There’s something going on with female friendship in the indie pop sphere right now. Back in November, musical Renaissance woman Janelle Monaé joined indie synthpop darling Grimes on stage in Atlanta for their collaborative song “Venus Fly.” The song’s backbone is a pulsating repetition of 808 drum machine beats, a sonic stretching of the music technology that structures so much of pop music to the point of abrasion. “Yeah, Grimes got my back,” Monaé declares midway through the song. She could just as easily have been shouting it to indie media outlets that are still so quick to elevate and celebrate the music of straight white men as she was screaming it to the crowd in Atlanta. Amongst the many things of which Monaé and Grimes’s Claire Boucher are renowned, the ways in which they play with the boundaries of gender and disregard supposed constraints of musical genre are especially laudable.
In 2016, it is still a potentially radical act for women in pop music to dream, work, and create together. That the collaboration between Grimes and Janelle Monaé is cross-racial (and transnational) gives it an additional layer of force. Pop music would not be as it is in America without the musical contributions of black people, a genealogy that is always at risk of getting—and remaining—buried in a capitalistic context where white pop artists have blatantly appropriated black people’s work since the 1950s. “Venus Fly” exposes this racial cross-pollination through its electronic music backbone. Synthesized sounds have a heavily racialized history, from the synth weirdness of white avant garde artists during the 1960s to the dance-friendly synths of black disco, house, and techno artists in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Grimes draws on all of these musical genres in her work—and her collaboration with Monaé for “Venus Fly” accentuates the extent to which she draws inspiration from black artists. This fusion is encapsulated by the song’s 808 drum machine beats, which materially touch down in late 1980s hip hop and dance music. But two questions always remain: do listeners need to get all of these citations for this radical potential to actualize? And what responsibility do artists have to educate their listeners on who they’re referencing?