Janelle Monae at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden, Wednesday, July 18th, 2018, Reviewed
Last night, right next door from the Hulu Theatre, at the Arena at Madison Square Garden, late middle aged men performed and laid tribute at the feet of 69 year old Billy Joel. In honor of Joel’s 100th performance at the Arena earlier on Wednesday Governor Andrew Cuomo proclaimed July 18, 2018 as “Billy Joel Day.” Joel performed a business as usual set with James Dolan helping put a banner up in the rafters, and Bruce Springsteen performing two songs. Good for middle aged white men in power. But that isn’t where it was at, next door at the substantially smaller Hulu Theatre, Janelle Monae -the paranoid android, queer blessed superstar of a different world performed to a melting audience of gay, lesbian, pan, plus, everything fans from a different America, my America. ‘ve seen that show at the Arena four times now, Billy is great and Janelle is better: completer, more caring, more loving, and a more purely American icon.
I have seen Janelle perform twice before and in several movies, as well as an iconic turn as a robot in the Amazon Philip K. Dick anthology. I’ve been impressed, yeah, kinda, I liked “Tightrope” for sure, and Prince loved her (but then that was Prince’s thing), but I didn’t like her costumes (I still don’t) and I didn’t think her material was good enough. That ended when the Prince inspired first single “Make Me Feel,” off Dirty Computer, her third album, dropped. If there is a better Prince tribute I haven’t heard it, the sexiest (sher loves sexd) sweetest funk white pop mash up, it blew me away. Primed for the album, Dirty Computer opened with a song co-written with Brian Wilson, just like the concert Wednesday night, and continued with the best song of the year, “Crazy Classic Life”. Bringing the songs to life last night, Janelle had a tight strong band with tons of horn, an ace guitarist in Kaleido Parker (Maceo’s nephew) and hot female dancers who she touched at will, the doors were open to everything and everyone.
The material was all ace, an antidote to white hegemony, building from a rebuke to power not unlike the late 1960s hippie movement, answering one with the other, tit for tatting violence with love; the performance was Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues by other means. Looking like a Colonel in the army of love, with skin tight pants and glittering jackets and always a cap, Janelle pulled away from a study of our dystopian present to offer an alternative present, running parallel the way she was running parallel to Billy Joel. A superb dancer, a genuinely generous host with the skill to both rap and sing, and, like Prince, the ability to make pop that offers up a pan-aesthetic delivered on her final song of the evening “American”:
Love me baby, love me for who I am
Fallen angels singing, “clap your hands”
Don’t try to take my country, I will defend my land
I’m not crazy, baby, naw
What is less pan is Janelle’s sexuality as presented on stage, she seemed less queer and more lesbian, clearly on the dyke in charge “Pynk” -the Grimes co-sign, is referring to you know what, and why not, and it had the most original stage production of the evening, but it felt not so inclusive as you might hope for, though the lesbian couple sitting next to me were overjoyed. The entire production seemed hurt by scale, I’d caught Chris Brown’s stupendous staging at Barclays on Monday and I could imagine, like Ken Russell’s “The Boyfriend,” a hugely expanded version of this show. It needed a larger format, it needed to blw you away, and again, I don’t dig her fashion style, and even if I did it would be time for a change.
But this is what Janelle gave us and I’ll take it, Dirty Computer is the best album of the year and if Janelle didn’t fashion the best show of the year any weakness was one of a distilled perception, meaning it was still fucking awesome. To quote the superstar of tomorrow: We don’t need another ruler, we don’t need another fool. I am not the American nightmare, I am the American cool…. America has never been cooler.