Songs for the Struggling Artist


Theatre’s Loss: Janelle Monaé

From the first time I heard “Tightrope,” I was a fan of Janelle Monaé. I was head over heels for her music and her aesthetic, as well. She was musically exciting and theatrical in her style. Seeing her in concert was an incredible ride. She took the audience on a journey, the likes of which I have rarely experienced at a concert. She is a consummate showwoman and a brilliant connector. I’ve heard her described her as a contemporary female James Brown.

This year, Monaé went from making exciting, surprising music to making exciting movies. I thought she was just trying something different, building on her music career with some film exploration – but in an interview, I discovered what was news to me. Monaé trained as an actor. She started in theatre. In acting, she is returning to her roots – not doing something new. I’d been thinking about this since I learned it. Then I saw a short biography of her on Pandora. It said she trained at AMDA, did some off-Broadway theatre but then moved to Atlanta when she realized that there weren’t roles for her in musical theatre. This blew my mind. It shouldn’t have. But it did.

I mean, of course, there weren’t roles for her. For a whole host of reasons I have surely written about before. BUT. What strikes me, now that I know this information, is how Theatre Lost. We Lost. One of the most brilliant artists of our lifetime and Theatre didn’t have a place for her. I mean, I can’t help but imagine a Cindi Mayweather Musical full of androids and tuxedoed dancers – a Black Lady Ziggy Stardust for the stage. I mourn for what we could have had – how Monaé could have invigorated the entire medium given half a chance. But she wasn’t given half a chance. Her creativity was too much for the American Theatre and there was no place in it for her. This does not speak well of our art.

Unlike Office Depot, which also famously had no place for Monaé, the American Theatre could really have benefited from her perspective, skill and artistry. But we failed her.

Now – I’m not entirely sorry that theatre failed her. If theatre failing her meant that she turned to music, then I’m grateful. I’d rather have “Electric Lady” than Monaé stuck in some production of Wicked forever. But…I think it is entirely Theatre’s Loss. We had this brilliant performer, writer and creator in our midst and no one saw it. No one made space for her to create. This is a problem. Because I know for a fact that Monaé isn’t the only artist that this has happened to. The Doing Things the Way We Have Always Done Them means true innovation is always happening elsewhere. In music, in film, in technology. We have to find a better way to nurture theatrical minds. We just have to. We lost Janelle Monaé. But maybe she’ll come back to us. I will definitely go to an Android Musical and I’m gonna drag you all there with me.

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Overlooking Shit Ladies Say

In Caitlin Moran’s most recent book of essays, she proposes a five year moratorium on having opinions about women. It’s a proposition for embracing everyone’s imperfect feminism – forgiving ladies’ dumb lapses of feminist judgment. …and just celebrating their kick assery. She suggests maybe not worrying about Beyonce’s weird choice of naming her world tour the Mrs. Carter Tour and just getting in formation, ladies.

I’m super down with this idea. I mean, just because I find the idea of putting a ring on “it” problematic and objectifying doesn’t mean I can’t rock the dance floor when “Single Ladies” comes on.

I started to think more about this proposal because I found that in the midst of this post-election terror, I need Michelle Shocked’s music again. I have a strong palpable need for her brand of feminist folk punk and nothing else will do. I know she said some incredibly stupid things a few years ago and very possibly fell off the deep end into crazy town. I’ve decided I’m going to enjoy her music anyway. I need 1988 Michelle Shocked. 2013 Michelle Shocked can be as crazy as she wants. And I don’t know what 2016 Michelle Shocked is doing. Hopefully getting her shit together. But meanwhile – I need her. I need Ani Difranco. Who, yes, did that dumb retreat a few years ago that was a pretty bonehead move. But I need her. So I’m letting it go.

If Janelle Monáe, who I also need really badly right now, were to go off the rails, I would forgive her, too – because she’s necessary. Luckily, she’s about as careful and measured as a human can be and being a freakin’ monster of inspiration. If she fell – it’d be a hard hard fall. I don’t think she’s gonna, she’s so careful. But – if she did…I’d forgive her.

And here’s the thing…women are usually pilloried for pretty minor shit, all things considered. It’s not like we’re overlooking ladies committing child rape – for example – the way millions of people were able to do while electing our misogynist in chief. It’s also not like we’re overlooking violence incitement, spousal rape or sexual assault. If people can overlook all that shit and still vote for a dude for president, I feel like I can overlook some dumb shit that some marginalized women said one time. I mean – let’s adjust our public shaming scale, shall we?

It doesn’t make any of the dumb shit my ladies said alright. It’s still dumb shit. But the sheer amount of intolerable behavior we’ve tolerated from our male artists is boggling. Roman Polanski’s raping a child? Fine. What a great filmmaker! Woody Allen sexually assaulting his children? Big deal! What a genius! Give that guy a TV show! Bertolucci ordered a real rape on screen, for Art! Big deal! And on and on.

Obviously, this “not having an opinion on women” thing wouldn’t be total. I propose that, in an emergency, we might write about something that women are doing; if a prominent female politician turned into some manner of malign she-werewolf and sold her children to Nazis, say, we could legitimately opinionize on that. But on nearly every other matter concerning a newsworthy woman…

It’s time to start an overlooking campaign for ladies. No more opinions about ladies’ opinions. For five years at least or at least until we iron this shit out.

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This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. If you’d like to listen to me read a previous blog on Soundcloud, click here.screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist




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