Synthesized Sounds and Fusion Friendships in Grimes and Janelle Monaé's "Venus Fly"

Curator's Note

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?


Thanks Christine! This is such a great post to start the week because it puts so many questions and pop culture moments on the table. For example, I'm hoping this post will help me make sense of Macklemore's new song, "White Privilege II." Anyway, what I'm really struck by is the idea that Monaé's physical presence is a productive form of citation. While it could just as easily be interpreted as a burden, she is part of a lineage of exciting and provocative forms of black female expressive culture that deserves attention. Furthermore, the idea that there can be fluidity between the identities of artists in the sonic realm, that is perhaps not available in any other space, is a really interesting idea about race and form.

Thank you, Lauren! I am also still processing "White Privilege II." Your mention of Janelle Monaé's physical presence makes me think of how Francesca Royster discusses eccentrism through examples such as Grace Jones and Meshell Ndegeocello (and then Monaé in the epilogue) in Sounding Like a No-No: Queer Sounds & Eccentric Acts in the Post-Soul Era. Monaé, through the ambiguity that arises from how she plays with lines of race, gender, genre, and sexuality (Royster's definition for eccentricity), connects, as you note in your comment, to a lineage of black female eccentrics in music and beyond. But I think Grimes is approaching or attempting to approach eccentric ambiguity as well, albeit from a different racial position. What are the ways that Grimes can exist around or alongside Monaé's eccentricism without canceling out these important lineages of black women's cultural contributions? And what are the ways that we can read this alongside-ness as practice of an expansive notion of queerness that is not just about sexual object choice but about creating alternative ways to exist together as collectivities? That is always the big question for me and I did not even try to begin to address it in a 350-word post. As a sort of aside, I'm also thinking about how Monaé started to literally let her hair down more after the release of The Electric Lady in September 2013, particularly in the video for "Electric Lady" in July 2014. I saw Monaé perform at Governors Ball in NYC in June 2014 and she had her hair tied back and was rocking a black and white suit and suspenders that day. There's something going on there too that I haven't formed complete thoughts about yet, besides that this switching between androgyny and a more feminine gender presentation is also relevant to this conversation of citation and black female expressiveness.

Really compelling analysis and example! I am struck by your observation that "it is still a potentially radical act for women in pop music to dream, work, and create together." I have noticed that even forward-thinking female pop artists often have all-male backup bands and collaborators, perhaps to avoid being marginalized or essentialized. Of course it's true that the female collaborations that do occur often don't receive critical attention/acclaim, as you observe. I also appreciate your questions about music as a form of citation/education, and would love to hear others chime in on that topic. I looked into the lyrical meaning of "Venus Fly" and one interpretation (based on a Grimes interview) is that the song is about being "too scary to be objectified." Intriguing! (P.S. Your blog looks fantastic -- look forward to reading more of your work.)

Thanks so much, Katherine! I also have noticed how female artists of various kinds—especially pop stars and singer/songwriters—have all-male backing bands. Conversely, I believe Janet Jackson recruited all women dancers for her current tour (but I don't know for sure yet as the show I have tickets for got rescheduled for July!). Surely dancers are collaborators in live performers, too? I wonder what's going on there. I've been thinking a lot about citation lately as I've been working through FKA twigs's "Glass & Patron," where she very intentionally cites the voguing from the documentary Paris Is Burning. When that video came out, there were people on the internet who, because they had no previous knowledge of queer ballroom scenes in Harlem in the 1980s/1990s, thought FKA twigs had created those movements. She then, to her credit, brought NYC voguing legends out to her Congregata shows in Brooklyn in May 2015 (I was at the final night of the shows and it was a very moving gesture). My question for the group is how we think the citation of sounds works similarly and differently to that of dance and written words. Thanks for sharing that quote from Grimes! I don't think I've read that interview yet. It almost seems like the "scarier" (and "crazier"?) Grimes is, the more she gets recruited for media attention such as that covers story she did for The Fader. I think she and Monaé are similar in the sense that they get caught in the tension of trying to escape objectification yet get folded back into capitalistic media representations anyway. But there's also something commendable in how they don't give up on trying.

I don't have much to add to these other comments, but just to say that this video is so exciting! I’m fascinated by the connections that you’re making between female friendship, cross-racial collectivities and the idea of ‘alongside’, as well as the strategies artists are making (however successful or not) to disrupt objectification. Looking forward to reading more of your work.

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