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Illustration Jessica Taylor

How my crush on Janelle Monáe set me free

As pop zine Fuck What You Love launches its third issue, one writer explores how her love for the ‘Pynk’ star set her on a path to self-discovery

Fuck What You Love is a compendium of pop-star crushes compiled by Claire Biddles. Tender, funny and surprising, the zine was conceived by Biddles in 2016, as a way of celebrating “a positive aspect of fandom that can sit alongside, and even enhance, appreciation of the music. For marginalised people especially, it can be empowering to genuinely enjoy things that bring pleasure but are often dismissed as childish or ‘girly’ or frivolous.” The essay that follows, “Janelle Monae Across Realities”, is taken from the third issue of Fuck What You Love, available to buy here.

June 2011 Curled up on the sofa, boyfriend in the pub again, pre-teen in bed, starting on the gin after finishing the wine, I switch on the TV to watch other people having fun at Glastonbury. I hear her before I see her. The screen of our old CRV television is black, but the bassline and clear, strong voice immediately grabs my attention. When the picture finally flicks on, I see a stage full of people in black and white. There are two backing singers with hats like striped monochrome UFOs, there is a group of violinists dressed as a weird hybrid of robots and extras from A Clockwork Orange; the other six or so band members are in fairly standard white shirts with black ties. Centre-stage is a petite woman with a gravity-defying quiff, a body-skimming white shirt with oversized black tie and a beautiful, delicate face. When she throws her head back and sings, her voice is powerful and she looks fearless. For the next 45 minutes I can barely drag my eyes away from the screen. The performance must be highly choreographed, but appears spontaneous and fun. I make a detached note of her radiant skin, the smile in her eyes, the way her body moves, but do not connect those with the way my heart rate has increased, the flush in my cheeks, the warmth deep in my guts. I put this down to the music.

May 2014 The now-teen and I have moved into a mid-terrace nearer town. That evening back in 2011, I ordered The ArchAndroid as soon the band had left the stage. It is an album with myriad brightly coloured influences that could all mix to make a dull brown mush but rather create a fresh and exciting opus. In it, Janelle Monáe, from the city of Metropolis in the year 2719, has been forcibly transported back through time to the 21st century while her genetic clone in the future, the android Cindy Mayweather, is leading the resistance against a secret society who are suppressing freedom and love. A call to arms for the misfits, the outsiders.

In 2013 Electric Lady is released. Some media pick up on some of the lyrics, her commitment to her tuxedo and androgynous style, and they question her sexual orientation. I feel compelled to Google frantically to look for some confirmation. I do not question why I am so invested in her sexuality. I do not find any definitive answers and should have known better than to expect any. As she says in the song “Q.U.E.E.N.”, a big middle-finger to the press who are desperate to pigeonhole her: “Categorise me, I defy every label.” Those lyrics resonate. I do not know where I fit in.

“I make a detached note of her radiant skin, the smile in her eyes, the way her body moves, but do not connect those with the way my heart rate has increased, the flush in my cheeks, the warmth deep in my guts. I put this down to the music”

I take the teen to see her at the Academy in Manchester. The weekend before I had been in a pub and toward the end of the evening I am introduced to a friend of a friend. She has red hair which skims her slim freckled arms. In the toilet I am drunk and emotional and she hugs me. The hug lingers. My body tingles, I can feel my heart in my throat. She agrees to come back with me to dance in the lounge, but when we get there I want to kiss her, and tell her so. She quickly makes her excuses and leaves. In the morning my brain carefully files the encounter under ‘let’s see what happens’.

On the Wednesday we drive to Manchester and take up position at the front. What follows is two hours of mesmerising stagecraft. The whole audience is putty in her hands. She barely says a word but we are entranced, from the moment she is wheeled onto the stage in a straitjacket playing the part of Cindy Mayweather, to the finale where she crowdsurfs, has the entire audience crouching on the floor and instigates a pillow fight, filling the room with feathers.

October 2017 I am on a train to break up with my boyfriend. I don’t want to but my body has taken control. There have been more events my brain has neatly filed ‘let’s see what happens’ and it is now obvious that is code for ‘ignore it and hope it goes away’. My body has responded with random panic attacks and a constant sense of unease. Occasionally, my brain gets the message – most often in the middle of the night when I wake in a hot sweat, heart racing, with a certainty that I am living the wrong life, realise I have merely been acting what the world expects of me. I am scared. I do not know how to be if I throw away the script.

February 22, 2018 The breakup has left me in pieces. I am heartbroken and scared, suspended between realities. On my Twitter feed I see that Janelle Monáe has released two new songs. I follow the links to the videos and squint into my phone, listening to the tinny bassline.

I spend the evening reading articles, rewatching the videos then exhorting people on social media and WhatsApp to be as excited as I am. And I think the third or fourth time I watch her seductively lick Tessa Thompson’s lolly, crawl along the floor in a leotard singing how she’s “powerful with a little bit of tender, an emotional sexual bender”, I allow myself to acknowledge that perhaps it’s not just the music that is causing my heart to beat faster and stomach to lurch a little. And that acknowledgment feels like a little bit of liberation. To allow myself to watch her shimmy in a beaded bikini and enjoy how it makes me feel without panicking about what this means or how it defines me. So that’s what I’ve been doing since. Accepting, experiencing how my body responds without feeling the need to rationalise. And dancing, because there should always be dancing.