“Review: Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer” by Paula Ashe and Jaime Hough


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Let’s start with the fundamentals: Every single song on Dirty Computer is good.

I don’t mean good in an I-want-to-teach-it-way (although I do) or good in a contains-layers-of-nuance-and-depth way (although they do) I mean just good-good. I mean good in a I-could-listen-to-this-all-day-way and good in a I-never-get-tired-of-this-song-way and good in a I-think-this-song-is-my-favorite-but-how-can-I-really-choose-when-they-are-all-so-good kind of way.

You’ll like all of the songs on Dirty Computer, but you’ll love a few of them.

Monae’s work has always been about seeing from the perspective of the social Other. She uses the figure of the Android — a machine designed and programmed by humans to appear human and serve humans— to stand in for Othered identities whether they be woman, femme, non-white, queer, LGB, trans, or disabled. The Android in Monae’s work represents all of us who have been seen as less than human by an imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist, hetero-patriarchal system.

Each of the songs on “Dirty Computer” and the “emotion picture” or film Monae released via BET to accompany the album explores this theme of what it means to be Other in the contemporary United States. Because of that, there will be specific songs that speak to the ways in which you have been Othered and Objectified and rendered less than human that you can’t help but love.

The opening track, “Dirty Computer” is a duet of sorts with Beach Boy Brian Wilson. It may seem like a strange choice, but Monae wanted surf music to accompany the web surfing milieu of the album’s discursive context. Song, album, and concept, are very much products of this specific moment in 21st century America.

For instance, in the bridge of her song, “I Like That,” Monae croons, “You rated me a six. Damn. But even back then with tears in my eyes I always knew I was the shit.” This line harkens back to the era of Hot or Not an early 2000’s website that moved through college dorms and high school halls faster than HPV and Mono, respectively. For those who don’t remember it, users uploaded their picture and were rated on a 1 to 10 scale of hotness. Because these were the days when it was common to not have internet in your home, an analog adaptation of the game quickly spread to middle schoolers. In this version peers rated each other, sometimes anonymously and sometimes not. Indeed, “I Like That,” is an anthem for everyone who has been called weird or not hot or not worthy for staying true to their love of science-fiction, anime, natural hair (after all, it is the ‘sin’ of ‘going natural’ that elicits the aforementioned rating of a ‘six’), D20s, or whatever else. You do you, boo. You’re still the shit.

A former student of mine called the video for “Make Me Feel” a perfect visual representation of bisexuality. Musically, it is an homage to Monae’s mentor, Prince, as well as an ode to the sensual swagger of David Bowie and the fierce black girl magic of the original “Vamp,” Grace Jones.

“Crazy, Classic, Life” is the type of song you want to listen to when your brush your teeth in the morning or get ready to go out on Saturday night–essentially, any time you are psyching yourself up to have a great time. And while the music is an upbeat, poppy delight, the lyrics belie a seriousness that represents the central tension of the song: as a person (or ‘droid) constructed as Other, she can never be as carefree as those whose humanity is the default and always assumed.

“Screwed” could be an anthem for optimistic nihilism. It’s a great song to listen to when you feel, well, screwed, but pretty okay about it. For Monae, the revolution may not be televised but it will be sexualized — queerly and blatantly in the face of conservative condemnation.

“Americans,” as far as we’re concerned, should be the new national anthem. It turns conservative rallying cries such as “Don’t try to take my country” and “stand my ground” on their head. In Monae’s mouth they become the rallying cries of everyone who believes in the potential of what this country could be if justice and liberty for all really meant for all.

By far, one of the best songs on an already incredible album is “Django Jane” which is a celebration of Monae’s success and a clapback at her detractors. In many ways, “Django Jane” is the heart of Dirty Computer. It establishes Monae as fighter, visionary, and success–themes that carry through the album and emotion picture as a whole. It also unapologetically celebrates women–another theme of the album and emotion picture. With lines like:

We gave you life, we gave you birth

We gave you God, we gave you Earth

We fem the future, don’t make it worse

You want the world? Well, what’s it worth?

And

And n—-, down dawg

N—- move back, take a seat, you were not involved

And hit the mute button

Let the vagina have a monologue

Mansplaining, I fold em like origami

 

The album centers black womanhood as not just essential to America but central to the world.

This brings us to one of the most remarkable things about Dirty Computer as a whole.

It is the only instance I can think of in which the male gaze is not just dismissed but actively repudiated.

From the merkins in the music video for the song “Pynk,” which is a celebration of female anatomy and female pleasure containing the line, “Cause boy it’s cool if you got blue/ We got the pink,” to the aforementioned injunction for men to take a seat and a calling out of Hoteps in “Crazy, Classic, Life,” Dirty Computer isn’t anti-men but it is anti-patriarchy. It is anti-unearned power, including the power of the male gaze to classify the worth of feminine art.

Like all Monae albums the lyrics are smart, the songs are solid, and the videos are like little glimpses into another world.

The visual component has always been inseparable from Monae’s musical work. While her lyrics stand on their own she has always given careful attention to the nuances of meaning that images add. Monae burst on the scene with a multi-album concept starting with “ArchAndroid” which gave us a vision of a despotic world, ruled by oligarchs, served by the subhuman androids, in which magic, both symptom of and metaphor for originality, was ruthlessly pathologized and policed. In “Electric Lady” we saw a world with less of the balls-mysteriously-floating-in-the-air variety of magic and full, instead, of the subtle, persistent magic of intimate relationships between friends and lovers. “Electric Lady” also showcased a lot of what would be known as #BlackGirlMagic–something even more robustly developed and explicitly referenced in “Dirty Computer.”

When “Rolling Stone” called Monae’s Emotion Picture, released shortly after the album, a sci-fi masterpiece upon its release they overlooked the fact that Monae has been consistently worldbuilding in all her albums.

What the viewer misses between “ArchAndroid” and “Electric Lady” is that there has been a civil rights movement in the world Monae has created. Androids now move more or less freely throughout society holding jobs rather than being owned by elites. Black women attend college and belong to sororities with histories of excellence.

Just as Dirty Computer, the lyrical album, cannot be analyzed apart from “Dirty Computer,” the emotion picture, “Dirty Computer” as a body of work cannot be analyzed out of the context of Monae’s other work. In the evolution of ArchAndroid to Electric Lady we see a world that is very different from our own but has a similar social history moving from the pathologization of difference and slavery to oppressed communities creating their own sanctuaries from which to prosper in a wider world still dominated by the old biases.

In this framework, Dirty Computer can be seen as a commentary on our present and near future. So then, what is Monae’s vision?

It’s not pretty. An authoritarian force known only as the Light has taken control. People are called “computers” and are identified as dirty when they exhibit any uniqueness. dirty computers are taken to the House of the New Dawn to be cleansed of their dirt through the elimination of their memories. After being cleansed the computers are then initiates of the Light, known as torches, who are given new names and work to spread the Light.

As bleak as this is, the world of Dirty Computer is also a world with a thriving resistance full of the best and brightest from which no one is disqualified because of skin color, weight, sexuality, ability, or otherness. If Hulu’s depiction of The Handmaid’s Tale offers a vision of the United States controlled by Christian Nationalists then Dirty Computer offers a vision of the United States controlled by the violence of colorblind bureaucracy which seeks only compliance in all its citizens. There are historical examples of each, of course, but one of the things Dirty Computer does brilliantly is to display the banality of evil in a way which The Handmaid’s Tale does not.

In Dirty Computer we see bored technicians enacting the memory erasing procedures. They torture Monae and other dirty computers through the mediation of walls of glass–the one sided viewing glass and the glass computer screen–indeed, the technicians are simply entering a set of routine protocols akin to data entry and are divorced from their human subject and the human consequences of their actions. What comes across loud and clear in Dirty Computer is that, while there may be a few true believers in the cause of the light, the system itself has been built by people who want to enforce a compliant population and are not averse to using pseudo-religious jargon and outright torture to do it.

There is one moment in this tour de force that stands above the others for me (Jaime), however, and that is in the film that accompanied the album release that goes by the same title. In the film, Monae’s character, Jane57821, is undergoing a memory wiping treatment after being labeled a dirty computer. The music videos that were released before the film appear for the viewer as memories of Jane57821 that are being wiped and are interspersed with the backstory of Jane57821’s life in the months before her arrest and imprisonment by the Light. After the video for “Django Jane”, which is a beautiful representation and celebration of #BlackGirlMagic, black femme leadership and #FemmeTheFuture the agent in charge of wiping Monae’s memories says, “That’s not a memory. What is that? Is that a dream?”  

How better to critique 400 years of U.S. history then by showing a video of Black queer femme power and ask if it is a dream.

There can be no memory of such a bold vision of black queer femme leadership because it has never existed in the United States. It can’t be a memory. Is it a dream? This one sentence, in the context of the emotion picture, functions as a critique of existing U.S. social structures and an aspirational model for social organizing. How do we make that dream real?

Dirty Computer is the third act in the Monae’s carefully constructed tale of the ArchAndroid, but it is also another stunning audio visual feast joining the ranks of Beyonce’s Lemonade and Solange’s A Place At The Table. All three of these albums speak to different aspects of being black in America but, because black bodies and black lives, are the foundation, mortar, and currency which define America, they are also reflections on America and Americanicity.

At its heart Dirty Computer is more than an album, even though it’s a damn good one. Dirty Computer is a syllabus. The first access to the album for many fandroids was a special section of Monae’s website where users had to type the phrase “I am a dirty computer” to enter. Once inside Monae listed the texts that inspired every song on the album from women’s studies classics, black feminist thinkers, to comic book heros.

But Dirty Computer is more than that, too.

We’ve both made a lot of syllabi in our time. Some of them were very good syllabi.

But the role of the syllabus in the contemporary US academy is a paradoxical one. The syllabus exists to remind you of how much you have to learn before you go out and do.

Dirty Computer is, ultimately, more than the sum of its parts. It is a sacred text in a new era of Black feminist praxis. It is the next iteration of black feminist techno-ontologies.

Techno-ontology will also be a contested term because it is constantly in flux as the technologies we use evolve and, in return, evolve our understanding of ourselves. References to this process are scattered throughout Dirty Computer from the song “Take a Byte” to Monae’s formative experience of Hot or Not in “I Like That.” This reciprocal relationship defines “Dirty Computer” and Monae’s vision of the near future. The line “deep inside we’re all just pink” from “Pynk” is both a reference to female genitalia and also a statement about ontology. Humans are made of meat. Inside we are all pink–not motherboard green or silicone clear. In essence, we can never be computers and any system that depends on us being so will always find actual meat-made, pink-inside humans to be deeply flawed, or dirty.

Dirty Computer is the latest in a long history of texts in which black feminists have used various analog and digital technologies (important in itself as it repudiates popular misconceptions about black women’s involvement with technology), but have also shaped web technologies; recognizing the actualizing potential in web applications, social networking, and digital video production and release. These strategic interventions allow black women to bypass traditionally  controlled boundaries and gatekeepers and, instead, create and inhabit spaces that centralize black women’s experiences and black feminist activism. Spaces like the imagined ones in Dirty Computer which are inevitably met with a backlash like the New Dawn, vanguard of the Light, in more ways than one.

Yet, in the dystopian near future of Dirty Computer there are many reasons for hope. Throughout all of Monae’s projects the android represents the melding of technology and ontology, a combining in which both aspects are enhanced beyond their intended limits. The ArchAndroid, the Electric Ladies, and now Jane57821 are all cyborgs in Donna Haraway’s sense of the term. They all represent a different iteration of the embodiment of black feminist techno-ontologies. The world that the resistance of Dirty Computer is fighting for, and which our current resistance should be fighting for, is one which centers the comprehension of power structures which is – if not intuitive — then innate to the non-default, those non-normative identities ascribed to people of color, women, and the ‘impoverished’. The vision of techno-ontology presented in Moane’s world-building project, but particularly in Dirty Computer, is dichotomous. On one hand it represents technology turning us into our worst selves, until we lose sight of our humanity. On the other, we can use technology to center the Other, to destroy the old boundaries, and form a society constituted by the true depth and breadth of human experience in which all of us are able to be, in the words of Monae, “a free ass motherfucker.”

 

 

 

Paula Ashe is an educator, writer, and PhD candidate in the American Studies program at Purdue University.

Dr. Jaime Hough graduated with her PhD in American Studies from Purdue University. She founded abd2phd.com to help other graduate students avoid all the mistakes she made.

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