Her time slot changed between Voodoo and Coachella, which speaks to a shifting forumla for superstardom.

janelle monae grammys screen shot
Janelle Monáe at the 2019 Grammys

On the Saturday of Voodoo last October, I trekked through the mud by myself to see Janelle Monáe’s 5:30 p.m. set. I wasn’t interested in getting close and hung back where the crowd was still porous, with plenty of room to dance. I was unprepared for the crowd’s intense enthusiasm and fluency in her music, and it quickly became clear that these were not fans who simply happened upon her set. They came to Voodoo Fest specifically for her.

Monáe’s set at Voodoo last October was the most impressive of any performer of the weekend. It was beautifully choreographed, costumed, and performed, and her fan base stretched further back into the crowd than it did for some of the actual headliners of the weekend. These fans were singing every word to every song and cheered her on even when she sang silently after her sound was cut. She was the weekend’s superstar—certainly for me and many at her set—and I walked away wondering why she wasn’t given a headlining time slot.

Festival booking is mysterious business to those who work outside of it, but the decisions that influence time slots and lineup order are methodical. Ticket sales, streaming numbers, and contract demands all play their roles, and these invisible decisions can feel illogical from the fans’ side of the stage months after they were made. Monáe played at dinner time and was listed on the Voodoo talent announcement at the end of the third row of artists before the release of Dirty Computer. When Coachella released its 2019 lineup January 3, Monáe was listed immediately behind Friday’s headliner Childish Gambino, and she’ll likely play immediately in front of him. This is a significant jump for a few months of difference. What changed?

An artist’s draw and relevance aren’t the same thing and aren’t weighted equally, and measuring them is more complicated than it appears. Monáe specifically is difficult to pin down because if we look at ticket sales and streaming numbers, she seems undeserving of her slot on Coachella’s lineup. All of the artists around her on the lineup—Childish Gambino, Travis Scott, Arctic Monkeys, Anderson .Paak—play venues at least four to five times the size that she does. Billie Eilish, whose success has been almost exclusively tied to the numbers that she streams, streams 12 times the amount that Monáe does on Spotify, and still falls behind Monáe on Coachella’s lineup.

If we look, however, at who is most relevant in this pop culture and social moment, Monáe seems as though she should be headlining. Her performance of “Make Me Feel” on the recent Grammy Awards telecast was one of the musical highlights of the evening. Jon Pareles of The New York Times wrote, “Flanked by dancers who were costumed as shiny automatons, she swaggered through the song with robotic twitches, hip-pumping carnality and even some moonwalking, adding a snippet of her gynocentric song “Pynk” and the admonition, ‘Let the vagina have a monologue!’ She earned the mic drop that ended the song.”

In 2017, she starred in two Oscar nominated films, Moonlight and Hidden Figures. Monáe has passed on acting roles in the past, but these particular roles were important to her personal interests and helped craft a brand for herself as an advocate of inclusion. Both roles are part of a larger move for more inclusive storytelling, and the people who turned out at the box office for these movies were the people paying attention to who’s trying to do good work in the world. Monáe is not oblivious to this, and these roles align her with the types of fans she wants to find her. She is working to build an audience beyond standard festival attendees.  

In 2018 she also publicly came out and began speaking openly in support of her LGBT community. Monáe has spent the majority of her career tactfully avoiding the subject, and has been uncomfortable being out publicly. Cindy Mayweather, the protagonist in the science fiction story told by Monáe on The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady is herself a freedom fighter for androids, who are transparent stand-ins for ethnic and cultural minorities, so the announcement didn’t come as a big surprise, but coming out in 2018 felt like an act of political resistance. She previously dipped her toe into more personally political waters when she spoke at the Women’s March in D.C. following Trump’s inauguration, and finally coming out furthered her own stake in the fight.

All of this is also built on the back of a beautifully crafted career spanning 10 years of work; she has not arrived at this moment spontaneously or unexpectedly. This is the time of Monáe, and that’s undeniable. In a year when streaming numbers influence lineup decisions heavily, Monáe proves that our zeitgeist is heavily influenced by an artist’s politics, and fans are searching for authentic representation.

Monáe’s 2018 release of her album and accompanying “emotion picture” Dirty Computer signal a shift in how she brands herself and her authenticity. Her earlier work presents Monáe more ambiguously by cloaking herself in the persona of a character, but on Dirty Computershe signals her influences more clearly and gives the world a glimpse into who she is and the people who have built her. “Make Me Feel” is a Prince song through and through, while “Americans” is undeniably rooted in David Bowie’s influence. She shows her hand more clearly, and admits to it. She told the press that Dirty Computer was personal in a way she’s long been uncomfortable being with her fans. This move toward a more authentic Monáe is attractive and intoxicating, particularly for fans looking for representation.

Monáe has spent her career building a body of work that is meticulously crafted and orchestrated on her own terms. She has navigated the industry in a way that has shown little concern for becoming a sensational pop star, but instead has been focused on building a brand for herself that is true to her own interests and priorities, namely, prioritizing the voices and stories of women, people of color, and LGBT folks. Her previous albums received critical acclaim, and gave her the freedom to work with big names like Prince, Erykah Badu, and OutKast, but they didn’t sell big numbers. Her talent was still niche, and all career moves catered to this niche framing rather than a standard pop or R&B superstardom. Her rise to pop stardom has not taken a traditional route, and it’s because her music is not traditional for its genre.

Monáe is an R&B artist for fans who aren’t necessarily R&B enthusiasts, much like her mentor Prince. Her music is genre-bending, and it invites listeners to find something different and strange in her work and themselves. The fans who turn out to her shows are fans of Monáe specifically, so her fanbase does not always overlap with standard festival crowds. These are the type of fans who support everything she does—albums, movies, activism— rather than blindly supporting a musical festival she happens to be performing at. This could contribute to lackluster streaming numbers on free music streaming sites.

This breakdown is very specific to Monáe, but it speaks to a larger phenomena of how stardom is built now, and how that stardom translates to music festivals. Stardom can now be built through many different avenues, and Monáe has built hers slowly from many different fronts. Her success is hard to isolate which makes her star quality a bit nebulous. That makes her placement on festivals’ lineups confusing from any angle.

Monáe is also the kind of star we need right now. In a time when the news is bleak, and there’s a lot to pay attention to, her message of love and acceptance is finding its way closer to the front of festival lineups, and that feels crucial. She is spilling over into superstardom, but she still recognizes the bleak emotional terrain her fans are experiencing daily, and works to alleviate that through her music and performances.

When I saw her perform at Voodoo, it was clear that everyone else who also trekked through the mud did so out of necessity. Being there was important and rejuvenating in a time when rejuvenation is hard to come by. I attended her set alone, but next to me was a woman in her late 50s who was eagerly trying to get her partner to dance with her, along with her son who was dressed in glitter and rainbow shorts. The woman and her son sang every song to each other, and their energy was unabashed and joyous. During the moments Monáe paused to address her LGBT fans, they hugged each other deeply. I danced by myself, but towards the middle of the set, they noticed, and invited me to dance and sing with them through the rest of the set. When it ended, I thanked them and we went our separate ways. She hugged me, told me I wasn’t alone, and offered me her number if I needed anything, ever. It was a kindness I didn’t know I needed, and a kindness I have been searching to spread since. It was a kindness Monáe invited and inspired, and her trajectory couldn’t be more timely.