‘Dirty Computer’ is Not a Coming Out Album-Because Janelle Monáe’s Music Has Been Queer All Along

Like confessional poetry, her art goes beyond simple personal revelation

I n the sci-fi “emotion picture” released alongside Janelle Monáe’s new album, Dirty Computer, two white men serve as technicians who “clean” (that is, delete) the memories of so-called dirty computers — androids who rebelled against the social order in some way, by appearance, actions, or anything that seemed remotely defiant of norms. These men are clearly low-ranking employees — not the decision makers, but the cogs in the wheel of the institution that erases the individuality from the dirty computers. Before erasing a given memory, they play it back, either as part of the job or for their own amusement, it’s hard to tell. What they see in the scenes from Jane 57821 — the android played by Janelle Monáe — seems to confuse them. These scenes are not simple episodic memories. Instead, they’re music videos — in fact, they are the same music videos Monáe dropped as standalone pieces in the weeks leading up to the album release. In this way, the videos live in both the fictional world of Dirty Computer, the film, and the real world of Dirty Computer, the album. This ambiguous state, halfway between reality and science fiction, seems to leak into the film itself: after the memory/video for “Django Jane,” one of the technicians expresses doubt: “I don’t know what this is. Doesn’t even look like a memory. What is that, is that a dream?” The other man cannot give him a direct answer; when the technician repeats the question, he simply responds, “Delete it and move on.”

That unanswered question also pervades the reception of the album itself. Is Dirty Computer a memory or a dream — a candid autobiography of the singer, or a fantasia on the android-centric world carefully built by Monáe’s previous albums? By posing this question inside the film, Monáe draws attention to one of the key effects of confessional art: it simultaneously invites you to understand it as reflecting the “real life” of the artists, while it reminds you that art is by definition crafted and thus a performance rather than unfiltered, unmediated access to the artist.

Monáe draws attention to one of the key effects of confessional art: it simultaneously invites you to understand it as reflecting the “real life” of the artists, while it reminds you that art is by definition crafted.

The Prince-inflected, outrageously catchy “Make Me Feel,” which was the first single released from Dirty Computer, begins with a coy verse.

Baby, don’t make me spell it out for you
All of the feelings that I’ve got for you
Can’t be explained, but I can try for you
Yeah, baby, don’t make me spell it out for you
You keep on asking me the same questions
And second-guessing all my intentions
Should know by the way I use my compression
That you’ve got the answers to my confessions

If you listen to this song without watching its deliciously bisexual music video, you’d never guess that much of the media coverage of Monáe’s new album Dirty Computer describes it as a coming-out narrative. It reads, in fact, as a plea against coming out, with one’s sexual intentions if not one’s sexuality.

Monáe’s sexuality, however, has been one of the most-discussed aspects of Dirty Computer. In a Rolling Stone cover story just before the album was released, Monáe said she had been in relationships with both men and women and identified sexually as a “free-ass motherfucker.” This steered the media narrative around Dirty Computer as a coming-out album, as “finally revealing the real person” behind Cindi Mayweather, the android persona she adopted for previous albums.

While it’s true that Janelle Monáe, the human being who writes and sings and dances like the reincarnation of James Brown, has started speaking more openly about her personal life and her sexual identity, these interpretations assume that her alter ego is a protective disguise, a straight mask that Monáe wears to hide her true self. But who says Cindi Mayweather isn’t queer?

In the universe of Monáe’s music, Cindi is an outcast, a fugitive on the run from bounty hunters. Cindi’s crime is one of sexual identity: she fell in love with a human. From the start of Monáe’s career, the EP Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), Cindi has been exiled for loving the wrong kind of creature. This is just one of the reasons that her fans (myself included) have long understood Janelle Monáe to be making queer art, whether or not she identified as queer herself. In fact, in one of the skits on the album The Electric Lady, a caller to a radio DJ (again, inside the world of Cindi Mayweather) shouts “ROBOT LOVE IS QUEER,” offering no further explanation. It makes sense — both the idea that androids can feel love in the first place, and that this love can target the “wrong” object, clearly threaten the social order in ways that mirror the way queerness threatens heteronormativity and patriarchy. At least within the world of Cindi Mayweather, robot love is manifestly queer: what other kind of love engenders that much anger?

Her fans have long understood Janelle Monáe to be making queer art, whether or not she identified as queer herself.

Which means that Monae is not exactly casting off a straight mask to reveal a queer reality. But is she casting off a mask at all? Is Janelle Monae’s new persona really closer to “herself”?

Critics define confessional poetry in different ways, but here’s a loose description: confessional poetry is an influential set of literary practices that arose in the United States in the late 1950s, characterized by a sense of intimacy with the reader and a tendency toward self-mythologizing and an almost obsessive interrogation of the reliability of the poem’s speaker (that is, the “I” of the poem). Confessional poetry is written in a style that reassures the reader that they are reading something that is private, secret, perhaps shameful — that there is a real person behind even the most spectacularly crafted poem, a person that the reader learns about by interacting with the poem.

One of the great tricks of the confessional mode, though, is to seem private, while being public. You may feel like you’re reading, say, Sylvia Plath’s raw diary when you read “Daddy,” but you’re not — you’re encountering “Sylvia Plath,” as written in a finely tuned artwork. (If you want to read Plath’s actual diary, you can! And then you can make your own comparison of Sylvia Plath and “Sylvia Plath.”) Even “Lady Lazarus,” which is often read as directly speaking of Plath’s repeated suicide attempts, highlights its own artifice:

Dying
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

Many people read these lines as a glorification of death, a kind of personal pride in gaining mastery over mortality. But what I always come back to is the quietest phrase, the one that almost seems like it could be a throwaway line: “like everything else.” It’s not just that dying is an art — it’s that everything is, including this seemingly raw glimpse into the mind of the self-destructive poet. The confessional mode, in Plath’s words, is a “big strip tease”: a performance of exposing oneself, an art of appearing artless.

The confessional mode, in Plath’s words, is a “big strip tease”: a performance of exposing oneself, an art of appearing artless.

The sense of unfettered access to Plath, the woman, through her art has had a significant impact on the critical reception of her work and her status in American culture. This conflation of art and artist was perpetuated by Plath’s husband Ted Hughes, who frequently insisted that scholars and fans of Plath’s work could never understand it like he did, because he was married to Plath. In other words, Hughes seemed to claim that because he had the most access to the “real” person, he was the one true reader of her art. To maintain this claim, however, Hughes had to ignore much of what makes Plath’s poetry so innovative: its ability to tempt you into reading it as autobiographical, while simultaneously calling attention to its artifice.

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In a piece called “The Poem as Mask,” the feminist writer Muriel Rukeyser, who was troubled by the way Plath’s suicide affected her literary reputation, wrote what might considered a confessional manifesto. In this poem, she declares freedom from the artistic personae she had previously created for herself, including that of Orpheus, the mythological singer who founded lyric poetry:

when I wrote of the god,
fragmented, exiled from himself, his life, the love gone down with song
it was myself, split open, unable to speak, in exile from myself.

After exposing the poetic persona as a “mask,” Rukeyser rejects her former poetic method, exclaiming “No more masks! No more mythologies!” Yet the title of the poem suggests that the rejection of masks cannot ever be fully complete: if a poem functions as a mask, then doesn’t this very poem also function as a mask? The newly reconciled persona, no longer “in exile” from itself, still reveals itself through poetry. There is no authentic, unmasked singer: the very act of singing creates another mask. Self-revelation is an art, like everything else.

There’s no doubt that many of the songs on Dirty Computer allude to the life of Janelle Monáe, the artist — particularly the incisive “Django Jane,” which drops references to Monáe’s acting career and public image. (The line “Remember when they used to say I look too mannish” — which still makes me shout with queer-girl happiness when I hear it — clearly alludes to Monáe’s frequently androgynous fashion, for example.) It’s tempting to read Dirty Computer as an obliteration of Monáe’s fictions — but that only works if you interpret the album without its accompanying film. Dirty Computer, the film, is clearly intertextual, an Afrofuturist fantasia that melds Blade Runner, Metropolis, Westworld, and Monáe’s previous music videos. Even Monáe’s character name, Jane 57821, alludes to her earliest work, incorporating both Cindi Mayweather’s registration number and the song “Sincerely, Jane” from the Metropolis EP. In other words, as a film, Dirty Computer is still building the sprawling, cross-genre, fantastic world that Monáe’s has been creating for the last decade. Given that Monáe released both works simultaneously, using the “memories” from the film as music videos for the songs, approaching the album as completely separate seems too simple.

If we interpret Dirty Computer as an album about the “real person” behind the android persona, then we miss one of the key messages of the Cindi Mayweather saga: deciding who counts as “real” is an exercise of power. Cindi Mayweather’s rebellion against her oppressors — who can’t stand the possibility of humans and androids mixing — suggests that favoring the real over the created is itself a form of bigotry.

I don’t want to discount the importance of Janelle Monáe — the real-life, brilliant, successful woman of color — officially coming out. It’s glorious — I know I’m not the only one who texted all her queer friends to celebrate. But I also think that, as in Rukeyser’s poem, the artistic mask plays two roles: it obscures, but it also represents. In other words, the disguises we wear always reveal something about who can be found underneath, by virtue of the fact that they are chosen. Monáe may wear vagina pants in the video for “Pynk,” and Tessa Thompson’s head may literally appear between her legs — but the only place they have a “confirmed” relationship is inside the film Dirty Computer.

We can still look for codes, try to figure out what’s real. But the line between Monáe and her characters has always been blurry. In “Q.U.E.E.N.” (which we now know was originally titled “Q.U.E.E.R.”), she both demands that “electric ladies” wake up and follow Cindi’s lead, and she declares “Gimme back my pyramid, I’m trying to free Kansas City,” the real-life hometown of Janelle Monáe. Who counts as the “real person” here: Cindi or Monáe? Who speaks when Janelle Monáe sings?

Who counts as the “real person” here: Cindi or Monáe? Who speaks when Janelle Monáe sings?

Before she came out in Rolling Stone, Monáe would answer questions about her sexuality by saying, “I only date androids.” There are two ways to interpret that answer: that Monáe was dodging the question, hiding behind an android mask — or that she was always telling us a truth, choosing a mask that was an exact replica of the person wearing it. Robot love is queer, and Monáe has always been out and proud as a robot.

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