I’m not ashamed to say there are a near-infinite amount of hoops I will jump through to be loved.
This especially applied when I was younger, navigating my sexuality in the frame of a homophobic family. I was convinced from the get-go that I was not the child my parents wanted, for myriad reasons, and on top of that, I had to be gay? This was a lot for a 12-year-old, and by high school, it manifested in the form of disorderly eating, neurotic exercising, and compulsively retooling my appearance to at least look the part of the young woman I was preferred to be.
In a similar vein, Janelle Monáe suited up as cyborg Cindi Mayweather across her discography. All throughout her most recent New York Times profile, Monáe explained that her “sanitized android version,” per author Jenna Wortham, was “more acceptable than her true self.” Likewise, in an effort to present more femininity, to “sanitize myself,” and better slot into my family, I ceremoniously donated almost all of my boyish band tees and wore the most outwardly feminine sweaters and blouses I could find.
So much of what I wore was sterile and ill-fitting, in a not dissimilar fashion from Monáe’s description of her Mayweather persona. She explains that fans did not truly “know Janelle Monáe, and I felt like I didn’t really have to be her because they were fine with Cindi.” I wanted these clothes to absolve me of my wrongdoings as The Gay One in the family, but I also wanted them to flow over my body until I disappeared into the fabric.
I wanted to be unknown but noticed for my efforts of anonymity. Along with that came policing every single thing I ate, because I was certain this was the womanly thing to do, which belies how sinister the whole business of womanhood really is. As my neurosis about eating and fashion consumed me, I began punishing myself with exercise, working my body because I deserved to be in pain, not because I had a rational fitness goal.
There was an underlying appeal to losing weight. I imagined myself shrinking so completely out of sight like I was never there in the first place. Reading Monáe’s comments on vulnerability and authenticity, perhaps she saw Cindi Mayweather as her own permanent eraser.
To escape the escape, to be secure in reality, Monáe released Dirty Computer, an album that loudly celebrates the body. Across the record, Monáe celebrates her anatomy and all forms of femininity. The rule is there is no rule for womanhood, and womanhood is a romp. Having sex while bombs fall (“Screwed”), delivering an ode to vaginas (“Pynk”), and starting “a motherfuckin' pussy riot” (“Django Jane”) go beyond shifting the power dynamics of sex—they remind me I do not have to disappear to please anyone. I can take up space as I please; Dirty Computer is inviting me to do as much. Cautiously, because I know my tendency to relapse on bad habits, I accept.
Working in conjunction with Monáe, we have 24-year-old Kali Uchis, whose proper debut record, Isolation, revels in cinematic downbeats, soul, and flashes of reggaeton all held together by a vocal delivery that strives to be as unctuous as possible. Her voice coats the jazzy production, and in the places where she plays stiff, the moment is either endearing or saved by the sharpness of her writing. She flourishes in her simple errors, accepting her humanity—something altogether foreign to me.
On Isolation opening track “Body Language,” the sonics alone speak volumes as the pitched droning and ambient beach sounds wash away your present reality. Once Uchis’ vocals swell in time with the feathery Om'Mas Keith and Thundercat production, we sink into the heady whimsy of getting lost. Teetering never sounded so sexy, never sounded so stable. The track opens on a demanding note, and there’s an attractive certainty to Uchis’ delivery.
On the first verse, Uchis confronts the enigmatic “you,” and with no context and some healthy projection, I take this as a conversation with herself. She sings: “I wanna know if you want to, I wanna go if you want to go / I'm sick and tired of talking, told you everything you need to know / 'Cause the rest is in the body language,” taking to task stagnation and finding urgency in her body. But it’s within the second verse, where Uchis storms off, rather vexed, that I find myself.
“Didn't wanna have to do it, didn't wanna be the one to say / Never wanted to go through it, I think about it most every day / Now I'm packing all my bags, and I am leaving it behind / There's no tracking where I'm going, there's no me for them to find”
The first couplet reeks of resignation and the second couplet speaks to this dichotomous view of the self. While getting dressed and appraising myself in the mirror, I weigh my options: who do I know myself to be, who do I present as, who do people perceive me to be, and do any of these spheres intersect? Plagued by this insecurity, there was “no me for them to find,” because the “me” had been all but erased by my neurosis.
I think back to one night in late January where I nearly passed out while getting ready for dinner. Tying my shoes, I felt my shirt get tighter and tighter around me as if I was both ballooning out and being choked. The room darkened, and there was an imagined shrieking. I sweat through the shirt, but couldn’t get it off. My hands wouldn’t ball into fists, nor could they figure their way around ten buttons. I looked down at myself and thought, “If I could just lop this all off until there’s nothing left, I’ll be able to breathe again.” So hot I was about to vomit, I huddled on the cold tile of the bathroom floor. Needless to say, I stayed in that night.
Paired with the album's title, Isolation, and the work we all do to minimize our problems until we are supposedly strong, lonely sufferers, I recall my days and subsequent relapses of disorderly eating, how just a week ago I cried after grabbing a sandwich with my girlfriend. I recall running mile after mile to escape myself, to lose weight until I was too small to be a memory. Of course, there was starving myself and laughing it off.
All of these compulsions worked me so quietly and meticulously, grinding me to dust, I couldn’t imagine sharing them with anyone else—there was no vocabulary for these feelings, they just orbited my decaying locus of control.
With these two records, though, I can point and let the music do the talking. That is, both the pep talk and the recap of last night’s panic attack. To read that an icon like Janelle Monáe is as lost in the business of masking as the rest of us, to hear Kali Uchis sing her way through agency and identity, is nothing short of gratifying. Regardless of the reason, we’re all under pressure to perform, but these women break character to reintroduce themselves as worthy, and within that, I find my own security.
Janelle Monáe and Kali Uchis pivoted to love their bodies, and thankfully, so am I. Not without my down days, I am lucky enough to find strength in strong women. Their records are sexually free, sinuous, and enchanting as a matter of content. There’s singing about sex, there’s normalizing women as sexual, and then there’s imparting lessons of self-love onto your listeners; both of these women nail all three.
Healing is neither immediate nor linear, but music certainly helps. The rest, as Kali sings, “is in your body language.”