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Friday, December 06, 2013

Dance or Die

I didn't post a Janelle Monae appreciation snippet yesterday, what with teaching and all, so today I'm posting the orchestral overture of ArchAndroid together with "Dance or Die," the track that immediately follows from it. I have said that in a way posting disparate Monae tracks like this to express appreciation for her talent also renders appreciation of what is unique about her work harder, because many of the most powerful effects of the music derive from wild juxtapositions between contiguous pieces as well as from an accumulation of musical and thematic and rhythmic and narrative impacts that build on one another over the sweep of a suite of songs or even from listening to records in a row that were released over years. You can get a small inkling of that listening to this couplet of opening tracks together, I think.

The orchestral opening is marvelously witty and romantic and essentially American, in fact doubly so: first, the sweeping string vistas as well as those abrupt urban rhythms and that wailing siren immediate take you to Barber's symphonic essays and Gershwin's Broadway (all very much in that definitive mid-century American pocket of Copland and Bernstein strings and horns), but then it takes us right into Hollywood, with some lovely, cheesy, jazz-inflected, Bond-movie riffs from the sixties and a chorus from the twenties reminding us that Monae has described Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz is one of her key musical influences.

A burst of static and applause drives us right into a slick poppy Afro-Caribbean dance party, all joy and political agitprop. One should never forget the way righteous rioting in the streets was once anaesthetized into quiescence by the release of the single "Dancing in the Streets," but Janelle Monae isn't giving us the loosely kinda sorta political Hallmark Card vapidity of Rhythm Nation dance grooves (don't get me wrong, I still love that record), Monae's lyrics are genuinely informative and genuinely agitational, like Lauren Hill and Marvin Gaye at their best (recall, by the way, the incandescant rap coda from Monae's recent dance single Q.U.E.E.N.: "Yeah, I'mma keep sangin', I'mma keep writin' songs/I'm tired of Marvin asking me "What's Going On?"/March to the streets 'cuz I'm willing and I'm able/Categorize me, I defy every label").

From an interview earlier today Monae says: "At the shows, I don’t just see women, I see men coming with their girls, showing support. These shows have been like none other. I have been unable to even hear myself on some songs because the audience is so loud, they know every word. They know the rap in “Q.U.E.E.N.” These are inspirational words. They’re words that I have to look to for healing when I’m going through things. To know that we’re really trying to empower and enrich their lives, it’s a great feeling that they’re gravitating and hearing it. It’s just so encouraging. It lets me know that when I get tired that there’s somebody there who appreciates you going the extra mile."

Just as the suffusion of song after song with afrofuturist figurative/narrative tropes is not some promotional gimmick but a dense rhetoric infused with testimony to the pain and promise of the lived contradictions of this moment and its opportunities for change among the organized, Monae's individual lyrics are more than just catchy, they are enormously considered. Dance need not be distraction, it is at once an embrace of joy and the right to joy in an epoch of exploitation and violation and shaming, but also a space for making memorable slogans and canalizing collective energies in ways that might take people into voting booths and into the streets. Monae knows as well as anybody does, knows as well as my students do -- they are from the same abused and enthused generational cohort, after all -- that white racist anger and patriarchal fear has embedded us in suicidal stasis like gnats in amber as planetary inequities destabilize, as debts mount, as weapons pile higher, as clean water evaporates and breathable air chokes with soot and fertile topsoil blows into the sea and temperatures rise and the earth howls in its death throes in a tantrum of Greenhouse storms. Time is short. Dance can be a distraction, but it can be a place of education, a call to action, a reminder why life is worth living and fighting for. Read the lyrics of Dance or Die and you tell me if Janelle Monae is giving you more than a beat you can dance to. As promised, I will take up Monae's afrofuturism and the Cindi Mayweather mythos at greater length as Janelle Monae Appreciation Week draws on to its close.

Cyborg, android, d-boy, decoy, water, wisdom, tightrope, vision, insight, stronghold, heartless, ice cold, mystery, mastery, solar, battery

Some will pull the gun because they want to be stars
Snatching up your life into the blink of an eye
And if you see your cloning on a street walking by
Keep a running for your life cause only one will survive
War is in the street and it's an eye for an eye
Run on for your life or you can dance you can die
She's praying in the sand like she's the last samurai
It's a stick up stick up and a pick up pick up
Telling lies and telling lies will put your face on fire
Run and tell your friends to never dream, never win
Ghettos keep a crying out to streets full of zombies
Kids are killing kids and then the kids join the army
Rising and a waking, yes sir here comes the sun
March into the war and with the kick of the drum
The wiser simians have got the bombs and the guns
So you might as well keep dancing if you're not gonna run

A long long way to find the one
We'll keep on dancing till she comes
These dreams are forever
Oh these dreams are forever
And if you wanna wake the sun
Just keep on marching to the drums
These dreams are forever
Oh these dreams are forever

Now I'm not saying it's better to bailar [Spanish for dance]
You can pull the trigger or you can build you an ark
My words are rather kind you keep them held in contempt
Looking for a nine and then a droid you can tempt
Zombie, zombie, zombie, where do dreams come from?
A little bird is chirping and she's singing a song
She's shaking em and waking em and giving em mas
As the clock tick tocks and the bodies drop
I'm gonna lay myself so far way down right in your chops
Modern day example of the wolf vs flock
Freedom necessary and it's by any means
Frozen they were stolen all the kings and queens
Sudanese and Congolese who put the roll in the rock
From here to Sudan, Metropolis to Iraq
It's a minute to the dawn and yet the sun ain't back
It's a war in all the streets and yes these freaks will dance or die!

A long long way to find the one
We'll keep on dancing till she comes
These dreams are forever
Oh these dreams are forever
And if you wanna wake the sun
Just keep on marching to the drums
These dreams are forever
Oh these dreams are forever

Angel, blossom, gunshot, dodging, dream, bright, beat, light, breathe, live, help, give, focus, trance, wake up, dance!

I'm praying for the man sitting without much time
May he understand the clock will never rewind
Wisen him and sharpen him and give him a motto
hate no more, said he must hate no more
You see the daylight comes into the kingdom
But the kingdom's full of ignorant men
Just keep rebelling away, you gotta dream it away
Because the weatherman on TV ain't creating the weather
This man wants to see another jubilation
And that man wants us in emancipation
And then there is the man who wants a stronger nation
You see we really got to and i think that we ought to
Protect the mind from degradation
Sow in the seeds of education
They run from us, are we that dangerous?
There's a war in all the streets and yes the freaks must dance or die!

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