ALYSSA FAVREAU, AUTHOR OF JANELLE MONÁE’S THE ARCHANDROID, ON WHAT INSPIRED HER 33 1/3
It was Cindi’s story that first fascinated me. I loved Janelle Monáe, of course, loved her music and style, and the obvious passion she brought to everything she touched. But it was Cindi Mayweather—the runaway android, the citizen of twenty-eighth-century Metropolis, the cybersoul superstar, the messianic ArchAndroid—who really got to me, stayed with me, and made me want to write a book about her.
The story of Cindi Mayweather, sprawling as it does across several albums, was always going to be too vast to fit into one 33 1/3; I had to content myself with focusing on The ArchAndroid. But that album isn’t the start of Cindi’s story, far from it. From the earliest moments of Monáe’s career, Cindi was there, waiting to be found in two songs, twin dreamscapes off of the 2003 self-released demo The Audition.
As an introduction to Cindi’s fabled megacity of the future, “Metropolis” offers a surprisingly straightforward setting of the scene. For the “ten zillion and six” residents, breakfast is “an incandescent pill to chew” before beginning the drudgery of the day. Almost immediately, we are shown that this world, where “wired folk can be sold and bought,” clashes with Cindi’s imagined “paradise found,” a place where she can be free and love without “Droid Control warning [her] against this disease in [her] heart.”
Though the cyborg Cindi is forbidden to love, nothing will stop her, and it’s this power, this certainty, that Monáe harnesses for herself in “Cindi.” She “wants to dance but she has cold feet” and though she knows she has talent, “her confidence is low” and “she’s afraid to follow her dream.”
In “Cindi,” Monáe’s love of musical theatre via classic Disney is on full display (think “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” or “Bella Notte”). With strings to get swept up in, Monáe creates her own fantasy, one that will allow her to stand apart and say exactly what it is that she wants to say. Her gambit to “try to be Cindi / In hopes that they notice” pays off, paving the way for the next instalment: 2010’s Metropolis: The Chase Suite.
Military drums lead us into the introductory “March of the Wolfmasters,” where we learn that Cindi has been caught in love with a human and is “now scheduled for immediate disassembly.” The bounty hunters are out to find her, chasing her down to the tune of “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!!!”
The rapid-fire chase sequence, in which Cindi gives “ten men with guns” the slip, leads directly into the EP’s pièce de résistance, the Grammy-nominated “Many Moons.” The only song to receive a music video, “Many Moons” is the culmination of Cindi’s revolutionary awakening. She may have only wanted “to sing [her] simple song” but under the grinding heel of Metropolis “all [she] ever wanted to say / was chased, erased, and then thrown away.” As Cindi now demands to know whether the listener will be “bold enough to reach for love,” it becomes clear that there is no escape, only rebellion.
Directed by the late Alan Ferguson (who would later bring to life Monáe’s “Q.U.E.E.N.,” “PrimeTime,” “Electric Lady,” “Make Me Feel,” and “Crazy, Classic, Life” videos as well), the “Many Moons” short film crystalizes Metropolis’s conflicting relationship to Cindi. The screaming crowd might cheer for the performer, ecstatically grabbing at her discarded jacket, but the camera never forgets what is happening just below. Cindi’s power, as celebrated prototype of the Alpha Platinum 9000 line, extends only as far as the powers in Metropolis allow, her songs used as background music for a space-age slave auction.
As the grimness of the scene becomes increasingly difficult to ignore, the tempo slows with a spoken word breakdown, a recital of phrases that paint a harrowing picture of the ills plaguing both Cindi’s world and ours. From “breast cancer” to “quarantine,” our struggles are not so different. As Cindi’s face is overlaid with video footage and newsprint very clearly pulled from our shared history, it becomes clear that Metropolis and the present day, Cindi and Janelle Monáe, are not quite as distinct as expected. As we move through the next track—the ghostly interlude “Cybertronic Purgatory,” in which Cindi apologizes for running away before communicating that she’s “lost in a maze” but will be with us again soon—the narrative shifts once again between Cindi and Monáe.
“It was a letter written to me from my mother,” says Monáe on a 2009 episode of Fresh Air while discussing “Sincerely, Jane.” The final track brings the science fictional concerns of Cindi Mayweather squarely back down to earth, choosing to discuss violence and addiction in much more grounded terms. A plaintive piece of music designed to “touch the corners of [our] heart,” “Sincerely, Jane” blurs the boundaries between singer and android, making it unclear who exactly is being told to “come home, my dear / You’ve been gone long enough.”
Galvanized by an anxious synth hook borrowed from Stevie Wonder’s “Superwoman,” Cindi and Monáe both have work to do. “We must come, we must go,” they sing, acknowledging that the world-changing work before them will need to be done in both their times, and both their worlds. And with that, we’re ready for The ArchAndroid.
Alyssa Favreau is a Tiohtià:ke/Montreal-based writer. Her work has appeared in Hazlitt, Autostraddle, Them, Popular Science, and the Los Angeles Times, among others. She also cohosts the Broad Science podcast.