Stop Making Sense: Are You Bold Enough to Reach for Love? Janelle Monáe and the Gaps of Nah-Nah-Nah, by Justin D Burton

by justindburton on May 15, 2013

Guest Editor Elizabeth Lindau brings to the IASPM-US site a series of essays on the topic “Stop Making Sense: The Unintelligible in Popular Song.” During the month of May, we’ll explore what it is to sit just on the edge of reason in popular music.


“Tell me: are you bold enough to reach for love?”

The answer comes in the form of perhaps one of the most popular nonsense lyrics in music: nah-nah-nah. The Beatles used it to get Jude’s attention. Master P made ‘em say it. Adam Duritz’s December was so long it was all he had left. Makavelli chanted it as the rejection of a ride-or-die duality. And Will Smith has gotten jiggy with it—as have the Beach Boys, Bieber, and Rihanna, among others.

Nah-nah-nah offers a richness that courses through popular music—a something that mustn’t be spoken, a nothing that might be more than we imagine. It stands in the place of explicit content, allowing taboos to pulsate beneath the surface of, say, some good vibrations. It props up verses, filling out couplets and taking up spaces that can’t survive lyrical voids. It points to something and nothing all at once, even as it is the easiest lyric for an audience to learn and the likeliest to be sung back. In those moments of audience feedback, nah-nah-nah becomes a re-sounding gap in meaning that pulls listeners into the song and leaves them to occupy that gap. This sort of nonsense lyric, in the hands of a master of popular music styles like Janelle Monáe, who slides in and through the sounds and creative practices of a world of postcolonial artists, can summon a variety of gaps that require re-sounding listeners to fill the spaces and shape the meaning of the song’s musical and lyrical text.

Consider (Janelle Monáe alter-ego) Cindi Mayweather’s question: “Are you bold enough to reach for love?” Cindi puts the question to the listener because by the time she asks it, we already know her answer. Janelle Monáe’s Metropolis: The Chase Suite opens with the announcement that Cindi (Android #57821) has fallen in love with a human and is “now scheduled for immediate disassembly.” It is in “Many Moons,” the third track on the EP, that Cindi asks this question of us. Even as she hurtles toward her own death, chased down by bounty hunters armed with chainsaws and electro-daggers, she invites us to consider sharing in her fate, to become bold enough to reach for love. And as the nah-nah-nahs rise up to pull us into the song, we’re left to ponder the gap where Monáe has placed us.

All signs point to a futuristic setting, and it’s a nightmarish place. Cindi’s hunters are tipped to her whereabouts by an all-seeing surveillance system, and she introduces herself in “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!” as an alien, a slave girl on the run. With these few broad strokes, Monáe situates herself in an Afrofuturist discourse that folds past onto future in a manner that sounds gaps in the present. Afrofuturists sound these gaps in different ways. While Sun Ra visits a broken present from a utopian future that draws on the power of the ancient past, Kool Keith’s future is a dystopia pock-marked by the unchanging sames of colonialism’s past.[1. I’m drawing here on examples used in J. Griffith Rollefson’s “The ‘Robot Voodoo Power’ Thesis: Afrofuturism and Anti-Anti-Essentialism from Sun Ra to Kool Keith,” Black Music Research Journal 28:1 (2008): 83-109.] In each case (and in the many more instances of Afrofuturist creativity), the past and future bend toward one another and leave the listener to ponder the gap that is the present. Elsewhere, Monáe sounds herself in a global discourse, as examined in Shana Redmond’s analysis of “Cold War,” “a production that highlights the lived realities of the marginalized through articulations of alienation,” articulating her performance beyond the bounds of US slavery and in the context of a broader postcolonial, black Atlantic discourse.[3. Shana Redmond, “This Safer Space: Janelle Monáe’s ‘Cold War,'” Journal of Popular Music Studies 23:4 (2011): 400.] Given Monáe’s tendency to sound herself in a postcolonial context, and given Afrofuturity’s concern with aesthetic practices throughout the black Atlantic, I’m approaching the Metropolis where Mayweather lives as not just a city that signifies on the histories of US slavery, but one that sprawls across postcoloniality, drawing on experiences and creativities in a global context.

Monáe constructs the dystopia of Metropolis at least in part as a postcolonial reflection on the objectification of bodies past and future, here and there, especially in the video that accompanies “Many Moons.” Here, Monáe visually steps outside of the Metropolis narrative even as she draws on its component parts and even as the song still sounds that narrative. The audiovisual experience of “Many Moons,” then, neither exists apart from the album version of the song nor merely provides a visual analog to that song; rather, the audiovisual marks an affinity between the audible and visual media without joining them seamlessly.[2. Stan Hawkins and John Richardson elaborate on this idea in their analysis of “Toxic” in “Remodeling Britney Spears: Matters of Intoxication and Mediation,” Popular Music and Society 30:5 (2007): 605-29.] This affinity extends Monáe’s postcolonial elements, as we find ourselves at an auction of android slaves, all of whom look like Monáe/Cindi. The entertainment is provided by Cindi Mayweather herself, who sings and dances as the androids parade up and down the runway accompanied by graphics documenting the bids placed on each of them.

The idea of an auction of objectified and commodified persons (persons whose humanity is crucially underestimated) flows easily from what we learn of Metropolis on the EP, but the event itself exists apart from the narrative of the album. The misogyny of the event also grows from the album, where Cindi is tabbed for disassembly while her human lover, Anthony Greendown, is named but not indicted, sentenced, or in any way reprimanded for his actions.[3. It’s worth considering that Anthony dies before the EP starts, as he doesn’t appear anywhere in the action except as Cindi reflects on him in the past tense—past because he’s dead or because her own imminent death tells her she’s seen him for the last time?] The audiovisual version of “Many Moons” crosses back over to the album version as Cindi dies at the end of both. While she is presumably run down by the bounty hunters on the album, in the video she dances herself to death, rising steadily into the air as her movements and the music climax. She is suspended before the audience in a scene that recalls the bodies of lynched victims being displayed before bloodthirsty crowds—the human-technological forbidden love of Metropolis drawing on the anxieties of miscegenation that led to the terrorizing of blacks in the US for centuries.

The gaps are multiplying. As Monáe collapses past and future onto one another, we’re asked to contemplate two instances of “Many Moons”—the audiovisual and album versions—alongside human/technology hybridity, male/female duality, colonization and postcoloniality, and the short distance Cindi travels from love to death. As Cindi asks whether we’re bold enough to reach for love, we hear nah-nah-nahs filling a tune that has sounded in a call-and-response pattern throughout the chorus. These nah-nah-nahs exist in the musical space where we expect to hear words. In the lyrics shown below, all words in parentheses outline related tunes.

Oh make it rain, ain’t a thing in the sky to fall
(The silver bullet’s in your hand, and the war’s heating up)
And when the truth goes bang, the shouts splatter out
(Revolutionize your lives and find a way out)
And when you’re growing down instead of growing up
(You gotta ooh ah ah like a panther)
Tell me: are you bold enough to reach for love?
(Nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah)

The entire chorus seems at odds with itself, as the call-and-response dialogue cross-talks, the soloist driving toward love, the responsorial vocalists toward violence. So when we arrive at nah-nah-nah filling the tune of revolutionary ideals, we return to the initial concept: as listeners, these nonsense lyrics re-sound through us; if they have meaning, we transmit it from the gaps.


Paul Gilroy theorizes “what cannot be spoken” in black popular music as moments that sound racial trauma across the Black Atlantic and comment “on the inadequacy of language for expressing certain truths.”[4. There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 211-12.] In Ian Baucom’s reading of Gilroy alongside Frantz Fanon, he suggests that Gilroy creates scholarly solidarity with Fanon “through listening and re-creating, paying attention and remaking” Fanon’s work.[5. Baucom, Frantz Fanon’s Radio: Solidarity, Diaspora, and the Tactics of Listening,” Contemporary Literature 42:1 (2001): 35.] The result is a scholarly call-and-response where Gilroy re-transmits ideas similar to Fanon’s even as he fills in the gaps. Reading Gilroy’s idea of racial trauma into “Many Moons”’ nah-nah-nah, we may be able to enter into a similar relationship with Monáe. As listeners, we can re-transmit nah-nah-nah and fill in the gaps Monáe has opened up in her work.

By shaping her listeners into re-sounders, Monáe asks us to consider what it would mean to be bold enough to reach for love in the present gap. That is, once we observe the way past and future fold onto one another to bring Cindi Mayweather to the brink of death, might we find a way to re-sound nah-nah-nah in the present so that the racial trauma, the misogynistic trauma, the trauma of colonial binaries can be prevented from re-transmitting from our past through this present into her future? By asking directly—Are you bold enough to reach for love?—Monáe invites her listeners to become ethical collaborators instead of silent bystanders to Cindi’s death. She seeks listeners who fill the gap with re-sounding solidarity.

Monáe herself, “through listening and re-creating, paying attention and remaking,” re-transmits a variety of sounds and images from the past and present, from her tuxedo uniform to her old school soul vibe to the postcoloniality woven into the fabric of her audiovisual output. In Cindi’s phrasing of her question, we find Monáe re-transmitting another singer who sounded as if he were from the future, who chose the boldness of love over violence. Nestled in her dystopic vision of Cindi Mayweather’s future, Monáe deploys nah-nah-nah next to the lyric that points us back to Jimi Hendrix, who was “bold as love” in projecting a utopian future, “the alternative possibilities of the not-yet,” as Gilroy describes it.[6. Gilroy, “Bold as Love? Jimi’s Afrocyberdelia and the Challenge of the Not-Yet,” Critical Quarterly 46:4 (2004): 112-25.] Monáe pulls in her collaborator-listeners in juxtaposition to the clearest moment of hope in the Metropolis narrative, suggesting we may yet create a future that is kinder to Cindi.

It doesn’t last.

Cindi dies, and as her life bleeds out, we hear a slew of societal ills stutter past her lips, the weight of an unchanged past that sealed her fate as well as a rejoinder to Monáe’s listeners who did not, apparently, re-sound nah-nah-nah as we should have. Cindi’s death is punctuated by a lullaby, the last two lines of which remind listeners one last time of the stakes.

Shang- Shang- Shang- Shangri-la
Nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah

Shangri-la? Utopia? Are you bold enough to reach for love? Monáe wants to hear it in the nah-nah-nah.

Justin D Burton specializes in popular music and culture, especially focusing on hip hop, technology, and the critical race theory. His ongoing research combines these interests, reading contemporary popular music through the lens of posthuman theory. He currently teaches in the Popular Music Culture program at Rider University and currently serves as the Web Editor on the executive committee of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, US Branch.

Elizabeth Lindau is Visiting Assistant Professor of Musicology/Ethnomusicology at Gettysburg College. She completed her Ph.D. in Critical and Comparative Studies in Music at the University of Virginia in 2012 with a dissertation titled “Art is Dead. Long Live Rock! Avant-Gardism and Popular Music, 1967-99.” Liz’s essay “Goodbye 20th Century! Sonic Youth Records John Cage’s ‘Number Pieces’ ” appears in Benjamin Piekut, ed. Tomorrow is the Question: New Directions in Experimental Music Studies (University of Michigan Press, in press). This fall, she will join the faculty of Wesleyan University as Visiting Assistant Professor of Music.

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