Everyone has at least one artist whose live show makes you murmur things like, “they were bloody well born to do this, and somehow we’re all lucky enough to witness it” while your friends/partner pretend not to have heard you. Music is emotional, man! That’s OK! For all of the merits of recorded music – how convenient, we can hear this musician when they’re not actually in the room; we can pretend to be in tastefully soundtracked art house films when we’re really just walking down the street with headphones in etc – the live experience crashes through our bodies in a way that easily feels more powerful.
Researchers tend to cluster around the idea that live music makes us healthier, or happier, or less messed up – last year, for example, an O2-commissioned study argued that going to shows may extend your life. I’ve already made the joke, back in March 2018, about how the lifestyle associated with lots of gigging (late nights, booze, drugs) may nullify those gains, so just click here to enjoy that. But whether you choose to believe the research figures, it’s hard to deny that soaring, overwhelming feeling that a really incredible live performance sends surging through your body. It can feel like someone’s giving your insides a wedgie, your gut suckerpunched by whatever wave of emotion a song creates.
I’m thinking about all of this because – praise be – on Monday morning Glastonbury’s Emily Eavis confirmed Janelle Monáe as a West Holts stage headliner at this year’s festival. Speaking to Lauren Laverne on Radio 6Music, Eavis remembered Monáe’s last Glasto performance, in 2011: “She was incredible, that show really was brilliant. Do you remember it?” Yes, Laverne remembers it, though they both recall it as being in 2015. “It was just incredible,” Eavis continues. “You could’ve watched it with the sound off and it visually would have been incredible. But then you hear her and… just everything about… I love Janelle Monáe, as you can tell.”
Chances are, anyone who has ever experienced Janelle Monáe live loves her too. She’s ridiculous. She’s… sort of embarrassing for other pop acts who will never reach that level, complete with her blend of vocal skill, physicality, breadth of expression and songwriting ability. She’s exactly the sort of ‘this person changed my life *crying emoji*’ artist I was going on about at the start of this piece.
I last saw Monáe live in 2014, at Brixton Academy in south London. As she ran along an extended platform that jutted out into the crowd, I remember crying like a child who’d just fallen over: a totally silent couple of tears at first, then a few heaving sobs, then back to being quiet about it. I didn’t cry for ages; she just unlocked something in my chest for a few moments. It felt comfortably resolved as she continued to play, as though she somehow both made me cry and then softly sang my tears away.
Of course, this was all before she released last year’s Dirty Computer. It’s her third album, and her most upfront so far. When Monáe first appeared in the mainstream, with 2007 EP Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), her music was wrapped up in the tangles of a story told through robot personas and afro-futuristic imaginings. Monáe herself was a bit of an unknown, coated in titanium by her “ArchAndroid” alter-ego. And look, that was fine: her songwriting was no less beautiful, she was earning Grammy nominations off the back of that first EP, her fans found community in the world she created.
But Dirty Computer leaned into her experiences as a black woman in the US, speaking more to her queerness than ever before (she had, after all, been fielding nosey questions about her sexual orientation for more than a decade). Soaking in this album live, in a festival setting like Glastonbury’s, could feel monumental, especially for the young black and femme people in attendance. We last saw something similar in 2017. That year, Solange played the festival following the release of A Seat at the Table , her career-defining account of black womanhood and inner strength. Though I’m normally wary about festival shows (you have to be standing in the perfect spot to hear and see! There’s always someone on their boyfriend’s shoulders during a quiet-ass song!), this is set to be a delight. That being said, here all the ways I’m likely to process my soul leaving my body as Monáe plays. Well, if I can sort myself a ticket. Anyway.
There’s a 90 percent chance I’ll:
Try to befriend every black woman and femme-identifying person in sight
Let out a squeal during the opening chords of “So Afraid”
Attempt the vocal leap during “So Afraid.” Fail
Cry, unfortunately for whoever happens to be with me at the time
WhatsApp my sister in South Africa a blurry nine-second video because I keep forgetting to hold my phone still
Realise I’ve actually not learned every line of the rap in “Q.U.E.E.N” featuring Erykah Badu, even though I rinsed that song so much when it first came out
Shout a white girl down from some man’s shoulders because no one has time for that right now
Get carried away and do a bit of air guitar during “Come Alive”
Twerk during “Django Jane”
Shout “NO LIE, SHE WAS BORN TO DO THIS, IT’S AMAZING THAT SHE’S REALLY FOUND THE THING SHE WAS MEANT TO DO” into the ear of the friend within closest reach. Sorry.
You can find Tshepo thinking about how she missed the Glasto ticket sale round on Twitter.