First we had the era of covers and profiles with disclaimers — “This interview took place before…” — or hasty updates (“When we speak again, she is in isolation at her home…”). Then we shifted into photo shoots from before but profiles written almost entirely after, and now we’re landing squarely in, “We had to figure out a way to do this whole thing remotely.” Vanity Fair isn’t textually explicit about how, exactly, Janelle Monae’s shoot worked; you have to clock the cover and the captions, one of which specifies that she was shot via Zoom and another of which simply says “from a distance.” The cover is disorienting, echoing Our Times — Is she on the floor next to a papered wall? — but it’s good, and the pose is familiar (aren’t we all curled up and grabbing our heads at times?) while also bringing your eye right to her. Clever, too, to feature the photographer on it — Collier Schorr is in most of the inside shots, too, in a little picture-in-picture box — so as to provide a visual clue about what they did, and pique curiosity about what might be inside. Hair and makeup credits are given as “direction,” so does that mean she was given an aesthetic and asked to execute? Janelle mentions that she’s quarantining with a group; did they help? Many of the clothing pieces are credited as “her own,” but not all; did the credited stylist send her a shipment, and then Zoom with her in front of her wardrobe? Or is her stylist one of her housemates? How long did it take? How did she and the photographer collaborate on backdrops and lighting? The piece I want, obviously, is the one full of those juicy logistics. [Edited: Janelle delivered a bit of it on Instagram!]
The one we got is of course also interesting. Janelle is at once frank and elusive, talking openly about struggling with fear during this time — of how to support her band, and herself, financially — but then also only speaks obliquely about WHERE exactly she is:
Janelle Monáe’s voice flows like a sound bath calibrated to induce hypnosis. “You’re in my imagination,” she says.
I have just asked where she is geographically. I had to, because she’s using a digital background that sets her floating above the Golden Gate Bridge, hovering near the slope of one of its spindly tentacles, surrounded by water on all sides. But Monáe takes my question and knocks it on its side. It’s not about where she is—it’s about where she’s decided to take me. […]
Monáe doesn’t want to share where she is partly because the place you’re sheltering becomes exponentially more important when you’re going to be there indefinitely. Besides, this gives her a chance to raise her reputation as a deeply private person to the level of performance art. When I ask her to describe the things around her, she pauses and looks around for a moment. What comes next sounds like disassembled Björk lyrics.
“I have an orange,” she starts, after careful, Cheshire cat-like consideration. “I have a pineapple. I have a notebook! And I have a hammer.”
The hammer is not good news for the orange and the pineapple, methinks. The ending is also poignant:
Still, at this point in her self-isolation journey, Monáe is ready to have just a few simple pleasures back. She wants to hug her mom. She wants to hug her sister and her infant niece. She wants to travel to South Africa. She wants to really live again, and more. Above all, she wants to be in a room full of people, music pulsing as they stand too close and move too much.
“I’m ready to go to a party,” she says insistently. “A party where we are sweating, we are smiling, we are dancing for our souls.”
Hang in there, Janelle. Life will find a way. I believe it. I have to believe it.