Political Songs | The parody of ‘Dirty Computer’

Janelle Monáe has stripped away the metaphors of her previous albums and given full voice to her views on freedom on ‘Dirty Computer’

It’s unlikely that singer Janelle Monáe had Rosa Luxemburg in mind when she called herself a “free-ass motherfucker” in a Rolling Stone interview last year. But Monáe, who released one of 2018’s finest albums, Dirty Computer, could just as well have been considering the views of the early 20th-century socialist hero, thinker and anti-war activist.

Luxemburg, who was assassinated a century ago on 15 January 1919, wrote in her critique of the Russian Revolution: “Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party — however numerous they may be — is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of ‘justice’ but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when ‘freedom’ becomes a special privilege.”

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More than a hundred years after Luxemburg wrote those famous words in 1918 in The Russian Revolution, freedom remains elusive for many who think “differently” — the outsiders, the disenfranchised or “dirty computers”, as Monáe calls them.

“So I wanted to make an album for all the ‘dirty computers’ of the world,”  she said in a BBC interview. “Those that are told they have bugs and viruses, that they need to fix themselves, that they need to clean themselves.”

While the “free-ass motherfucker” reference was regarding her sexuality (she recently identified as pansexual), freedom, especially the lack thereof when it is a “special privilege” only for some, again features prominently in her work. On Dirty Computer, Monáe, as an African American queer woman, courageously tackles the patriarchy, racists, homophobes and sexists. There’s certainly no shortage of freedom hijackers in 2019.

Monáe is not a Jane-come-lately when it comes to political music. She used her android alter ego, Cindy Mayweather, to explore ideas of prejudice and class on her 2007 debut EP Metropolis, her first album The ArchAndroid (2010) and her 2013 release The Electric Lady. But with Dirty Computer she not only moved into a more poppy direction (with her mentor Prince’s masterful input before his death in 2016) but also felt brave enough to discard the metaphors of those albums. There’s no doubt they are Monáe’s views and beliefs you are hearing.

Dirty Computer is a highly political album. Monáe deploys a range of devices to make her points. She uses parody on the track Americans:

I like my woman in the kitchen
I teach my children superstitions
I keep my two guns on my blue nightstand

Americans is based partly on a speech then senator Barack Obama delivered on 28 March 2008. In the speech, titled A More Perfect Union, he addressed racial tensions and inequality, as well as white privilege. This is the speech, some say, that got him elected as president. About two-thirds into Americans, one hears echoes of Obama as the song rises into a state of the nation-type crescendo:

Let me help you in here
Until women can get equal pay for equal work
This is not my America
Until same-gender loving people can be who they are
This is not my America

Until black people can come home from a police stop without being shot in the head
This is not my America
Until poor whites can get a shot at being successful
This is not my America.

Musically, Americans quotes Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy. It also starts off churchy, then gets upbeat, infectiously singalong and exuberantly dancealong. It is powerful, empowering, politically inclusive, communal and accessible pop. That’s what makes Dirty Computer such an engaging album. Because of its inclusivity, by making “dirty computers” seen and loved, it shows that pop can also make coherent political statements.

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