Revolution in the Air: Reading Some Pop Songs of the Great Recession

Fall 2015, Scott Remer

By: Scott Remer, PC ’16, for the Fall 2015 Issue (PDF version)

Revolution in the Air

Kesha and Janelle Monáe perhaps aren’t the first people you’d think of when asked to name great anti-capitalist singers. Pete Seeger, yes; Woody Guthrie, yes; Paul Robeson, yes; maybe Billy Bragg, if you’re into singers from across the pond…but probably not two current musical celebrities with millions of fans and a reputation for danceable pop hits. Despite not being male socialist activists like many previous musical critics of capitalism, I think that both women do an excellent job of using their music to attack the status quo, promote progressive messages, and call for a revolution in cultural values. It’s true that Kesha once stylized her name as Ke$ha, but the substitution of a dollar sign for the S in her name was an ironic gesture intended to call attention to the crassness and inherent ridiculousness of using money to measure one’s worth. It’s also true that the capitalist media that Kesha and Monáe use to produce their music limits their freedom to be anti-capitalist, although to varying degrees and for different reasons. Nonetheless, if we look at Kesha’s hit “Sleazy” (2010) and Janelle Monáe’s more recent pieces “Dance Apocalyptic” (2013) and “Q.U.E.E.N.” (2013), we find strong critiques of austerity, materialism, and sexual conservatism embedded in the lyrics. In particular, “Q.U.E.E.N.” masterfully addresses questions of race, class, and sexuality.

Before we examine the songs’ lyrics in earnest, it’s worth pointing out that, in spite of their current wealth and social status, neither Janelle nor Kesha are particularly improbable standard-bearers for leftism. Both artists come from lower-class families. Kesha was born in LA to an impoverished single mother, and her family relied on welfare payments and food stamps to get by. Janelle’s mother was a janitor, her father was a truck driver, and her stepfather was a post office worker. Janelle wears uniforms in her videos as a tribute to her parents’ proletarian status, “to pay homage to the working man and woman,” as she said in a London Evening Standard interview, and she identifies strongly with her Kansas City working-class roots.

Given all this, let’s take a look at “Sleazy” and its critique of materialism. The speaker of the song is addressing a rich man who’s interested in her and is apparently trying to use his wealth to seduce her. In the first stanza, she rejects his materialistic tac-tics in no uncertain terms: “I don’t need you or your brand new Benz / Or your bougie friends / I don’t need love lookin’ like diamonds / Lookin’ like diamonds.” Kesha uses a “brand new Benz” and “diamonds” here as class signifiers, and she explicitly uses Marxist terminology when she derogatorily calls him and his friends “bougie” (bour-geois).

In the second stanza, she intensifies this critique, declaring, “You can’t imagine the immensity of the fucks I’m not / Giving about your money and manservant at the mansion you live in / And I don’t want to go places where all my ladies can’t get in / Just grab a bottle, some boys, and let’s take it back to my basement and get sleazy.” The man’s alliterative triplet of money, a manservant, and a mansion do nothing for Kesha; their implicit exclusivity turns her off. She prizes solidarity with her friends over the emptiness of conspicuous consumption. As she sees it, enjoyment doesn’t require a lavish McMansion or an expensive bottle of cognac; all she needs is friendship, alcohol, and possibly sex. Kesha’s vision may be hedonistic, but it’s more egalitarian and inclusive. The focus is on being social.

The third stanza makes this contrast even clearer. Kesha directly addresses the rich man, saying candidly, “I don’t mean to critique on your seduction technique / But your money’s not impressing me, it’s kinda weak / That you really think you’re gonna get my rocks off / Get my top and socks off by showing me the dollars in your drop-box.” She isn’t naïve. She sees quite clearly that this would-be Lothario — probably a businessman or banker used to the transactional logic of capitalism — thinks that he can exchange his money for sexual gratification. Her tone mercilessly mocks this utilitarian equation. Certain things simply aren’t for sale.

The final stanza summarizes everything that preceded it and traces a frugality-based challenge to capitalism’s ethos of profligacy. As Kesha sings: “Me and all my friends, we don’t buy bottles we bring ’em / We take the drinks from the tables when you get up and leave ’em / And I don’t care if you stare and you call us scummy / ‘Cause we ain’t after your affection and sure as hell not your money, honey.” Instead of incessantly buying alcohol, she and her friends buy into the old saying ‘Waste not, want not.’ Kesha ignores the drive to conform and the classist snobbery that’s the price of nonconformity, and she finds pride in defying this rich man’s expectations and his offer to reward her for serving him. Kesha’s call to “get sleazy” is a joyous embrace of proletarian values and practices in the face of a media complex that trumpets Wall Streeters’ praises at every opportunity.

Kesha’s release of “Sleazy” was a general reaction to the broad, long-term trend towards money worship in pop culture, but both of Janelle’s songs are direct responses to austerity and the political and economic conditions of the Great Recession. The title of “Dance Apocalyptic” is telling. Janelle’s choice of title puts me in mind of cultural critic Fredric Jameson’s quip that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” She imagines the end of the world as a vehicle for criticizing the present, although she doesn’t spell out an alternative to our current economic system.

Revolution in the Air: Reading Some Pop Songs of the Great Recession

“Dance Apocalyptic” contains a strong critique of mindless consumerism. Monáe satirizes people’s knee-jerk tendency to regard credit cards as pieces of magical plastic most clearly in an early stanza: “You bought a house! / But I’m allergic to the house pets / Credit cards! / They bought a new wife / For a shiny little lonely man.” Her exclamation marks mock people’s tendency to view houses and credit cards as panaceas, and the way that she follows the exclamations with a practical consideration (“But I’m allergic to the house pets”) or an illustration of the absurd extremes to which credit card reliance can be taken (“They bought a new wife / For a shiny little lonely man”) subverts faith in the blind consumerism encouraged by advertisers and banksters. Another salvo against credit cards and the heaps of debt they spawn comes when Monáe juxtaposes them with the parlous financial situation of most Americans during and post-crisis: “Credit card / You’re working 9 to 5 / Just to make enough to pay your rent.”

In other parts of “Dance Apocalyptic” and “Q.U.E.E.N.,” Monáe blasts rising inequality, the elite’s excuses for austerity, and the intersection of capitalism and racism. She plays with the pundits’ oft-heard claim that everyone should bear the burden of the 2008 financial crisis (despite Wall Street’s clear guilt) and flips it on its head, singing, “You’re asking why / The pain is always equal / But the joy just never spreads around.” In “Q.U.E.E.N.,” she seamlessly blends a critique of racism, capitalist exploitation, and reactionary dog-whistle attacks on the welfare state, asking, “Are we a lost generation of our people? / Add us to equations, but they’ll never make us equal. / She who writes the movie owns the script and the sequel. / So why ain’t the stealing of my rights made illegal? / They keep us underground working hard for the greedy, / But when it’s time to pay they turn around and call us needy.” Why this critique? Monáe’s ultimate goal, as she puts it, is to “free Kansas City,” where Kansas City, her hometown, stands in for the working-class America being beaten down by the corporations.

Monáe isn’t just content with liberating people economically. Another important component of her work is her call for sexual liberation. A few lines from “Dance Apocalyptic” illustrate her mission of undermining gender stereotypes and sexual boundaries —  the song’s audience is described as engaging in the subversive acts of “[s]mokin’ in the girls’ room” and “[k]issin’ friends.” The title of “Q.U.E.E.N.” appears to allude to the queens so prominent in the LGBTQ community. Numerous parts of the song itself suggest that Monáe is intent on taking aim at heteronormativity. Monáe proudly admits to “act[ing] the fool” and “break[ing] all your rules now.” She unhesitatingly rejects societal constraints and prescriptions. Instead of “eat[ing] cake,” she and her girlfriends “eat wings and throw them bones on the ground.” In response to society’s questions — ”Is it peculiar that she twerk in the mirror? / And am I weird to dance alone late at night? / And is it true we’re all insane?” — she responds nonchalantly: “I just tell ’em, ‘No we ain’t’ and get down.” Attempts to label her “weird” or “a freak” meet with a debonair shrug; she repeatedly asks whether she’s “a freak” but seems unperturbed by the possibility that the answer is yes.

Monáe’s general attitude of unabashed defiance and the unapologetic pride she takes in being different are familiar to those of us in the queer community, but later stanzas of “Q.U.E.E.N.” become more explicitly about homosexuality. Two stanzas in particular illustrate the song’s connection to queerness and Monáe’s fears, seemingly religion-related, of being gay:

Hey, brother, can you save my soul from the devil?
Say, is it weird to like the way she wear her tights?
And is it rude to wear my shades?
Am I a freak because I love watching Mary? (Maybe)
Hey, sister, am I good enough for your heaven?
Say, will your God accept me in my black and white?
Will he approve the way I’m made?
Or should I reprogram the programming and get down?

Her resolution of these fears is refreshingly straightforward. Rather than attempting the impossible feat of “reprogram[ming] the programming,” she embraces her sexuality in all of its complexity and accepts her affinity for women. As she declares, in an implicit invitation for her listeners to do the same, “Even if it makes other uncomfortable / I will love who I am.” At the end of the song, she reaffirms this commitment to not being pinned down, declaring, “Categorize me, I defy every label.”

This full-throated avowal of sexuality in all its variety reflects the very positive shifts that have occurred in the American cultural landscape over the past decade, but there’s still something very daring about Monáe’s songs. In “Dance Apocalyptic,” she addresses the audience and asks: “But I need to know / If the world says it’s time to go / Tell me, will you break out?” The phrase “break[ing] out” recurs many times with a positive connotation, as when Monáe applauds her audience by saying, “You’re not afraid to break out.” To “break out” is to imagine a new beginning, to smash the narrow confines of the past. In short, it is a revolutionary act. This is confirmed by Monáe’s ecstatic refrain: “Smash, smash, bang, bang / Don’t stop! / Chalanga–langa–lang!”

Similarly, although perhaps more obviously, the ending of “Q.U.E.E.N.” calls for transformative, revolutionary action. Monáe doubles down on a politics of hope, feminism, and radical activism in an age of fear and endless distractions, challenging us all (especially women) when she sings:

March to the streets, ’cause I’m willing and I’m able…
And while you’re selling dope,
we’re gonna keep selling hope
We rising up now, you gotta deal, you gotta cope
Will you be electric sheep?
Electric ladies, will you sleep?
Or will you preach?

In the introduction to the music video, the narrator describes “Q.U.E.E.N.” as being part of a “freedom movement.” That’s definitely true for “Q.U.E.E.N.,” but it’s just as true for “Dance Apocalyptic” and “Sleazy.” All of these songs, taken together, point us towards a future where conformity, consumerism, materialism, and heterosexism have made way for true human flourishing. The airwaves are alive with revolutionary energy. Will we answer the call?

Images: Nina Zimmermann and Viv Lynch