This New Janelle Monáe Song is Not Good

On her debut full-length, The Archandroid, Janelle Monáe established herself as a unique and daring voice. The album refused to belong to any one genre, instead blending funk, hip-hop, soul, folk, and psychedelic rock. Its lyrics might have been even more ambitious: inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Monáe’s songs were based around the concept of a messianic android named Cindy Mayweather and touched on themes of afro-futurism and cyborg feminism. It felt completely new and it justifiably made her a star.

Eight years later, it’s hard to find a starker contrast to The Archandroid than one of Monáe’s new singles, “Django Jane.” While her first album felt like the work of an artist with something to prove who was overflowing with creative energy, on “Django Jane” she reveals herself to be someone who has become complacent and bought into her own celebrity hype. Where once there were lyrics that told fantastical stories with deep, thought-provoking themes, now there are only smug boasts. “Already got an Oscar for the casa,” she brags about winning a meaningless award chosen by the same group of voters that gave Crash best picture. “Runnin’ outta space in my damn bandwagon,” she later adds, smirking as she revels in her popularity.

It’s hard to argue with the last part: Monáe is massively successful now, a star of music and film, and this single was met with a wave of admiration on social media. Many are empowered and inspired by her music, and who am I to tell them they’re wrong. But I find this type of pop song, that’s so focused on the artist’s own success and greatness, to be possibly the worst thing in music. If someone walked up to me on the street and started bragging to me about the awards they’ve won and how many people love them, I wouldn’t find them inspiring. I’d find them annoying. And I would probably think they were compensating for something.

It’s not just the egotism of the lyrics that grates. Musically, there is no attempt at innovation or genre-bending like on The Archandroid. Monáe spends most of the song half-rapping while autotuned over generic pop sounds that anyone could have made. It makes such poor use of her phenomenal ability that it almost feels like self-sabotage. There are few other ways to explain why this artist whose music once exuded musical freedom is content to put herself into this tiny box.

In a promotional interview with The Guardian, Monáe flaunted her independence, proclaiming that “you don’t own or control me.” It’s a good message in theory, but it’s hard to reconcile that quote with this song that sounds so desperate for external validation. The Archandroid was the work of a truly independent artist who clearly did not care about how people perceived her — ironically, it sounded more confident than this song because it took risks and didn’t conform to any expectations. “Django Jane,” on the other hand, feels like an artist who is under the control of the music industry and her own increasing thirst for fame and adulation. Its pandering lyrics and generic sound indicate an artist who craves the approval of the puppet-masters who run the Grammys more than one who is interested in music as a form of real self-expression.

As is often the case with pop music, I suspect what makes me absolutely hate this song is what makes other people love it. It’s that Monáe, to use the parlance of our times, “gives zero fucks,” and is simply owning her stature as an artist and giving herself credit. She came from nothing to be what she is today and has earned the right to brag about it. I can see how her confidence and lack of restraint in showing it could be empowering. As a white man, I’ve never had to be empowered ever, so I’ll concede that this song potentially has a power to many listeners that I can’t fully know.

But I do know Monáe’s music and what she’s capable of. I remember being so absorbed by The Archandroid, wondering with excitement about how she would follow it up, and thinking that she could be another Björk — an artist with otherworldly talent who merged different genres and existed outside of the typical pop/indie divide. So to hear her sink to the level of this song is really depressing. The artist I initially loved never would have made a song that sounded this lazy. “Django Jane” could generously be described as an intriguing political statement, but it’s barely music.

Savages’ Regressive Revolution

Savages are the kind of band I used to love. This is documented for posterity in my post about them back in 2013, when their first album Silence Yourself was released and I penned a historically bad “review” where I completely bought into the band’s hype and stupidly defended them against some detractors I had seen in my Twitter feed.

It was easy to be fooled by Savages, who marketed themselves as an exciting new rock band, and back in 2013 they looked and sounded the part. Their music was very striking and confident while their lyrics were strident, almost like a call to arms. Some songs, like “Shut Up,” even came with mission statements. These were virtues I admired a couple years ago, but since then my sensibilities and tastes have changed and I’ve become more aware of the phoniness of Savages and their “mission.”

With a new album, Adore Love, on the horizon in 2016, Savages are once again positioning themselves as the self-appointed saviors of rock. One of their new songs is called “The Answer,” fitting the band’s perception of themselves as the solution to all of music’s problems, while the video shows them melting people’s faces in an underground punk show like hardcore rockers. The album’s cover is literally a closed fist in the air, further signalling that Savages are a Revolutionary Band. The video for “Adore,” which the music press breathlessly labeled “stunning,” features singer Jehnny Beth STARING into the CAMERA INTENSELY, as if waiting for viewers through the screen to congratulate her on her bravery and fearlessness. It’s a video that reeks of effort and desperation as the band painfully tries to will their own self-described importance into existence.

Beth’s performance in the “Adore” video serves as a useful proxy for my experience watching the video and listening to the song. I stared blankly at my screen for five minutes, waiting for something to happen that never did. The song goes nowhere and ends with Beth unconvincingly shouting “I ADORE LIFE,” a trite lyric that is delivered like it’s the most radical thought anyone has ever had. This “adore life” message that seems to be the primary theme of their album rings particularly hollow given that Savages are possibly the least fun band to ever exist and make Radiohead look like Andrew W.K.

While I initially liked Silence Yourself, it quickly left my rotation in 2013 as something about the band left me cold. I didn’t figure out why that happened until I discovered a band called Nervous Trend from Australia. They had just released their first demo tape, which I saw linked on Twitter, and when I listened to it I was blown away. This band was drawing from many of the same influences as Savages, but made something that sounded much more original and exciting, without any of the manifestos and other media branding nonsense that had made Savages a small phenomenon.

I don’t think Nervous Trend and Savages are in competition with each other, and I can easily see people liking both of them. But for me, the Nervous Trend demo (keep that in mind, it’s a demo) exposed a lot of the flaws in Savages that I hadn’t considered before, and it helped explain why Silence Yourself had held up so poorly. Beneath all the imagery and attitude, the actual music Savages made wasn’t as inspiring as their portrayal of themselves indicated it was. Nervous Trend showed what a band drawing from similar influences could sound like, and how to have socially-conscious lyrics without being pretentious about it.

Part of my bitterness here is that Savages are a relatively big band, while Nervous Trend remain obscure — they just released an EP last year that I didn’t even hear about until yesterday, because the band doesn’t have a Twitter or Facebook account and has zero traction in the music press. It illustrates to me how Savages are a sanitized version of much better music, but have built themselves into an “important band” through branding, non-musical elements, and a music press that eagerly bought into their self-mythology because the band provides easy talking points.

Savages end up being a particularly brutal combination: a band that believes deeply in their own importance and ability, but makes music that is regressive and uninteresting. There are tons of bands, from the 80s through today, that have worked in a similar musical space and are much better, but aren’t as known because they lacked the flashiness and eye-catching press releases of Savages. It also makes it more insulting when Savages are perceived as fresh and exciting, when their music is mostly an imitation of bands like Bush Tetras.

Savages have ended up being a useful band for me personally, as the original post I made about them was a turning point where I realized I was too frequently liking music and thinking it was important because I was told to by others. It also made me far more skeptical of any band being trumpeted as exciting for reasons that don’t have much to do with their songs. The music decides whether a band is important or not, and in that regard Savages fall woefully short.

“Ho Hey” and the Scourge of Mainstream Folk

I’m hard-pressed to think of a song in recent years that I’ve hated as much as “Ho Hey.” It has to be one of the most inexplicable hits ever. For one thing, just on the most basic level, the song is annoying to listen to: it has people saying “ho! hey!” in the background after every line, which makes me want to punch all of them, something I believe is a rational, human reaction to anyone saying “ho! hey!” But like any song I truly despise, what makes “Ho Hey” so detestable is a unique combination of being overplayed, loved by people who should know better, and the musical trends that the song represents.

What’s most frustrating about “Ho Hey” isn’t necessarily that it’s popular, but it’s the people that it’s popular with. A few years ago, The Current was a station that offered a reprieve from the overplayed music that we were forced to listen to when we went to shopping malls or grocery stores or parties. Now, its listeners just voted “Ho Hey” as the number one song of 2012. Interestingly, they didn’t have other pop songs on there like “Call Me Maybe” (which is an actual good song), indicating that the same people who love “Ho Hey” also think of themselves as educated listeners with discerning tastes. It’s easy to picture a Lumineers fan scoffing at those who listen to corporate pop artists while simultaneously listening to the most overplayed song in music today.

In this respect, The Lumineers (along with other folk bands like Mumford and Sons) have pulled off the biggest trick of all: they’ve become massively popular while somehow maintaining a certain amount of “indie cred.” Music critic David Greenwald dubbed this genre “festivalcore,” calling Mumford and Sons, despite their popularity, “the kind of band your friends might not know if you ask, the kind that feels like a secret.” The Lumineers seem similar: despite the fact that they’re literally everywhere on the radio, people who listen to them still perceive themselves as special, as if they’ve uncovered a diamond in the rough.

The success of “Ho Hey” is really just the chilling and horrific end-game of our unfortunate national love affair with mopey bland white guy folk. It takes popular trends in indie music (guys wearing silly antiquated clothing! soft guitars! non-threatening vocals!) and boils them all down to a nonsensical two-word catch phrase. One gets the impression that literally thousands of bands in the country could have written this song, but The Lumineers were the only ones willing to stoop to this level of pandering simplicity. Credit to them I guess: they seem like decent enough people, and I’m sure this has been a wonderful, unexpected surprise for them.

That doesn’t make the bewildering success of “Ho Hey” any less annoying. It just really bums me out to see this kind of deliberate mediocrity become huge while many more deserving indie bands remain underground. And this isn’t some indie snob thing: I can appreciate a well-written, mainstream-oriented pop song. But “Ho Hey” is none of those things. It’s a dashed-off, stupid song that is only popular because it shamelessly caters to our culture-wide fascination with sad, goofy white guys that play the banjo. (I keep saying dudes or guys because this genre is completely male-dominated, which makes it even worse than it already is.) Surely we can do better than this.

It’s almost like “Ho Hey” is popular in part because it’s so terrible. The Lumineers are “real” because they can’t write a hook and use gibberish instead of real words for lyrics, unlike those fancy pop stars who have legitimate talent and write songs in actual English. Sort of like how some people worship Adele because she doesn’t look like the other pop stars, maybe people worship The Lumineers because they don’t sound like the other big-name musicians (because they’re horrible)?

Whatever. I’m done trying to figure this one out. This one’s on you guys. I had nothing to do with it.