Professor Rebecca Richards
Embracing Gender Narratives, A Textual Analysis of Cold War, performed and written by Janelle Monae
In our society, unique expressions and experiences combine to form one narrative, a gender narrative, which allows the opportunity for difference in our world today. Thoughts, words, actions, sexuality, likes, and dislikes combine to create this narrative allowing its beholder to express themself in any way they see fit. While gender narratives provide opportunities for diversity and differences, these differences are often oppressed in our world today. In a moment filled with intimate emotions, American R&B soul musician Janelle Monae addresses this oppression and the need to encourage individuals to love themselves for who they are, in her music video, Cold War. Monae builds a personal connection with her audience by creating an intimate atmosphere in order to unveil meaningful lyrics which address the productiveness of being alone, and embracing this aspect of our own gender narratives. Ultimately, Monae uses the strong and personal connection she creates with her viewers in order to point out how social constructions limit the acceptance of individual gender narratives.
Monae uses her embodied gender narrative to connect intimately with her audience in order to successfully convey what she is singing about. One way Monae shares this intimacy is during the first few seconds of her video as she sheds her robe, giving the audience an appearance of her nakedness. This nakedness gives Monae a sense of vulnerability, as being naked is normally an intimate and private part of oneself. Monae conveys this vulnerability throughout the entirety of Cold War, as the camera is only focused on her face, drifting away at times solely to show her bare neck and shoulders. Monae also uses eye contact to reinforce this intimacy that she creates with her audience, especially during the first minute of her video. Monae connects to the audience by staring right into the camera and letting them gaze back into her eyes. Because Monae appears to be naked and keeps eye contact with her audience, she draws an emotional connection with them through the emphasis of her facial movements and eye contact. Monae’s vulnerability and intimacy communicates that she wants to be seen as a friend, and she wants to deeply connect with her audience in order to tell them something.
The opening lyrics of Cold War are meant to speak with the audience and ask them to embrace the opportunity of being alone in our current society filled with oppression. Monae starts off Cold War by asking, “So you think I’m alone?” and proclaiming that “being alone’s the only way to be, because when you step outside you spend life fighting for your sanity.” Here, Monae first asks her audience a question, but one that is rhetorical. She doesn’t expect her audience to answer because her next line answers the question for them. She explains that in our world there is nothing wrong with being alone because this does not mean loneliness, but rather, individuality. Monae tells her viewers that the only way to live is to live alone. She says that individuality is often criticized in society, and because gender narratives create individuality we must accept being alone because it’s “the only way to be.” Overall, being alone and “underground” is a way to embrace differences and acceptance oneself, because in our society unique gender narratives are oppressed so harshly.
Embodiment and Lyrics Juxtaposed
When these lyrics are joined with Monae’s embodiment during her video, the audience is able to formulate a deeper understanding and connection to Cold War. Because Monae starts her video with an intimate feel and strong eye contact, as she sings these lyrics she forces the audience to connect with her on a personal level and lets the song speak to the listener. Monae wants her audience to easily understand and connect to what she is saying, and she is able to do this with the strong connection she creates with her viewers. Monae desires her audience to hear what she is saying rather than focus on a complex music video consisting of several different scenes and characters. This intimacy builds a personal relationship between Monae and her audience, allowing for true inspiration to surface from her lyrics. Monae portrays herself as unreserved and tells her audience through her gender narrative that what she is saying is important.
The Turning Point
Suddenly, an emotional shift in Monae’s performance strengthens the relationship between the artist and her viewers in order to continue this intimacy. After one minute of the song goes by, Monae breaks eye contact with the audience and her gender performance begins to change. Instead of staring straight at the camera, she looks up into the corner and then focuses back on her audience, tilting her head to the side with a slight smile on her face. Soon after, Monae breaks down and stops lip syncing, taken over by several emotions. She first smiles at her mistake, and then attempts to get back into character. At this point, the entire mood is altered. Monae has made a mistake during this first take, but she chose to keep this as her final music video. Overall, the mistake shows Monae’s own gender narrative, and proves that she is a real person too. This effect can help the audience embrace their own mistakes because through this video, mistakes and differences are accepted. Here, Monae has begun to connect with her audience at an even deeper level. The audience can begin to believe Monae through her performance showing that she is doing her job; she is speaking to her audience while allowing them to listen and relate to her lyrics.
Social Constructions Juxtaposed with Monae’s Emotions
As Monae continues to communicate on a personal level with her audience, she sings about the freedom of gender expression, individuality, and social constructions in our oppressed world. This communication is part of the emotional turning point in the video which helps viewers trust and connect with what Monae is saying. The line, “I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me” is sung just before Monae breaks character. This powerful line stresses the internal differences individuals in a society experience and how these differences are often oppressed. Here, Monae tells her audience that she is not perfect and addresses that social constructions have made individuals believe that they should be perfect. For many people, their gender narratives are discriminated against and social constructions reinforce the refusal of acceptance.
Monae Cries Out
During the last minute of the video, Monae sheds a tear and cries out to her audience in a moment of honesty addressing the overall meaning of Cold War. Monae asks us what we are fighting for in this world, and wants us to discover the answer. As she sheds a tear, she cries out “do you, do you?” Monae feels for herself and her audience; she wants everyone to figure out their meaning in life. Unlike the first few minutes of her video, her emotional gender performance conveys that she is unsure if her viewers love themselves for who they truly are. Ultimately, she wants everyone to embrace their gender narrative. This can only be done by finding the productiveness in being alone, in being an individual. Monae uses her tears to break the last barriers between herself and the viewers. She is completely vulnerable now and the intimacy is enhanced even more than before. Monae genuinely inspires her audience to discover what they are fighting for in this world and to embrace their individuality alone.
As the video and song come to a close, the tear is still visible on Monae’s face as she begins to end the relationship she has so carefully created with her viewers. Looking distressed and somber, Monae shakes her head and sings, “bye bye bye bye, don’t you cry when I say goodbye.” She understands the disapproval that inhibits individuals from expressing their gender narratives freely and encourages us all not to care. Whatever our gender narrative is defined by, Monae wants us to understand that we can begin to live through any oppressions by accepting ourselves. In the end, we all have something to offer, and we will all be missed. Monae conveys through her tears and lyrics that we should not care about those who fail to accept us, for it is only social constructions that allow this discrimination. As the music fades, Monae’s eyes become weary as she drops her head, ending not only the song, but the personal relationship she has created with her viewers.
Janelle Monae. “Cold War.” The Archandroid. Atlantic Records, 2010. Music Video.