Janelle Monáe’s newest album and emotion picture, Dirty Computer, tells the story of Jane 57821. The story is set in a near future, where anyone who doesn't fit the government's idea of clean is marked as a "dirty computer." Once marked, dirty computers are put through a “cleaning” process: their memories are deleted, and slowly they are turned into torches who can light the way for others. When the deletion process commences, we are tsken into Jane’s memory and we get a snippet of the song “I Got That Juice (feat. Pharrell Williams).” Not only does this song empower women to express their sexuality, “I got juice between my thighs / Ain't no juice quite like yours / Ain't no juice quite like mine,” it also addresses the horrendous comment that Trump made in the lyrics, “If you try to grab my pussy cat, this pussy grab you back.”
Then the album transitions into “Crazy, Classic Life,” which starts with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “You told us we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; among these are life, liberty, and the—and the pursuit of happiness.” The quote shows song and scene are about a promised equality. Promised being the keyword. Because, clearly, everyone doesn't get access to these rights. The song plays over a group of social outcasts. It is a proclamation that young, rebellious, and black people should be given the same space to mess up and find themselves as white people. Monáe raps, “The same mistake, I'm in jail, you on top of shit,” as the police break up the party.
After her memory of this party is deleted, Jane is reunited with Zen, played by Tessa Thompson. Only Zen is now a torch named Mary Applefield, and all of her memories of Jane have been deleted. Zen takes Jane for testing; she is scanned and suspended upside down by brightly colored rope, for unknown reasons, and the song “Take a Byte” plays: “Your code is programmed not to love me, but you can't pretend.” Even though this near future has made it illegal to be anything but straight, that doesn't change that sexuality is something that no one can control. So through a fun pop song, Monáe reassures her audience that no matter who you are sexually attracted to, as long as they are of legal age, “it’s alright.”
Viewers are transported into another memory as Jane refuses to accept the cleaning process. We see her and her friends, who escaped the police earlier, hiding out in an old building. Hiding out turns into an underground party to the song “Screwed" (feat. Zoë Kravitz). Monáe confronts that fact that world might just be coming to an end by using screwed as a double entendre: “And I, I, I, hear the sirens calling / And the bombs are falling in the streets / We’re all screwed.” "Screwed" here means to be in a hopeless situation as a country. But throughout the sexual meaning of the word is also used, because if the world is ending, why not? “Let's get screwed / I don't care / You fucked the world up now, we'll fuck it all back down.” At the end of this memory, we see Zen get captured by the police, explaining how she ended up as a torch.
Then we move into “Django Jane.” During her interview with the Ebro In the Morning on Hot 97, Monáe said this song is about “celebrating black women, we don't get celebrated enough. This is our anthem,” and that intention shines throughout the visuals. From the black women in crowns and leather jackets surrounding Monáe, to the line “black girl magic / All can't stand it,” to her references to Shondra Rhimes, Kerry Washington, and Viola Davis, this anthem truly celebrates black women and showcases Monáe's rap skills in full force. The imagery, however, is divorced enough from the reality that Jane 57821 is in that it causes one of the Cleaners to question the validity of the memory. The leader of the House of The New Dawn tests Jane's memory to see if it is still intact and, when it is, the Cleaners release Nevermind gas into the room to put her to sleep.
“Pynk (feat.Grimes),” is the song that narrates the next memory. This is another moment where Monáe is surrounded by her cast of black female friends and celebrates the vagina: “Pink is the truth you can't hide, maybe.” The emotion picture also has an additional verse and scene that was not included in the standalone music video or on the album, so if you are looking for more cute moments with Tessa Thompson, Monáe has you covered. Then we transition straight into “Make Me Feel” the avant-garde video that shows various version of Monáe dancing against multicolored backgrounds, playing guitar, and lounging about on a white couch. All the while, Jane parties with Zen and Ché, showing that the lyric “sexual bender” is a reference to Monáe's newly announced pansexuality, in a Rolling Stone interview.
Once we are back in the House of The New Dawn, Jane expresses her fear of losing her memories. In response, Zen says, “People used to work so hard to be free. We are lucky here all we have to do is forget," which only makes this dystopian fear future feel even more like our present. Those who forget their pasts and what makes them both unique and marginalized are rewarded for upholding that status quo; meanwhile, those who fight to remember are punished. This sentiment is showcased in “I Like That,” when Monáe sings, “And I like that / I don’t really give a fuck if I was just the only one / Who likes that.” The video shows that the only person whose opinion matters is your own by having copies of Monáe appear and disappear throughout the song, instead of the usual black female dancers.
Zen approaches Mother Victoria, the leader of the House of the New Dawn, to ask if it is possible that Jane really does know her. But this idea is instantly rejected: “A dirty mind will do anything to survive.” But Zen remembers a day at the beach with Jane and Ché, when Zen created Jane's tattoo, while the score for “Don’t Judge Me” plays in the background. The song is all about wanting the person you love to accept you: “Even though you tell me you love me / I'm afraid that you just love my disguise." Not just as the person that they think you are, but who you truly are. Unfortunately, even after Zen remembers, there is nothing she can do to save Jane from being a torch. Her first dirty computer is none other then Ché. The title screen appears after their introduction, leaving the viewer to assume that Ché will go through the same terrifying process.
But Monáe is all about breaking the roles, so after the credits we see Zen walk into Ché’s room with three gas masks so that they can escape. “Hold on, don't fight your war alone,” the opening line to the song "Americans," bellows as the Nevermind gas puts everyone else in the House of the New Dawn to sleep. This song pulls everything together by saying that those who are being suppressed, the dirty computers, are just as American as everyone else and that they will rise up and fight back when their home is attacked, or attacking them.
The album and emotion picture are truly an amazing experience. Janelle Monáe has pulled together music, visuals, pop, rap, and Afrofuturism to make an amazing body of work. And for all of us dirty computers who are fighting to keep this near future from becoming a reality, the line “Because it's gon' be my America before it's all over” becomes a mantra, and this album becomes a movement.
Images from YouTube
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Byshera Williams is an English Major at Drexel University. She is an associate editor at The Smart Set. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org