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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

What is the apocalypse in "Dance Apocalyptic"?

That's a question I've had recently as I've gotten to thinking about just one of Janelle Monáe's show-stopping numbers.

Over the course of creating this Senior Year Soundtrack, I've created a pretty extensive reserve of artists and tracks I expect to include at some point. When it comes down to it, the list is chock-full of some of my favorite songs, ranging in styles from straight-up pop to frantic drum and bass, and in time range from 1960 to 2022.

One of those artists I knew I was going to feature at some point was Janelle Monáe. A singular force of an artist, Monáe's music runs the gamut from pop to funk and R&B, all while literally and figuratively never missing a beat. Her albums have always done well, but for some reason her singles haven't been able to replicate that success. All the same, you'd be hard-pressed to find a dud from her catalog... which makes it even more difficult when you have to ultimately narrow your selection to a single track, as I do for this.

Now and then, I returned to the reserve list to see if any song caught my fancy for that day. More often that not, though, I waited to gain inspiration that warranted my discussion of one of the pieces. This inspiration could range from world events (as was the case for "The Catalyst") to simply hearing the song (like it was for Cal Band halftime entries including "Sit Next To Me"). Today, somewhat of a combination of those threads led me to finally deciding to talk about Monáe's music in the form of "Dance Apocalyptic," from her second album, The Electric Lady (2013).

"Dance Apocalyptic" was likely the second Janelle Monáe song I knew, after "Tightrope" — I only really dove into her music a couple years after The Electric Lady was released, and I realized how much I'd been missing. Back then, as I am now, "Dance Apocalyptic" reeled me in from just how much it made (and makes) me want to move. The older styles it updates — 50s rockabilly and early Motown — meld beautifully with one another, with Monáe's powerful, soulful vocals and her backing singers' exclamations feeding into the upbeat drums and infectious guitar.

While not as vital to the song's main structure, I also love the organ that enters in the second half of the verses; it follows a similar contour to Monáe, but it leaps back and forth between her melody notes and the fifth of the key (D, because the song is in G Major), adding a playful backing figure that I'd probably try to time a dance to if I had moves.

So that's the part of me just liking the song that led me to choosing it for today. What about the other? Well, that's more articulated by Monáe's lyrics, as she sings of "dancing 'til the end" and "break[ing] out." In some respects, it's a "1999"-like attitude: ain't no time to dance like the present when the world is crumbling all around us. My hearing this slant is certainly representative of my general cynicism — between war in Ukraine and the potential for another virus surge in the largely post-mandate United States, I'm not all that optimistic about how this next phase of 2022 will go.

Then I think again about what it means to "break out," something said no fewer than four times each chorus. If you're able to "break out" "if the world says it's time to go," then you're able to fight back against the forces that are wreaking havoc and trying to take control. Perhaps the apocalypse of "Dance Apocalyptic" may be that of systems of oppression and subjugation, if enough people refuse to submit to ages-old categorization that brings down more people than it helps. I'm not completely sold on either interpretation; perhaps it's meant to be that the two remain locked in battle with one another.

"Dance Apocalyptic" has so many different things going for it when it comes to how I listen to the song. From a pure musical standpoint, it's near impossible for me to stay still and silent with its contemporary take on early pop styles. Lyrically, it makes me wonder just what Janelle Monáe meant by naming it so. Some people may prefer have one clear interpretation of a piece, but I often like having multiple available — one may speak to me more than another one day, or (perhaps more importantly) I might just continue to be intrigued by the interplay of the different ways you can observe the same work of art.


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