New York Times Magazine staff writer Jenna Wortham profiles singer, songwriter, and actress Janelle Monáe before the launch of “Dirty Computer,” the artist’s first new full-length album in five years. The album has been much anticipated — Monáe has chosen to forego use of her alter-ego, android Cindi Mayweather, and sing as herself; Prince weighed in on tracks early on in the recording process; and supporting visuals hint at a new openness in celebrating a queer femme aesthetic and sexuality. Wortham’s piece considers whether the new music delivers, and the careful tightrope walk that black women in the public eye must perfect.
Most popular music is so determinedly centered on heterosexual dynamics that any hint of same-sex interactions can feel revelatory, even radical, upon the first encounter. That’s the way it felt to me when I first watched [Janelle] Monáe’s film. The queer sexual interactions are refreshingly explicit — miming digital and oral sex — and images throughout celebrate women. The video for the song “Pynk” is an extended appreciation of the female anatomy, with neon signs screaming, “[Expletive] Power,” and pink-frilled jumpsuits that wouldn’t look out of place in a Judy Chicago installation…
These days, the culture seems more accepting and welcoming of queerness: Young actors and pop stars like Amandla Stenberg and Lady Gaga are identifying publicly as bisexual. Lena Waithe and her fiancée were recently photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair. And yet, nonheteronormative sexuality remains the last taboo. Monáe is media-savvy enough to protect herself from becoming tabloid fodder for publications that want to turn her personal life into spectacle or reduce her art to her sexuality. She told me repeatedly that she worried what her early fans and very religious and very Southern family would think. There’s little precedent for a black female celebrity at her level living openly as a lesbian in a gay relationship.
Monáe has spent a lifetime perfecting the art of being a pop star who isn’t a sexual object. Discretion is a survival strategy, a coping mechanism especially useful for black women living in the public eye. But she has now made an explicit album about sexual expression and identity that is somehow still shrouded in ambiguity. In 2018, empowerment isn’t a color — it’s a call to action. It’s Cardi B talking about how much she loves her vagina, not holding a neon sign explaining that she has one. On “Dirty Computer,” it still feels as if Monáe is deciding which version of herself to show the world.