Stumbling Upon Janelle Monáe’s Wondaland (Or I got a terrible fixation on ArchAndroid…can’t get it off my mind…)

I have a confession to make. I’m not a big fan of black music.

This is not to say that I don’t listen to it. When I was growing up, I was surrounded by Sister Sledge and Tina Turner from my dad, and lots of gospel music like the Winans from my mom. We listened to Chicago black stations like WGCI and before it went away, WYCA. But even when I was a child, you get me alone with a radio and I broadened my listening repertoire to Light FM, classical music, orchestra, and one strange stint when I listened to country. When I hit my teens, I pretty much stuck with Christian music, because it was safe and, well, Christian. And then I hit college, where Pink Floyd was (literally) forced upon me, and I left most of black music behind as I dove into .

Not all of it. I latched onto Arrested Development hard when they came out with “Tennessee”. I briefly flirted with PM Dawn, and when India.Arie hit the airwaves, I sucked up as many CDs of hers as I could. I wanted desperately to like Erykah Badu, but couldn’t get pass all her swearing (now, to show my hypocritical side, I fell in love with Ben Folds enough to get two of his CDs. I just ignored all the swearing he did.) I wasn’t into rap enough to like Queen Latifah, and Alicia Keyes felt too…dramatic.  Of course, my dark dangerous secret: I like Prince. Love, love, love Prince. Even some of his raunchy stuff. But other than that, I became was picky on which black artist I listened to. 

Enter Janelle Monáe.

I first heard of Monáe on the Paste website, which paired two topics I never saw before: "science fiction" and "black female artist". I like science fiction. I’m all for black female artists, even though I rarely listened to them. And I studied the pompadour, tuxedo clad Monáe and thought, "hmmm…this is…different."

And then I watched her video, "Many Moons" from her Metropolis CD.

I watched it again…and again…and again…and that’s how I learned the story of Cyndi Mayweather, Wondaland, and a new genre I’ve never heard before, "afropunk".

Listening to Janelle Monáe is an audio-cinematic experience. Between her two CDs Metropolis and ArchAndroid, Monáe tells the story of Cyndi Mayweather, a cyborg living in the year 3005. Cyndi’s plight is laid out on the opening track of Metropolis, accompanied by appropriate marching music: she’s committed the sin of falling in love with a human millionaire, Anthony Greendown, and is now on the run for her life. The story is scattered throughout the both CDs, both in the music tracks and the linear notes: from what I can make it, Cyndi Mayweather runs, gets captured, then somehow, while being held prisoner, learns that she may be the Prophesied One who will bring peace and unity to the world.

The best thing about her music is that it breaks genre barriers. Yes, we got the dance (Dance or Die, Many Moons) and R&B (Mr. President) and soul (Locked Inside), but then she does an about face and waltzes into a 1950s crooning ballad (Sir Greendown). From there she crowd-dives into a punk rock screamfest (Come Alive), trips into 60s psychedelica (Mushrooms and Roses), slams through glam rock (Make the Bus—my favorite song on the CD), and tosses in sweeping orchestral numbers that invoke 1950s film noir (Say You’ll Go, BebopbyeYa). She brings in the Punk Prophets a.k.a Deep Cotton to sing 3-part harmony with her on 57821, a song with such a baroque classical  hymn feel to it that it made me weep in sheer joy. (well, okay, I didn’t weep, but the first time I heard it, I stopped whatever I was doing and just stood there listening with my mouth dropped open. Not a lot of music do that to me nowadays.)

Her vocal range is so awesome. She flows effortlessly from a hip-hop diva a screaming manic, her voice evoking Charleston-dancing flappers from the 20s in one song (Faster), to a high-pitched Kate Bush bubblegum doll in another (Wondaland).  In Neon Valley Street, there’s a note she does that’s so soulful, just one note. I am fully convinced that in a studio somewhere, Anita Baker is standing at a microphone with her mouth opened and a weird expression on her face, wondering why the note she’s supposed to sing isn’t coming out her mouth. 

And the influences! Take a sip of ArchAndroid, and you can taste the clear notes of Stevie Wonder, Prince, David Bowie, Fleet Foxes.  In fact, I’m certain there’s even a little XTC influence there (Yes, I’m looking at you, Of Montreal. Don’t think I didn’t recognize that little two-note bass in Make the Bus. I know those two notes are really Colin Moulding’s.  I know.)

And the crazy thing about all this genre-flipping is that Monáe makes it all work.  Well, not just her. The neat thing about this CD is that it gives you tastes of not just other genres, but other bands as well. I’ve never heard of Of Montreal and Deep Cotton before, but I’m deeply interested in their work now. And her guitarist, Kalindo (or as it’s said in Cold War: KALLLLINDOOOOOOOOOOOO!), wow, wow, wow, wow. Here is Jimi Hendrix’s legacy, right here. Right here.

This is just the beginning. Monáe plans to release more videos, make a graphic novel, and do Suite IV of Cyndi Mayweather’s story. Mainstream people love her, sci-fi geeks love her, and Prince appears to find her pleasing as well. Here’s to hoping that Janelle Monáe i.e. Cindy Mayweather truly is The One that will unite everyone together. And I so can’t wait for Suite IV. If only there was a time machine I can use to go forward…no, wait. that would be a bad idea. If I had a time machine, I would use it to go back in time, get my college self, and say, "You gotta come with me. They got AFROPUNK IN THE FUTURE!!!"

Then my past self would be all, "Holy crap, are those dreads you’re wearing?!?!"

And since it now appears that I have no clue what I’m writing anymore, let’s put on our saddle shoes and tip the Tightrope ONE MORE TIME!!!

Friday YouTube Fun with Vocaloids!

So now that things have settled, I’ve been catching up on Youtube–seeing what’s out there. I stumbled upon a very interesting phenomenon: vocaloids.

Vocaloid is a synthesizer program that creates vocal music. Simply put, it is a synthesizer for the human voice. You can program it to sing, talk, do anything vocally. In Japan, there’s a special series called the “Character Vocal Series”, where each voice is assigned a ‘character’, with a name, age, and “favorite” type of music it likes to sing. The voices are based on samples from Japanese anime voice actors. Just input the music and lyrics, and out pops a song.

vocaloid

What’s cool is that not only are people create songs, they also create music videos that are uploaded to the Net. Most range from flat, amateurish pap with only a crudely-drawn sketch, to beautifully-drawn moving portraits.

Below are a few videos that I thought was done extremely well. The music’s wonderful, and at times, you forget that it’s only a program that singing, not a real person (though the voice is based on a real person–aw, you know what I mean…) All the singing’s done in Japanese. And yes, most of the videos below are of the young blonde hair girl, because I like her. She’s called Rin. The boy next to her is her brother Len. Both are done by the same voice actress, Asami Shimoda.

This video is called “Salvage”, and it’s about Rin learning that her brother accidentally got deleted. So she goes into the Recycle Bin to save him. Yes, it sounds hokey, but it’s actually more moving than you think.

This one is called “Kokoro”. It’s subtitled in English, so I won’t go into details, other to say that KOKORO in Japanese means “Heart” or “Soul” or “Mind”. This one happens to be my favorite video.

This one is the same is Kokoro, except it’s done by the point of view of the scientist, using Len’s vocals. It’s not subtitled, but if you’ve seen the one above, you get the gist of it.

This one is rapidly becoming my favorite as well. It’s subtitled, it’s twisted, it’s demented, and it’s absolutely divine.

And just to show that I do listen to other Vocaloids other than Rin/Len:

You can find more vocaloid videos at YouTube. Just type in “Vocaloid”. Watch out though. You just might get hooked.

A “Kid’s Rock” Interlude

Sick of all those Kidz Bop commercials you see on Nickelodean where kids sing bubblegum-tripe versions of bubblegum tripe pop songs? Then turn your tired peepers to this:

I would buy it for Guns ‘n’ Roses alone.

Ah well, this XTC is over…

Yesterday, I was going to do a blog about all the snow that got dumped on us Tuesday. As I was checking email, I came across a link from the Onion that had an interview with Andy Partridge, frontman of XTC. Being a huge fan of the band, I clicked the link. The name of the interview: XTC “Well and Truly in the Fridge“.

From the interview: “Partridge says, “At the moment, XTC is well and truly in the fridge. Purely, really, for the reason that [partner] Colin [Moulding] doesn’t want to write anymore. He’s either taking a break, or that break could become permanently in place. He told me some months back that he’s not interested in music anymore, and doesn’t want to write, and basically said, ‘Our paths will cross again or they’ll be involved in some way.’ And then he proceeded to move away from his house– I have no idea where he’s living right now, I have no idea what his phone number is, don’t really know how to contact him, and so Colin is obviously wanting to leave the world to some extent. And I guess he’s got the right to do that, so I’m not going to pester him and say, ‘Come on, what’s the matter with you, get it together.'”

There’s a certain sorrow that comes in learning that a band that you centered your whole life around has called it quits. It’s not like your favorite musician has died. No, that’s a different sorrow, one I hope don’t have to go through for a long time. The people who are in XTC are still alive. They’ve just gone their separate ways.

This is not an obituary, but a remembrance.

XTC was the first secular band I really got into. It was the early 90s; I was living at home with my folks after ‘leaving’ Northern Illinois after two years. I was in a strange fugue; most of my friends were still in Dekalb, and my family had moved to the south suburbs, where we were surrounded by cornstalks. I spent most of my days in my room, trying to recapture the college life, but really, just moped around, talking on the phone a lot and watching a lot of TV.

Around that time, I started listening to alternative rock. I still listened to Christian music, though I was beginning to drift from regular Christian pop to Christian rock. I had just ‘discovered’ Phil Keaggy, and was blown away by his lyrics as well as his guitar playing. But I also listened to stations like WXRT (which I still listen to) and Q101, before they went extremely weird. One day, while driving to work, WXRT played this song called “King for a Day” that sounded like it should be the ending of a movie. Wow, I thought, who sings that?

Turned out to be XTC. I was intrigued. Who is this British band? It took me a long time to get one of their records. I stood in the record store for hours, wondering if I should pick up their latest cassette (because back then, CDs were still suspicious and new) or if I should go with The Replacements instead. I finally went with XTC’s Oranges and Lemons. It was my first secular band, and from there, I glommed onto them like peach jelly on my toddler’s face and hands.

Back then, they were three members: Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, and Dave Gregory. Their music is hard to pigeonhole. In their early days, they definitely were punk, but as they grew older, their music evolved into a quirky pop sound. Their lyrics ranged from pure fun:

Oh, my head is spinning like the world and it’s filled with beasts I’ve seen.
Let me put my bag down and I’ll tell you it all right from the start.
Like the scarlet woman who will pick on the boys she thought were green
and the two-faced man who made a hobby of breaking his wife’s heart.

Seems the more I travel
From the foam to the gravel
As the nets unravel
All exotic fish I find like Jason and the Argonauts…
(There may be no golden fleece)
But human riches I’ll release

To social consciousness. Sometimes within the same song:

I was in a land where men force women to hide their facial features
And here in the West it’s just the same but they’re using makeup veils…

I have watched the manimals go by
Buying shoes. Buying sweets. Buying knives.
I have watched the manimals and cried
Buying time. Buying ends to other people lives…

XTC was plagued throughout their career by bad choices and bad management. Sort of reminds me of Barry Hughart and the Bridge of Birds. In the 90s, time between album releases grew longer and longer. The bandmates bickered, and Dave left. Andy and Colin put out two more albums, Apple Venus and Wasp Star (the latter supposed to be Apple Venus volume 2). And that was it. The last two CDs could be considered the last swan dive: lush, orchestraic, a joy to listen to. And yet, it had a feeling that there was something final about it. Something that’s just been confirmed this month.

I’m bummed that Colin is no longer interested in music, but in a sense, I’m not surprised. Times change, people change. It must be sad to learn that what was once your passion in your life no longer is. You mourn, but then you move on to other things. Maybe farming is now his thing. It’s happen before. I doubt that Andy will stop. He’s moved off to other things, getting back together with former band members, doing stuff on his own. He’s releasing a CD of jazz improvisation in April. So, the spirit of XTC will carry on in Andy. Which is good.

Still…XTC, you were one of my favorite bands. I’ll miss you. I’ll miss the fun. I’ll miss the guitars. I’ll miss the quirky way that you name your albums by using a fragment of a song lyric from the previous album. I don’t care if you are agnostic. I’ll miss you all. Godspeed.