickly connects its more abstract wording of universal rights (‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’) to the more physical delights of a life unburdened by heteronormative oppression (‘I just wanna party hard / Sex in the swimming pool’). The chorus’s repeated line ‘I want a crazy, classic life’ therefore represents an ambition, as much private as political, to ‘break the rules’ and live the fullest, richest and freest life possible.
This illustrates with crystal clarity how queerness harbours an irreducibly utopian core. As the great queer-of-colour theorist José Estéban Muñoz illuminated in his essential book Cruising Utopia, the world we currently inhabit is governed by what he calls ‘straight time’: an experience of temporality that is defined by the most boringly unimaginative forces of whiteness, masculinity and heterosexuality. Embracing queerness therefore constitutes a release (however temporary) from its seemingly ubiquitous power, opening up for us instead an infinitely better reality defined by ‘ecstatic time.’ Thus, ‘to see queerness as a horizon is to perceive it as a modality of ecstatic time in which the temporal stranglehold that I describe as straight time is interrupted or stepped out of.’3 Let us then move on to look more closely at how Monáe invites us to step outside of straight time along with her.
THE MANY UTOPIAS OF ECSTATIC TIME
Within the context of the Dirty Computer emotion picture, ‘Crazy, Classic Life’ is presented as the first of many queer memories that are in the process of being deleted from the consciousness of Monáe’s character, Jane 57821. In the near-future dystopia where the film is set, anyone who deviates from straight time’s normative power is marked as a Dirty Computer and is made to undergo invasive reconditioning. Beyond the obvious similarity to real-world gay conversion therapy treatment, the story’s science-fictional framework elegantly expresses the ways in which straight time is grounded in the violence of oppression and exclusion.
For those who can easily adapt to straight time, there is no direct threat. But for those of us marked as ‘deviant,’ their very existence is perpetually at risk. As the emotion picture’s prologue forebodingly intones: ‘You were dirty if you looked different. You were dirty if you refused to live the way they dictated. You were dirty if you showed any form of opposition at all.’ Existing as they do outside of straight time’s confines, those marked as Dirty Computers undergo an invasive ‘cleaning’ process that locates and deletes their most crucial memories. This provides a basic structure for the emotion picture that allows individual music videos to be incorporated into a frame narrative where each represents a particular memory, dream or vision – while also acknowledging how those categories constantly bleed into each other.
Dirty Computer’s near-future society is a profoundly dystopian environment ruled over by the fascist organisation New Dawn: a group with obvious similarities to the Christian fundamentalist Republic of Gilead in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). But even within this darkly totalitarian future the memories we witness as they are being eradicated positively overflow with utopian energy. The ‘Crazy, Classic Life’ video that makes up the first memory invites us to witness a joyous illegal party full of Black punks, white David Bowie impersonators, and multi-ethnic genderqueer Jodorowsky cosplayers. These illicit festivities, full of art, dance and impromptu connections, provide a compelling glimpse of what it means to exist – even temporarily – inside ecstatic time.
For where straight time is a framework that rigidly regulates and compartmentalises who we are and what we are supposed to feel, ecstatic time releases us from its rigid binary hierarchies, opening up a state of radical freedom that feels downright dizzying. It’s the kind of experience we associate with brief moments of release – at parties, festivals or during vacations – that share several traits with the carnivalesque. But where carnivals offer a recurring ritual of structural reversal (where the fool gets to be king for a day), ecstatic time represents a more radical transformation of deeply ingrained social, political and sexual hierarchies.
Indeed, one might say that the most crucial objective of queerness is to embrace and expand ecstatic time to the point that straight time’s hegemony is severely weakened, and ultimately even entirely overturned. Therefore, by connecting her use of the erotic to the utopian horizon of a radically queer ecstatic time, Monáe mobilises a critique of normative power that is as infectious as it is open-ended.
In this sense, Monáe’s utopian horizon of possibility builds upon the pioneering work of earlier Afrofuturist musicians. Sun Ra and his jazz ‘Arkestra’ famously pioneered the elaboration of alternative realities through avant-garde musical experimentation. This approach was further extended by George Clinton’s P-Funk collective: the colourful and boundlessly creative ensemble of ‘funketeers’ who staged extravagant stage shows that culminated in the landing of a massive alien mothership on the stage. The characters Clinton and his band played during these shows launched an Afrofuturist space odyssey in which they would harness the mystical power of what they called ‘Funkentelechy’ to pull the audience into orbit with them. Their iconic ‘bop guns’ were sci-fi weapons that couldn’t do any harm. Instead, they pass on their energy to those who had heretofore been tragically devoid of funk, using the physical force of Funkentelechy to open up ecstatic time to all.
Monáe’s 21st century Afrofuturism is clearly inspired in many ways by P-Funk and other pioneering predecessors. But as a queer Black woman, her creative work takes these ideas in more inclusive, more radical and altogether more ecstatic directions. In her early work, her concept albums had already given this kind of world-building an explicitly Black feminist energy: the main narrative of her robotic alter ego Cindi Mayweather coming to lead a revolution as the messianic ArchAndroid is all about Black women’s agency, leadership and empowerment. Yet at the same time, the story’s central romance explicitly maintained the gender binary, while her tactical avoidance of sexual objectification also ended up rendering these albums – as wonderful as they are – somewhat cerebral, and oddly disconnected from the erotic as a creative and political force.
This is why Dirty Computer marked such a powerful culmination of the energies she had been accumulating. Her recent creative work has fully embraced the erotic as a crucial bridge connecting the spiritual to the political.4 This connection thrives on the transformative energy inherent in queerness, as it continuously projects utopian horizons that structurally undermine straight time’s hold over us all. These utopias draw their power not from their permanence but precisely from their fleeting, ephemeral, fragile nature. These moments of direct sensual connection between human beings gain such resonance because they bring to life an intoxicating alternative to the deadening reality of straight time.
Throughout Dirty Computer these ephemeral utopias take shape as spontaneous gatherings outside the view of the formal representatives of straight time’s regulatory power: in ‘Crazy, Classic Life,’ an epic party is violently disrupted by heavily armoured storm troopers; in ‘Let’s Get Screwed,’ the fugitives are chased by drones through an abandoned office building full of striking artworks, ending up at an underground club where they dance and perform music on a small stage; in ‘Django Jane,’ Monáe and her squad present themselves as Black radical leaders, but only within the confines of an enclosed interior palace; and in ‘Make Me Feel,’ her queer embrace of pansexuality takes place during a night out in a small club, where Jane and her lovers can evade New Dawn’s ubiquitous surveillance.
But the utopian potential inherent in queer eroticism is most powerfully illustrated by ‘PYNK’: the album’s most visually striking music video, its most popular song and its most explicitly erotic concept. Like ‘Make Me Feel,’ the song that follows it directly on the album and emotion picture, ‘PYNK’ combines a central synthesiser riff with the organic rhythm of recorded finger snaps, yielding a sensuous and inviting musical groove. Its lyric, too, combines copious sexual innuendo and double entendres with a frank dissection of gender roles and assumptions about the nature of sexual desire.
At first glance, the track appears to be a straightforward celebration of feminine sexuality centred on women’s genitalia. Indeed, Dutch designer Duran Lantink’s eye-catching ‘vulva pants’ featured in the music video and the stage show invite this reading, while the many suggestively incomplete lines in the lyrics point in a similar direction (‘Pynk, where it’s deepest inside … crazy’). But a closer look reveals a radical sexual politics that goes beyond the already unusual ode to female genitalia. Those unfinished lines also open the song up to a thoroughly queer understanding of gender. A line like ‘Pynk, is the truth you can’t hide … maybe’ deliberately places a question mark where all too many TERFs would put an exclamation point.
But rather than merely reversing the hierarchical relationship between masculinity and femininity, ‘PYNK’ presents all gender expressions as grounded in desire and identity rather than biology. This is equally evident in the video, which includes a long series of playful visual metaphors for sex organs and sexual acts: a variety of short close-up inserts supplies not just obviously vaginal imagery, like shots of an oyster and a finger exploring the inside of a pink frosted donut, but also the appropriation of phallic signifiers, like a baseball bat hanging down between a woman’s legs, or a pink lipstick being extended out from its holder like a tumescent erection. In the context of the video’s pink-toned heterotopia, where we see a diverse community of Black women dancing, exercising, hanging by the pool, and gaily frolicking amidst the sand dunes, these provocative inserts all strengthen the track’s expression of the erotic as a tool for Black feminist empowerment.
The video’s staging at a remote desert outpost where no men are present at all opens up the track and its video sequence to a consideration of the erotic as something that flourishes outside of the presence of the male gaze. Safely secluded within the abandoned Pynk Hotel’s women-only retreat, Monáe’s character consummates her love for Tessa Thompson, as the two women face each other across a voluptuous sea of Black women’s gyrating bottoms. But where such display of women’s bodies could otherwise so easily slide into straight time’s semi-pornographic titillation, ‘PYNK’ instead embraces the queer eroticism that marks ecstatic time as an irreducibly political concept.
THE EROTIC POLITICS OF TRANSFORMATION
The subversive political energy of Monáe’s queer Black eroticism is palpable throughout Dirty Computer – the ‘PYNK’ video’s representation of a community of queer Black women captures this spirit at its most utopian. But, of course, this utopia only exists as a tiny pocket within a larger dystopian world, where ecstatic time can only be captured briefly as a momentary exception to straight time’s implacable grindstone. The resulting contradiction dictates that ecstatic time doesn’t simply constitute an alternative to normative straight time: the two modalities oppose each other, and therefore each operates as an irreducibly political concept.
Monáe’s first book The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer (2022) expands further on the tensions inherent in this world’s political struggles, offering up a half-dozen short stories set within the Dirty Computer storyworld. ‘Nevermind,’ co-authored with Danny Lore, further explores the music video’s communal environment, establishing that the Pynk Hotel functions as a refuge for Dirty Computers on the run from New Dawn. As the video’s depiction of the abandoned desert rest stop had suggested, the place is an all-women enclave in the middle of nowhere: a place for the most oppressed groups to find a haven from prosecution and find healing in each other’s company.
The ‘Nevermind’ narrative adds further levels onto this utopian conception by homing in on internal as well as external tensions that elucidate the eroticism of ecstatic time as a political concept. The first way it does this is through the story’s depiction of simmering hostilities that inevitably build into conflict within this seemingly utopian community. This tension is fuelled by the same matrix of oppression that underlies straight time’s hierarchical organisation: some of the cis-gendered women at the refuge come to express discomfort about Neer – a trans woman who has recently joined the group. It shows how the people within this seemingly utopian enclave still carry with them the political and ideological preconceptions and contradictions that inform the world around them, which aren’t magically dissolved once they enter the Pynk Hotel.
The tension within the community then comes to a head when it is attacked from the outside: New Dawn’s storm troopers, led by specially recruited empaths called ‘blushounds,’ manage to locate the refuge and launch an attack. But after an exciting chase sequence, the community members manage to escape, in large part due to Neer’s ingenuity, and capture a single blushound named Bat. She, too, wishes to desert the New Dawn forces that had forced her to collaborate, and to join the refuge, which leads to a showdown among the members. The discussion finally reveals that the Pynk community has been betrayed by a transphobic member who had hoped New Dawn would merely remove the members who weren’t ‘genuine’ women, thereby once more imposing straight time’s rigid parameters on a group struggling to redefine identity in a radically inclusive way.
Even if the Pynk Hotel is ultimately forced to become ‘maybe a little more mobile’ by the end of the story, its political force remains in its clearly defined principles grounded in the erotic as a force of meaningful transformation.5 Its hopeful persistence with-in this larger dystopian framework surely foregrounds the vulnerability inherent in this kind of resistance – but, more than that, it also clearly demonstrates its resilience and inner strength. The strength in genuine queer alterity is grounded in liberation from oppression. And therefore, to quote Audre Lorde one last time, the erotic is ultimately the one thing that can ‘give us the energy to pursue genuine change in within our world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama.’6
- Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, London: Penguin Books, 1984, p.45.
- Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Tendencies, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993, p.8.
- José Estéban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity – 10th Anniversary Edition, New New York, NY: York University Press, 2019, p.32.
- Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, London: Penguin Books, 1984, p.46.
- Janelle Monáe, The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer, New York, NY: Harper Voyager, 2022, p.163.
- Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, London: Penguin Books, 1984, p.49.