JANELLE MONÁE
HOW YOU MAKE ME FEEL?
Dani Oore, University of Toronto, April 2018

My contributions and resources for collaboration with Carol Vernallis et al., “Janelle Monáe Emotion Picture Project,” submitted to the Journal of the Society for American Music. 

Dani Oore explores lineage in Make Me Feel’s audio and visual elements (rhythm, groove, timbre, harmony, colours, movement), and concludes with a description of activities to help you embody this lineage.

Among the most up-voted comments on Janelle Monáe’s Make Me Feel music video are the following two succinct approvals:
Mher Khachatryan: “PRINCEss” [2.1K up-votes]
Jimmi Pynk: “Prince is up there smiling down.” [2K up-votes][1]
Some commentators confess that “I can’t put my finger on” the Prince song that Make Me Feel evokes. Numerous others respond assuredly “Kiss” but offer no further explanation. Why Kiss? We know Prince helped Monáe with the larger project;[2] what other Prince inspirations might we be feeling? And what do we make of these feelings?

How do the rhythms, grooves, and timbres of Kiss and Make Me Feel compare?
Kiss and Make Me Feel each have a strong 3+3+2 accent pattern (counted as “1-2-3 1-2-3 1-2”) that is itself composed of two eight-beat rhythms: a 3+5 pattern (a bass and kick drum accent on the “1”s of a “1-2-3 1-2-3-4-5” cycle) and backbeat accents (on beats “3” and “7” of a “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8” cycle). [See Figure 1.]


Figure 1: Two rhythms combined in both Make Me Feel and Kiss and the composite tresillo pattern they imply.

The composite 3+3+2 pattern (often called a tresillo i.e. “little three” or “triplet”) that emerges from the combination of these two cycles is found in dance musics around the globe, including among Afro-diasporic traditions (e.g. Beyoncé’s APES**T). The backbeat is produced by a skin-slapping snare sound in Kiss and a sensual tongue clicking in Make Me Feel. The two songs share very similar tempos: Kiss throbs at just under 112 beats per minute and Make Me Feel at 115. In each song, the low frequency-rich groove is juxtaposed rather starkly against the vocals. Minimalist synths and rhythm guitar add depth, with the latter being the only non-vocal musical instrument depicted in both music videos. [Jump to “Groove games” further down, for more groove play.]

How do their harmonic structures compare?
Kiss and Make Me Feel also each embody their honest expression of Eros in the tried and trusted blues harmonic progression: they get comfortable in the safety of the I chord, raise the stakes by briefly stepping up to the IV chord (which shifts to the vi chord in Make Me Feel), and regain our trust by returning home to the I chord, before climaxing on a V chord and falling to a IV chord, a release that both songs extend either through repetition (Kiss) or variation (Make Me Feel). Each song cycles through three such harmonic climaxes.

How else does Make Me Feel invoke a feeling of lineage?
Make Me Feel also recalls aspects of Musicology, Prince’s homage to his studied inspirations. The music videos for Make Me Feel and Musicology begin with acoustically muffled and fragmented groove, respectively, and Musicology too, has a strong backbeat. Both music videos depict the entrance to that initiated space where sensual musical motion is celebrated. The space is sacred with signifyin’ organs (0:36 in Make Me Feel and 2:42 in Musicology). Prince praises the spirits of masters like James Brown, through the dancing and feeling body. Monáe channels Brown (“Good God…” and “I feel like…”) and particularly Prince to explore her sexuality. [Indeed, her live performance of Make Me Feel in Toronto in July 2018, included a whole James Brown rearrangement and choreography, as an outro.] The oppositional nature of this sexuality is intensified through Alan Ferguson’s complimentary magenta-green and red-cyan palettes, a nod, perhaps, to the orange-blue palette in Rebecca Blake’s Kiss video.

What visual links might we find between Make Me Feel and precedents by Prince and beyond?
Ferguson’s video plays with the tension between the seen and unseen, a tension found in Prince’s work. In Make Me Feel, reflective aviator glasses, black sheer flower-embroidery, and a latex-wrapped body recall the aviator glasses, black veil, and semi-naked bodies behind translucent glass in Kiss. A beaded face veil in Make Me Feel nods to Prince’s Violet the Organ Grinder. Monáe’s polka-dotted lips might be compared to those seen on Prince’s outfit in Kiss, Nigerian face painting as seen in Laolu Senbanjo’s designs on Beyoncé in Sorry, as well as those outside of music videos such as those naked bodies in Yayoi Kusama’s Homosexual Wedding and Grand Orgy... Each of these elements amplifies Monáe’s sensual body by simultaneously highlighting and gently obscuring its form.

Monáe’s Make Me Feel was followed by the release of a second single from her Dirty Computer, titled Django Jane. As the second single, what new or similar things do Django Jane’s spatial and choreographic elements make you feel?

Django Jane brings us through a set of gates into another type of sanctuary: a palace where oppression is being transcended, where dignity —of women and Blacks— is actively reclaimed. Just before the middle of the video (at 1:26) Monáe spits the lyric “Black girl magic.” On the word “Black” her hands thrust forward and snap back. Monáe and members of her squad repeat this snapback gesticulation on the first downbeat of each of the next five measures [i.e. every four beats for a total of five kinesthetic accents]. “Hiphop hands,” as Charles Mudede explains, are communicative, not decorative.[3] Monáe’s decisive gestures here are consistent with my theory that precisely such accented short-long patterns occur in emotionally- and socio-politically-charged contexts.[4] Recall Monáe’s accented short-long vocal snap in her 2015 Yoga: “You cannot po-LICE-this, so get off my areola;” with it, she reclaims (or decolonizes), the Black, female, and Other —or “android”— body.

In Andrew Donoho’s Django Jane video the intensity of Monaé’s first snapback shakes the entire video image into a corollary rhythmic aftershock, momentarily snapping us out of the mediated fantasy. In Make Me Feel (around her “Good god” lyric), Alan Ferguson synchronizes a shaky cam effect with a rhythm guitar tremolo, to metaphorize the magnitude and range of Monáe’s emotions. This Dirty Computer runs a venerable operating system, it glitches vulnerably and powerfully.

Groove games
Explore ways of embodying the groove that underpins Make Me Feel. You can do this by yourself, or, if in a group split in two, one for each rhythm.
Start by using your left hand to thump the 3+5 bass-kick drum part on your chest (two hits every eight beats: so, on the “1”s of “1-2-3 1-2-3-4-5” or on the “1” and “4” of “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8”). [See Figure 1.] Try with and without the music of Make Me Feel or Kiss. Don’t just count… dance… FEEL. Next try clapping the backbeats (two hits every eight beats: landing on beats “3” and “7” of “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8”). Instead of clapping, try slapping these backbeats on your right thigh, or clicking your tongue, or experiment with other timbres. Again, try with and without the music.
Now, can you do both rhythms together? If you are by yourself, try doing the 3+5 with your left hand on your chest while doing backbeats on 3 & 7 with your right hand slapping your thigh (or tongue click).
How do the rhythms interlock? How do they feel together? Dance with these rhythms!
In what other songs featuring Janelle Monáe can we find such rhythms (e.g. Grimes’ Venus Fly or Fun’s We Are Young)? What sorts of variations occur in such manifestations —what happens, for instance, in PYNK? Dance it out!

[1] Alan Ferguson, Janelle Monáe – Make Me Feel [Official Music Video], 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGRzz0oqgUE.

[2] Annie Mac, “Janelle Monae Is Back! She Tells Annie Mac about Prince, the GRAMMYs and Releasing New Music, Janelle Monae Hottest Record plus New Raye, Mabel and Stefflon Don, Annie Mac – BBC Radio 1,” BBC, February 22, 2018, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05z205r.

[3] Charles Mudede, “The Language of Hiphop Hands,” The Stranger, March 27, 2013, https://www.thestranger.com/seattle/the-language-of-hiphop-hands/Content?oid=16346921.

[4] Daniel Oore, “Snap, Twang, and Blue Note: A Cross-Cultural Examination of Features That Accompany Temporal Deviations in African-American Musics” (University of Toronto, 2017), http://dani.oore.ca/snap-twang-bluenote/.