Janelle Monáe on The Electric Lady and Bo Diddley

Janelle Monáe on The Electric Lady and Bo Diddley

By design, Janelle Monáe doesn’t fit neatly into any musical genre. Her EP Metropolis: Suite I and 2010’s The ArchAndroid combine lush soul, catchy pop hooks, and carefully arranged orchestral backing with futuristic influences, all while she remains in character as alter ego Cindi Mayweather, a rebellious android from a dystopian future. Monáe is equally distinctive off-stage, maintaining creative partnerships with, among others, Erykah Badu and André 3000 and business relationships with both Diddy and CoverGirl. Her new record, The Electric Lady, has already spawned catchy singles with more direct crossover appeal than ever, including “Q.U.E.E.N.” with Badu and “Primetime” with Miguel. In preparation for the release of The Electric Lady, Monáe spoke to The A.V. Club about choosing collaborators, Michael Jackson, and what music she would save from the apocalypse.

The A.V. Club: How did your collaboration with Miguel on “Primetime” come about?

Janelle Monáe: The collaboration happened through our music and energy, being out there, and both of us were fans of one another. I read in interviews that he wanted to work with me, and I loved Adorn and loved what he was doing. I loved that he was writing and producing his own music, and I thought that was really cool. So when I was ready to write the love song, I thought he was a great communicator to women and to people in general, and I wanted him to be a part of my vision for “Primetime.” I was just honored to have the opportunity to produce him and work with him and honored that he trusted my guidance throughout the song.

AVC: It sounds like he fit into a vision of the song you already had. Do you usually look for collaborators who fit into the preexisting picture of a song? 

JM: I usually look for people who have really interesting hairlines. That’s how I pick all my collaborations.

AVC: You’ve mentioned that you view androids as a sort of societal other, replacing other marginalized groups. How do you see your work as engaging with the concept of there always being an “other” group?

JM: I believe that the android is a new form of the other, but you can parallel the other to so many different types of people. Even if you don’t consider yourself to be the other, at one point in time I’m sure you felt like that. There are some groups that for years and years have not gotten the rights that the majority of human beings have, and I think that it’s important to continue to draw these parallels so that when we think about our future we can change some of the lives of people who love differently than we do, look different than we do, who come from a different class. It’s all about bringing awareness to how important it is to be accepting of people, of others, of everyone, because we all have to live on this planet together, and there will be oppression if one group thinks they’re more important or superior.

AVC: You’ve recently become one of the faces of CoverGirl. How do you see that fitting into the ways you’ve tried to engage with or critique the way society sees femininity?

JM: Well, I’m honored to be a CoverGirl and to be standing beside so many beautiful, bold women like Queen Latifah, Pink, Ellen DeGeneres, and so on. I take the position very seriously. It’s a huge platform, and I’ve always wanted to connect with young girls and, leading by example, encourage them to love themselves and be who they are, to voice their opinions, and to show a different side of what beauty can be. That’s what CoverGirl is doing—they’re showing the diversity of beauty, so that every girl can feel like she can be a cover girl, too.

AVC: How does that diversity compare in importance with the ways girls are told to dress, to look, or to make themselves up by society?

JM: They both complement each other. When you have different perspectives out there in magazines, on TV, and in the media, it just gives girls more options. It gives boys and girls different perspectives on life, more options, and more diversity in the world—which is a diverse world; the world is not all monolithic, and we’re not all the same. Having those options is very important because it’s making sure many women who come from different backgrounds are taken care of and can see themselves out there and are represented as well.

AVC: How did the concept for the “Dance Apocalyptic” music video come together?

JM: I wanted to toy around with an alternate universe and also question if the apocalypse were to come tomorrow how would it go down? How would we spend our last few hours? I wanted to make sure that the video was reflective of that energy, and I thought it would be really cool to create a female rock star in this alternate universe.

AVC: That rock star character appears as a guest on a talk show, and you also play a newscaster in the video. Was the heightened role of television in the video intentional?

JM: Of course, it’s there in the video, with the motion picture reference. It’s showing what’s going on around the world, seeing new information come in so that she can understand what’s going on outside of that place. As the Electric Lady is performing, you have to have context for what’s going on. 

AVC: So in that alternate universe, the apocalypse is happening. What music would you save, if you’re rebuilding our understanding of music and what society thinks of as musically important?

JM: Rhythm and blues. The Electric Lady is really inspired by the diversity of rhythm and blues, in particular one of those rhythm and blues pioneers, Bo Diddley. He was a great American writer and composer who inspired The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, and The Rolling Stones. There are so many subgenres that came from R&B music. So with this album, I wanted to make sure we were showcasing the diverse sound of rhythm and blues, because rock ’n’ roll and all these emerging genres came from rhythm and blues.

AVC: Any songs or albums in particular?

JM: Well right now I’m promoting an album, so The Electric Lady, The ArchAndroid, Metropolis. Those albums are very important because they speak to many different aspects of life—to life, to power, to the next generation and where we’re going, and the sound of love, an album that’s about unity. The album has so many strong statements and messages, that we need to go to an alternate universe and go into a different frequency [to] feel things that need to be felt.

AVC: The deluxe edition of The Electric Lady includes a cover of “I Want You Back.” Why that particular Jackson 5 song?

JM: It resonated with me. There are so many amazing Michael Jackson songs from different stages of his career, and that happened to be one of my favorite stages. It makes people happy, and I love the tone, and musically, it has a lot of places to go for our orchestra. It has a lot of odd instrumentation. The version I did does not sound like the Jackson 5 original recording. I wanted to interpret it my way and record it differently, while continuing to pay homage to him, but I saw it in a different light. I’m really excited to let you guys hear it because you’ll get a chance to hear that song from my perspective. I had a dream about it and how I wanted it to be recorded.

AVC: Do you see there being a wrong way to interpret your work?

JM: It’s not up to me to tell you how to take in music. Sometimes you just won’t move people, and sometimes you’ll move a lot of people. It’s out of love, and once you add it to the world it’s yours and it belongs to you. I just pray and hope that it inspires and empowers and influences your life in a very positive way, influences you to be the best you can be by listening to this music.