I admit that most of the happiness I derive from this video is the visceral pleasure of watching Monae perform. The Annie Lennox gender bending, the classic dance nods to Michael Jackson and James Brown, and the way she opens her arms in wide swim strokes like everybody should step back so her outsized persona can get through.; it’s completely mesmerizing. She’s strikingly self-possessed.
But that’s just the most obvious surface. The song itself is bold for audaciously shedding anything like a standard pop format: sounding like a Curtis Mayfield opera written for the Uptown String Quartet. It’s riveting and full of tangential suites, where dream-sequence acapella breaks into a list-rap of denigrating terms that one presumes Monae has had directed at her. The song is existentially searching without being pretentious. When she challenges the listener with “So when you’re growing down/instead of growing up/tell me are you bold enough to reach for love”, it’s really a gorgeous plea asking people if they can manage to be the best of themselves under the worst circumstances. My answer: not so much. But damn, it’s a great lyric. The rest of the song explores themes rather than hewing to a chorus; it’s a galaxy of a song with a charismatic center.
The backstory of the video certainly evokes a lot of thoughtfully thorny questions. Since it seems like a parody of the excess of moral absence in entertainment, it’s no surprise that the images end up in bumper car impasse. (Seriously, why throw out the vampire? Why are the Kubrick orgy people there?) Monae presents herself as a pop star of confrontation, since the video pretty clearly draws the paralells from fashion shows to slave auctions to the representations available to black women in the arts.
When Monae sings “You’re free, but in your mind, your fredom’s in a bind” , it’s obvious that she’s in part referring to her self-consciousness in becoming a pop star. The afro-mohawk, the tuxedo, the intentionally short-circuited sexualization, all point to an artist that’s fully aware of what she could be getting herself into and how intensely she intends to oppose it. That the all the model-androids are simply Monae in countless variation, implies that she refuses to be snared, even if she understands the inevitability of being marketed as “unmarketable”. It’s similarly telling that the video ends with her escape through ascension, as the life surges out of Monae and the android dies before being sold. Such a complicated bit of theater that, in the end, brings all back to that tight, floor-filling, keyboard core. Very few songs get to be this intelligent and this heroically joyous.