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Wreath Lectures

From Robyn To Janelle Monae: 2010 & The Rise Of The Fembots
Sian Rowe , December 20th, 2010 09:06

In the first of our Wreath Lectures, Sian Rowe looks at the female artists who've used robot aesthetics to transcend feminine norms in pop

Did you spot a pop robot in 2010? Along with dominatrixes, jail birds and subversive 50s housewives, they have been a common inspiration for some female performers this year. Beyonce resumed her Sasha Fierce persona, complete with body plates and mechanical glove, Kelis released Flesh Tone, appearing on cover as a body armoured being from the future and even the b-list got involved, with Kei$ha appearing as a winged-bot on American TV show Saturday Night Live.

And why not? A robotic body is the perfect blank canvas on which pop stars can create their perfect persona. Thanks to this decade's interest in retrofuturistm it can be 1980s kitsch (like Bad Science's Lisa and Robocop) or 2050 sleek and, historically, has signified a number of things. Think power and evil in Fritz Lang's 1927 robo-thriller Metropolis, or super strength in the case of the Bionic Woman. Others may see the robot as the perfect servant like a Stepford wife, as Sci Fi and tech writer Annalee Newitz says "to some, fembots represent the perfect fantasy. They're sexy and submissive and have more techie features than the Xbox 360". I'm sure there are a few men and women who wouldn't mind finding a body plated Rihanna under their trees.

It also makes stars even more untouchable. Nobody can decide to just wake up and get dressed like robo-pop star, unless they have a particularly advanced soldering kit in the shed. An extreme version of the rise of celebrity designer fashion since 2000 (unreachable for most, but at least that was aspirational), it's a different tact from the days when you could pick up a pair of cargo trousers like the All Saints, Spice Girls platform trainers or even the gem coloured miniskirts and fluoro tights of Girls Aloud. Are teenagers now dressing like little Monsters? Or like Fierce's robot children? Not unless Ugg Boots are from space, rather than New Zealand.

Like the gender manipulation that Lady Gaga has popularised in the last three years with the has-she-hasn't-she 'penis' and constant role playing, Donna Haraway proposes in her 1991 Cyborg Manifesto that this cyborg metaphor offers a break from innate inescapable gender, breaking down boundaries between opposites. Rather than things being "born, they are created", quoting Haraway and Ms. Fierce. There is a new agency born out of this, giving individuals the choice to decide what is useful, strong and attractive.

"Fembots Have Feelings Too"

Robyn, author of one of this year's most undersold albums (or should that be trilogies) might well have read a bit of Haraway's work. The Swedish pop star makes for a great fembot, having dismissed the traditional structures of the music business after two singles on a major label in the mid 90s and come back stronger, better, faster than before on her own terms. She had almost disappeared before ‘With Every Heartbeat' brought her kicking back into our lives in 2005. But rather than thrust around in high heels and fishnets like the Pussycat Dolls, she is calm and collected, reclaiming dancing and singing for what it's meant to be; fun. As in the early days of disco, Robyn sees performance as an exorcism, not to be somebody else's sexual spectacle and her lyrics - which are still capable of mentioning 'booty' and sluts like the most shocking star - alternate between discussing sex, power and raw emotions.

But by using the robot to make her the perfect outsider figure she wants to remind us that 'Fembots have feelings too', calling out the pop industry and press that builds stars up and then knocks them down, deconstructing their bodies with red circles when something is 'wrong' or Photoshopping them to 'perfection' in the first place. If we're not going to get realistic body models (although in the UK there is Adele, Lily Allen, Romy Madeley at least) why shouldn't we have hyper touched futuristic images instead? US Blogger Feministe skirts around this point in her exploration of how she learned to finally love pop music, discussing how Robyn's powerful persona and reluctance to indulge in exploitative sexual images makes her just as valid a listening choice as traditionally grrrl artists; Sleater Kinney, Bikini Kill and PJ Harvey. Could Robyn be a feminist-bot as well as a female-bot?

"Me, I live on the wired side of town"

The Archandroid, Janelle Monae has appeared in a number of different robot disguises in the past three years, from timid one armed bot to having a Bioshock body. Having received praise from the NME to MTV, The Guardian and The Quietus her persona and music have been one of the year's biggest column fillers. She too explores the possibilities of dancing as emotional exorcism - as in the video for 'Tightrope' - and much of the analysis of album The Archandroid Suites I and II, has followed similar patterns to that of Robyn's; the distinctive dress, robotic manoeuvres and disregard for genres, playing with electronic pop, hip hop, R&B, disco and rock.

But if Robyn is the heart and soul of what it is to be a pop star playing with identity in 2010, Janelle is the brain. A spokesperson for a new, brave kind of post-genre pop, she theories her work with reference to Lang's film, Marxism, The Iliad, Ray Kurzweil and Afrofuturism. As John Calvert wrote in September, "The Atlantan is tangible proof that the idea for every great pop icon begins its life as art, and cements the conviction that Bowie's morphing was in itself genuflection to art as pathway to self-actualisation". But the most interesting things are not her theories (they probably only serve to make her listenership feel smarter by getting the illusions), but how Monae uses her alter ego Cindy Mayweather to discuss the real world. Her 'Palace Of The Dogs' and Sun Ra iconography sit alongside interviews that compare dystopian cityscapes in Metropolis to boarded-up projects in poverty wracked Kansas and as she discussed in an interview with Pitchfork this May, Robots are symbiosis for our fears of 'otherness' - of genre, race or sexuality. "People think, "Oh god, Robots are going to kills us!" she said to writer Andrew Zaeh, "I don't want us to think like that because I want my music to unite as many different species and humans and everything as possible. I don't want my future kids living in fear of anything". For some performers it's a changing alter ego or character (just as Beyonce can be a policewoman one minute, Gaga's jailbreak accomplice the next or Rihanna a dominatrix then abused) that allows them to be subversive or speak their mind; the Archandroid, for Monae, says something important in a fun, dramatic way.

Of course, sometimes, being half woman half machine doesn't work out so well. We'd wondered what Christina Aguilera was going to come up with for months before she revealed her new half robot body on "Bionic". A serial re-inventor since her days as a Mickey Mouse Club teenager , she has track record for epitomising trends in music. But Aguilera's identity crisis was confused, not subversive or interesting as reviewers (and fans) have not been shy pointing that out. Dan Martin in the NME wrote "It's as if the mighty Xtina has been reanimated as a slightly confused cyborg with levers and LEDS where the leather chaps used to be". In short, Christina just liked the image of a Robot one minute but ditched it for Burlesque, Sexy Breakfasts and the same gyrating moves the next. It had no relation to a message in her music. In fact, they were the same sweat-drenched club tracks before.

Would Monae and Robyn suddenly come out in lingere? No. As the former recently joked in an interview with Kitty Empire "They want to be the ones to get Janelle Monáe in a mini and stilettoes. But that's not the point of Janelle Monáe" and as Hazel Sheffield alluded to last year, would Florence roll around in her pants? Or Gaga look anything but terrifying? Nope, not that either. Even Madonna, Kate Bush and Annie Lennox, were defined by their different 'eras' rather bending to momentary trends. They had strong pop personas.

In 2010 we wanted to believe in what stars were selling and to agree with my favourite valley girls Jezebel, I'd rather see stars dressed like robots and astronauts than reverting to 2002 of writhing and sexyfacing. Yes, it might just be marketing, but as long as we want a bit of bang from our pop music, why not let them go back to the future? When it does work they create exciting and interesting images that can put gender politics and subversive sexiness back on the agenda. For me, that can only be a good thing. At least until all pop stars are replaced by REAL robots.

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