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How We Talk About Mary

I grew up with Bruce Springsteen. When my father was home from work trips, he would sit in his basement office, the “woah-oh-oh-oh-oh”s floating up the staircase into the living room. I don’t know if I can call myself a fan, exactly, because I don’t know if I can disentangle him from my dad, from how I look back at my childhood. Ironically, much of Springsteen’s music tackles the process of looking back on childhood from a complex present, so there’s a good number of his songs that reduce me to tears. Springsteens’s got an emotional shortcut to the angst (“angst”) of my white, suburban upbringing in America.

Janelle Monae’s music also reduces me to tears, but for very different reasons.

I first listened to Janelle Monae’s Archandroid because it’s about robots, and because the protagonist of the concept album is named Cindi Mayweather. It’s rare to find Cindys, Cynthias, etc. in fiction that aren’t middle-aged women with anger issues, or vaguely ditzy women in 1980s films (see: Schwarzenegger’s Commando). It’s rarer still to find the name Cindi taking up space within science fiction, in the future.

Over the course of Metropolis, Archandroid, and The Electric Lady, Janelle Monae has spun a tale of Cindi Mayweather, an android who fell into forbidden love with a human man. The album Metropolis tells the story of the initial pursuit of Cindi Mayweather by oppressive government forces; Archandroid covers her rise to fame, speculating that she may be the “Archandroid” (robot Jesus); and The Electric Lady focuses on android society, with interludes from a radio show, where it becomes clear that Cindi Mayweather is inspiring an android revolution. The albums, especially when you consider the music videos, don’t totally tell a clear and linear story; it is not always clear when Janelle Monae’s performances are as Cindi Mayweather or as herself, what’s meant to be part of the story or just  a song Monae felt like tossing in the mix. But even this can’t muddle Monae’s passion as she evokes struggles and joys, highs and lows within a spaceships-and-robots future.

Bruce Springsteen and Janelle Monae are both storytellers, and very particularly American in the way they tell their stories. Springsteen emerged from the bar-band tradition of the 70s, and as time has gone on, his roots in Irish and American folk have become more and more explicit; Woody Guthrie songs are a regular feature at his concerts. (So is Trent Reznor, funnily enough.) Janelle Monae is working from the trend of Afrofuturism, which is more of a global musical idea, but she also has influences coming from jazz, hip-hop, the minstrel tradition, and R&B. (Footnotes on Genius told me all of these things. I won’t pretend I know anything about black music or its history.) Springsteen and Monae are both musical omnivores, pulling from American traditions and the current culture to forge new directions for their own music.

Springsteen and Monae are reflecting the realities they’ve seen. Famously, Springsteen’s “Born In The USA” has been widely accepted as a nationalistic anthem, when its lyrics are about the difficult experiences of Vietnam veterans; as time has gone on, Springsteen has been almost aggressively dedicated to clearing up the misunderstanding about the flavor of his patriotism. Both Springsteen and Monae have written songs about the shooting death of Amadou Diallo, who was shot by the NYPD after being mistaken for a rape suspect. Springsteen’s song “American Skin (41 Shots)”, written in the direct aftermath of Diallo’s death in 1999, is lyrical and saddened, his lyrics outlining how “you can get killed just for living in your American skin.” The refrain of the chorus is the repetition of “41 shots,” emphasizing how many bullets were fired in Diallo’s direction. Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” from 2015, is more raw, outrage and heartbreak set to a drumline. Monae and other artists signed to her Wondaland label (all of whom are black) shout the names of police shooting victims, repeating the command to “say [his/her] name.” Springsteen’s song focuses on Diallo, illuminating how fraught it is to be a black American; Janelle Monae’s song is a warcry, emphasizing that there have been a flood of deaths since Diallo’s, and none of them should be forgotten.

When Springsteen talks about injustice, he may have touched on Diallo in particular, but in his discography at large, he tackles a wide variety of subjects. He ennobles veterans, factory workers, the blue-collar man, American nostalgia (see “Glory Days”), and the American roadway as an avenue to freedom. He often tackles how economic depression affects each of these issues, the complex ways industry is innately entwined in our American identity (“Them smokestacks reaching like the arms of God into a beautiful sky of soot and clay” from “Youngstown”). Springsteen has written songs about the AIDs crisis (“Philadelphia”), World Trade Center firefighters (“The Rising”), and Amadou Diallo, ranging across the pantheon of American struggle. Springsteen tells the stories of things he has never experienced as often as he tells relatable stories of getting drunk and liking girls.

Monae also honors blue collar workers through her “uniform” of black and white outfits, meant to honor the uniforms of her working-poor background in Kansas City. But Bruce Springsteen reconciles the good and the bad of this country into a larger tapestry; his America is an ongoing effort, one that is continuously improved by resistance and protest. The struggles in America feel equal, in his eyes, to the successes. When playing “Hungry Heart” in concert, Springsteen and his E Street Band will form a dancing line evocative of New Orleans celebrations and dance around the venue. (At Jax Arena, I saw them leave the arena and return with drinks from the bar just outside.) While “Born in the USA” has been incorrectly painted as a certain kind of patriotism, Springsteen doesn’t shy away from embodying a certain kind of white American hero–the kind with dirt under his nails and contempt for Republicans, but still. His callbacks to the past are generally to ennoble it, even as he admits that the past was just as complex as the present is.

Janelle Monae, in theory, could also be seen as painting a broad brush, since her songs are all set in the future, and focused around androids. When she addresses issues of conflict, of oppression, of a police state pursuing Cindi Mayweather, she isn’t specifically addressing her issues to America, but to a nameless oppressive government. Her songs could, theoretically, be related to any struggle, to any government and any minority. But the move to the future hasn’t made society less oppressive or less difficult; it is much the same as it is now, with perhaps the notable fictional “enhancement” being that love between a man and an android is illegal. And gay marriage was legalized in the US after Electric Lady came out, so even that isn’t much of a stretch. Monae’s future is romantic, passionate, and rich in detail, but the outline of its society is drawn pretty exactly from current society. Also, the metaphor for androids as black people isn’t actually subtle. Every android we see in every music video bears Janelle Monae’s face. One of the androids from the Electric Lady interludes talks about the “left and right cheek of [her] rusty black metal ass.” “The Chrome Shoppe” interlude, about a chrome polishing establishment, echoes the culture around black hair.

Springsteen and Monae are both entangled in America, in the working class, and in protest, but Monae’s relationship with these issues is more complicated. As Springsteen himself might attest, Monae’s “American skin” has placed her in a position of vulnerability and danger that Springsteen has never experienced. Janelle Monae has lost a cousin to drive-by shootings, and she’s probably experienced many of the common prejudices black people regularly face in America. This is perhaps why Monae isn’t at all certain that the future will change. To her, the past that Springsteen so thoroughly covers is irrelevant; the present is more relevant, and the future it will become. But that future is not bright; it is much the same as before, with new window dressing. If you listen to the news, it’s not hard to tell why Monae is angry in “Hell You Talmbout,” but perhaps more telling is the way she depicts a future with little change to society, the bleakness that implies.

Springsteen and Monae both speak to a “Mary,” but they are wildly different persons. Not all of Springsteen’s relationships with women are with an ephemeral “Mary;” in “For You,” a younger Springsteen paints a picture of a suicidal woman who feels very alive. But most of his women are “Mary,” a “barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge” (“Jungleland”) or “wrap[ping her] legs ’round these velvet rims” (‘Born to Run”)–they’re mostly setpieces for his masculinity, in a larger point he’s making about America. “Mary” is static because Springsteen’s relationship to women, to femininity, is fairly static. He can try his hardest to understand and reflect the struggles of women–of oppressed minorities–but while he does well, he will ultimately keep forgiving America for her sins.

Janelle Monae, by contrast, talks to a more singular Mary, and, more pointedly discusses the issues. While her albums are from the future, Mary is someone intimately familiar to Monae, a Mary who can be asked questions. Mary also doesn’t represent all women; Monae speaks directly to electric ladies, sings about queenliness with Solange, and includes female characters in Electric Lady’s radio interludes, including a white-sounding “Peggy Lakeshore” who is “disgusted” by Cindi Mayweather. Women are far from monolithic, because Monae has the perspective to have more complex feelings to express about women. She’s also in a position to have a much more complex position about race, about justice, and about American society. Her America does not have a reconciliation, because it is not an America that is simple, that could have an easy answer.

Even though it’s a total coincidence, it also feels very revealing that Janelle Monae recently portrayed the real-life Mary Jackson, NASA’s first black, female engineer, in the film Hidden Figures. Monae can very literally become Mary. Springsteen, barring any revelations about his gender identity, can’t be Mary. He may have once lived inside the stories he sings about, but he’s been a rich white musician for several decades now; these days, they’re just stories. Janelle Monae, meanwhile, is choosing to fictionalize her real life, to let rockets and robots make it easier to discuss the pains of being reduced, ignored, and persecuted.

They’re both talented artists, but it’s worth thinking about whether you, too, are telling stories you no longer understand, without taking the time to listen to those who are “living in American skin.”

You can discuss Springsteen, Monae, America, or anything else with the author in the comments or on Twitter.

UPDATE 4/26/18: This seems like a strange sort of article to update thanks to breaking news, and yet, here we are. Janelle Monae just came out as pansexual–in her interview with Rolling Stone, she specifically pointed to her references to Mary in songs like “Mushrooms and Roses” as being some of the clues that have always been embedded in her music. While I have often felt that Monae was a queer woman, in part due to her references to Mary as well as her previously evasive statements to the press about her personal life, I ultimately didn’t include it in the final draft of this essay. Would it be appropriate to analyze Mary as a romantic figure when that was, at that time, speculation on my part? And was it appropriate to imply that Monae herself was queer when she was so private about her personal life?

Since Monae has now confirmed it for herself, the comparison of Springsteen and Monae’s Marys only seems more appropriate. For both of them, Mary is a love interest, and this is worth examining, since, as I mentioned, their Marys are fairly different animals within the text of their music. Mary’s intimate relationship to Monae is complicated, intertwined with Monae’s own female inclinations, and tied up in the complex love and attraction that queer women feel for other women. Women are one of the cores of what Monae wants to address, what she wants to discuss–Springsteen discusses women as parts of an American experience. And that makes for a pretty huge difference.

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