Please throw the saying “size matters” out the window right now — at just over five feet tall, Janelle Monáe is a performer with enormous talent. On Saturday in the Palestra, Monáe and her band, the ArchOrchestra, put on an astoundingly unique, interactive and otherworldly concert. For Monáe, this concert was the first stop on the annual Campus Consciousness Tour, which aims to “engage musicians and their fans to take action toward a more sustainable future,” according to its website.
Before Monáe took the stage, however, there were two half hour-long opening acts, the second of which was significantly better than the first.
Starting things off were Timothy Bloom and his entourage, which included a backup singer whose hair was reminiscent of Medusa. Bloom classifies his music as a fusion of soul, R&B and hip hop, but it all came across as very one-dimensional live. All instruments and vocals were at the same volume for every song, and the effect was that no aspect of their music stood out. Instead, their performance merged together as one loud noise with the occasional bass line note that caused audience members to put their hands over their hearts from the unnecessarily forceful reverberations. Additionally, the overzealous sexual tensions between Bloom and his two female backup singers did nothing to improve this band’s on-stage image, and instead seemed to just make everyone a little uncomfortable.
Next up was the band Fun (stylistically called fun.), which was a huge improvement. The band hails from New York City and graced audiences with frivolous indie pop. Their music was easy to sing along to even if you’d never heard their songs before — with repetitious lyrics like “na na na na na na na/I will not let you go” in their song “Walking the Dog” — and enjoyable to jump up and down to. I hate to be this obvious, but there’s no other way to say it — the band members of Fun actually look like they’re having fun performing with each other, which can do a lot for the quality of a show and the demeanor of the audience.
Finally, Monáe made her entrance, and it was a most unusual one. The lights went almost entirely out, a circus-like tune began and a man in a tuxedo and top hat — the evening’s emcee — came on the stage to majestically announce the upcoming main event, making us scream as loud as we could for Monáe.
The screen behind the stage morphed into an image of hypnotic black and white lines swirling into the center, and one-by-one a small orchestra filed on stage, including everything from a cellist and two violinists — one of whom is an Eastman graduate — to a keyboardist, a trumpeter and a trombonist. Everyone was dressed in their own distinctive black-and-white outfits.
Suddenly, three hooded figures emerged in the midst of an eerie fog that blanketed the stage. About a minute into the first song, Monáe whipped off her cloak and spun around to reveal herself as the middle figure.
Keeping up the act of creating this mysterious atmosphere in addition to her pure vocal talent was part of what made her such an interesting artist to watch live.
For example, during “Sincerely, Jane,” masked and cloaked creatures that resembled Plague-era doctors snuck up onto the stage and tried to attack her, but she fended them off in perfect time with the music.
There were other times when strangely-outfitted individuals seemed to just appear out of nowhere in the middle of her songs. Like when senior juggler Adam Lanman, the emcee, a rabbi and a woman wearing something like a cross between a flapper dress and a bird costume went dancing across the stage. During “Wondaland,” her emcee even popped up and shot Silly String out at the audience.
Also during this song, Monáe seemed to become Monet. In time with the lyrics “Let me paint your canvas while you dance,” she painted an abstractly sensuous picture of a woman with the word “LOVE” across the bottom, simultaneously keeping up her role as lead vocalist.
At the end of the show she asked if it was anyone’s birthday and, after receiving proper verification, handed off the painting to freshman Zoe Goldberg.
Monáe’s performance proved that in addition to working up intrigue about herself, she is also great at channeling other artists. She covered The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” and anyone who attended the concert will swear to you that the voice of a young Michael Jackson himself filled the room.
Monáe has created an entire world and an image for herself, which portrays her as being a science fiction humanoid character. Her performance technique simultaneously drew audience members into this world while also keeping an impersonal distance between herself and them.
It wasn’t until the end of the encore — when she sang “Come Alive” — that she seemed to become alive and more human, as her distinctive ’do came undone a little and she finally directly addressed the audience. She even crowd-surfed and snuck around through the back doors to surprise those standing on the outskirts of the Palestra with breakdancing.
Monáe has all the talent and grandeur of Michael Jackson combined with the mystique of Cirque du Soleil — an unbeatable combination that made this performance a complete joy to experience.
Sklar is a member of the class of 2014.