Author’s note: In April 2022, Monáe stated in an interview that their preferred pronouns are they/them. This article has been updated to reflect Janelle’s identity.
As it turned out, the success of extravagant films like Metropolis had no bearing on the continued production of such opulent films in Germany, the United States, or anywhere else. On October 29, 1929, the U.S. stock market crashed. In short order, the abrupt economic collapse in the United States caused a domino effect around the world. The Great Depression had begun. With the economy in shambles, with as much as 25% of the population unemployed, and with massive crop failure in the midwest, the US film industry didn’t see fit to continue dumping huge piles of money into films. The scope of productions shrunk considerably. In Germany, the economic woes that plagued the Weimar era never really relented despite the influx of artists and the international influence of the country’s film industry. Metropolis proved to be, in many ways, a last hurrah for the excessive Weimar days that had given rise to everything from Lulu to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. A new type of government was on the horizon, bringing with it a new type of film. It was a cultural shift for which Fritz Lang would not stick around.
Adolf Hitler came to power on August 2, 1934, though by that time he and his surrounding apparatus had already grown into the most significant new cultural influence in Germany. Lang, half Jewish, was appalled and terrified of the Nazis. Like many, he could see the writing on the wall and chose to leave the country. Thea von Harbou did not feel the same. In fact, she had become an enthusiastic supporter of Hitler’s regime, causing a rift between husband and wife that culminated in their divorce in 1933. von Harbou stayed in Germany and worked under the new minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels (who, incidentally, seduced actress Lida Baalova away from her fiancée—Metropolis’ Gustav Fröhlich). She wrote and directed two films and wrote screenplays for dozens more. As Germany’s fortunes declined over the course of the Second World War, she found herself in a British POW camp. Even there, she continued to write and direct stage plays mounted by fellow prisoners. In fact, she kept writing screenplays nearly up to the very moment of her death on July 1, 1954.
Brigitte Helm, who terrified and seduced viewers in Metropolis, also left the country, despite Hitler being a fan of her work. She was reportedly in the running to play another golem resurrected by science, as the titular Bride of Frankenstein, but that part went to the wild-haired Bohemian Elsa Lanchester. In 1935, Helm appeared in her final film, An Ideal Husband (Ein idealer Gatte), directed by Herbert Selpin, then fled the Nazis and resettled in Switzerland, never to appear in film again.
In 1934, Fritz Lang left for Paris and then, eventually, Hollywood, where he would continue to direct exceptional films, starting with Fury in 1936, a tense crime drama about mob justice starring Spencer Tracy. He would not return to Germany for decades. When he did, the film he made was the two-part Indian Epic—Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb—a lavish color remake of the film that brought he and von Harbou together.
Do You Know What You’re Fighting For?
I’m trying to find my peace
I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me
And it hurts my heart
Lord have mercy ain’t it plain to see
Janelle Monáe’s 2007 album Metropolis, later expanded and released by Big Boy records as Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), begins with an announcement that the android Cindi Mayweather has been targeted for termination for the crime of falling in love with someone she’s not supposed to. As in Fritz Lang’s film, the society of Monáe’s Metropolis is rigidly segregated. As in parts of the United States until well into the 1960s, miscegenation is, if not explicitly illegal, then at least strictly taboo, punishable (regardless of the law) by death. Where Lang drew on his experience during the War and, later, his horror at the rise of Hitler, Janelle Monáe draws from a depressingly rich American history of racism, bigotry, homophobia, and misogyny. In Cindi, and in the androids in general, Monáe explores various aspects of being an “other”—black, female, non-binary, LGBQT, or just a little different. We’re currently steeped in a culture where vitriol, outrage, hate, and fear are the coin of the realm. When Monáe speaks or sings of love and acceptance—but never surrender—it carries weight because we live in a world where the powerful stay that way by selling the public on despising one another. Or rather, despising “the other.”
Monáe name everything from Goldfinger to Stevie Wonder to David Bowie to Prince as having played a part in leading them in the musical direction they explore. There’s also a good helping of Earth Wind & Fire, especially their ’80s output. As far as I can tell, the world Cindi Mayweather is trying to save is the same one as in EW&F’s “Magnetic” video. There’s a reason you never know where to classify Monáe’s music and can find it filed under R&B, soul, hip hop, rock, alternative, and experimental. They’re like Prince in that regard, or their friend and collaborator Big Boi’s project with Andre 3000, Outkast. Among contemporary artists, Monáe’s style and energy is as at home next to Bruno Mars as it is Franz Ferdinand. They even incorporate elements of exotica and easy listening, including the sort of shadow choruses made famous by composers like Ray Conniff and the exotic orchestration of Les Baxter. There’s a dash of upbeat dancy pop (a song on The ArchAndroid, “Locked Inside,” could be a Cardigans song). By the third album in the trilogy, you can even hear Euro composers like Stelvio Cipriani. My personal favorite track from Metropolis, “Sincerely, Jane” boasts a horn section that would do John Barry proud.
Metropolis is a short album, just an EP. Like most sequels, The ArchAngel is longer, more grandiose, and more epic in its scope. Cindi has achieved a messianic status among the oppressed, a figure inspired by Brigitte Helm’s Maria in Metropolis, the heroine who leads the oppressed underground workers in revolution against the overlords of the surface. Crumbs of this narrative are scattered throughout; it’s a concept album but not a rock opera, with Janelle just singing the plot. Initially coy about her personal romantic life, Monáe has since become a powerful voice in the LGBTQ community, but since the beginning, their songs have been about the acceptance of difference and diversity. The ArchAngel contains one of the most powerful allusions to the struggle of being black, queer, a woman, non-gender specific, pansexual—basically anything other than a straight white guy—in the song “Cold War.” The lyric “I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me” is a simple lyric but every time I hear it, it sends shivers down my spine. It’s heartbreaking.
But this is Janelle Monáe. A lament is not their style. “Cold War” is a fierce song fueled by an indefatigable commitment to combating that sort of oppression, to clenching your fists and fighting back, resisting the violence, the hate, the abuse that is heaped upon people who in some way or other are perceived to differ from “the norm.” They wage war with hope. Clenched fists are signs of determination, not violence. As heartbreaking as that oppression and alienation is, there is profound beauty, to the point of reducing a fella to tears, when some lost, lonely kid who has spent their whole life being told they are an abomination, an inferior, perverse, or wrong suddenly has someone like Janelle step up to them and tell them, “Nah, you’re good.” At its core, that’s the message Janelle is delivering. You’re not broken just because you’re different. You’re beautiful. And you’re not alone.
We Were Unbreakable
And I remember the smell of guns
War lived in me, but love finally won
The saga of Cindi Mayweather concludes with The Electric Lady, with the more overt science fiction references receding naturally into the background as Monáe, a more experienced and seasoned performer and writer by this point, becomes more introspective and yet more explicit with their references, relying less on symbolic representations of the other and more on directly speaking of them. Like The ArchAndroid, it is a seamless mesh of styles and influences that boasts one line that destroys me every time I hear it, but rather than being heartbreaking, it’s empowering. “War lived in me, but love finally won.” These assholes with their pathetic racist hatred of Kelly Tran Loan, their need to attack every woman or minority from behind the screen of Twitter—you know, fuck those guys…BUT…what I’d rather do than waste breath on them is spend it supporting every woman, every transgendered person, every gay or lesbian or bi or asexual fan, every minority, that has come to the bus and demanded their rightful seat. Be the ally. Be the Janelle Monáe.
I think it’s been established that I think science fiction only benefits from a diversity of voices, styles, and experiences. There is a particular segment of science fiction fandom that disagrees with me. They have their reasons, and I don’t have time to listen to it. A while back, I was leaving the theater after having watched The Force Awakens. In front of me was a girl who was absolutely losing her mind over how cool she thought Rey was, bopping around excitedly, so happy that she was unable to construct a fully coherent thought. There was such unbridled joy, such enthusiasm—what kind of unconscionable asshole would want to take that away from her? What sort of person is so lacking in basic decency and empathy that they make it their mission in life to rob that little girl of her happiness? A happiness that we (“we” being me—grown-up white dudes) have been granted so often that it doesn’t even occur to us that it is so often denied to others, or that our unwillingness to pass it on is such a vicious, petty act.
Systems rarely benefit from a lack of diversity. Monolithic societies crumble. Getting up in someone’s personal choices that have no effect on you is uncool. Objecting to someone’s lifestyle because it confuses you, or because it’s different than what you’re used to, is uncool. Racism, misogyny, bigotry—seriously un-fucking-cool. And America used to be cool. Shit, we had our missteps, no reasonable person will argue against that. But we always had something in reserve. Jazz, cocktails, blue jeans, rock and roll, kicking Hitler’s butt, Miles Davis, Elvis Presley, Casablanca. Muhammad Ali, Harry Belafonte swimming in the hotel pool. Rosa Parks saying “Nah.” Hip hop, breakdancing, The Ramones. I have a dream. Michelle Obama. Janelle Monáe. That little girl who loved Rey. Keep on keepin’ on. You’re awesome, and we’re going to be better because of you.
With The Electric Lady, Janelle may have closed the book on Cindi Mayweather, but they weren’t finished with science fiction…
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