Saturday, 25 August 2012

Play To Z: Mapping The Future With Music

In what I'm sure will be the first of many serendipitous co-incidences, Janelle Monáe's The Archandroid leads directly into M.I.A's Arular (putting aside an RAC remix of Phoenix's "Armistice"), and listening to these two stellar albums right next to each other set my brain spinning. Produced 5 years apart, by very different artists, and with profoundly different sounds and aesthetics, they nonetheless feel like a vision of the future.

  When Arular arrived in 2005 it was a wake-up call, at least to my ears. We talk a lot about the shrinking globe, how technology and 24-hour news cycles are bringing an increasing awareness of the world beyond our doorstep both on a large and small scale, but Arular felt like the first record to capture what that means in the 21st Century. It carried a wider awareness, speaking to the experiences of people across the planet, dealing with topics like immigration, terrorism and the global economy without ever getting bogged down in preaching. It was about human stories in this new world, filtered through a hip-hop/electroclash/punk mix. Politics you can dance to.

 Arular is about the future that is now, a grimy, sweaty world forged by the Internet where the voices of people stretch from Haiti to Hackney to Hanoi. It's worth remembering that Arular arrived before Twitter was launched, in a time when things like watching the Arab Spring unfold in real-time, not filtered through the BBC but in the words of the people who were actually there, wasn't exactly commonplace. It showed a vision of the world to come, where our connections to people across the planet become much more visible and explicit.

  The Archandroid is, of course, more about the far-future than the near-future, but it still tackles a lot of the same themes. A huge sweeping concept album, encompassing Suites 2 and 3 of four-part story of a messianic android leading a revolution, The Archandroid draws influences from Fritz Lang's Metropolis, the works of Philip K. Dick and a thousand musical genres. In her story, Monáe positions the androids as an underclass, the "other" that are oppressed by the wealthy and slowly rise up to revolution, and there are explicit links between their fight and the contemporary struggles of minorities and the working class. The album exists in the tradition of Afrofuturism, which fuses the political allegory and utopian ideals of science fiction with the issues facing people of colour in society today.

"Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture—and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future—might, for want of a better term, be called Afrofuturism.
African-American culture is Afrofuturist at its heart, literalizing Gibson’s cyberpunk axiom, “The street finds its own uses for things.” With trickster elan, it retrofits, refunctions, and willfully misuses the technocommodities and science fictions generated by a dominant culture that has always been not only white but a wielder, as well, of instrumental technologies."
                                                                                          - Mark Dery, Black To The Future

  Monáe's album (and the larger story it forms a part of) are both a critique of contemporary society's racism and a vision of a world beyond it. Like M.I.A., she fuses a huge grab-bag of musical influences, moving between hip-hop and film score-like orchestration with ease and forging a coherent whole from the jumble of imagery. More importantly, she makes fantastic, hook-ridden, propulsive pop music, and to paraphrase feminist anarchist Emma Goldman, if I can't dance, it's not my revolution.

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