JENEÉ OSTERHELDT

Forget Miley Cyrus: KCK native Janelle Monae is the other face of pop music

Updated: 2013-09-10T23:26:28Z

By JENEÉ OSTERHELDT

The Kansas City Star

Enough with the Miley madness, already.

No more bashing, no more twerkgate. There’s more to Miley Cyrus than that. And there’s more to pop music in general. Just look to our very own Janelle Monae. The shining star from Kansas City, Kan., releases her latest album, “Electric Lady,” Tuesday. It’s everything we’ve come to know her for: innovative, dance-happy and thick with meaning.

We expect pop music to be hypersexual and crazy. We long for those salacious moments to talk about after the MTV Video Music Awards: the Madonna/Britney/Christina kiss, Lil Kim’s bare breast jiggling in Diana Ross’ hand, Prince’s pants — you know, the ones with the butt window.

Yet while we’re so obsessed with being offended by award show antics, too many of us are missing the good stuff, the different side of pop culture and representations of femininity.

Monae has been rising like a rocket over the past few years. Way before Justin Timberlake made it trendy, she was committed to a suit and tie, a tuxedo even. She dons her “uniform” as a symbol of her hard-working Kansas family, a dedication to the working class that keeps her anchored in minimalism. She’s comfortable in her own skin and wants that same security for others.

That smart, cool confidence and genuine beauty earned her a deal with Cover Girl. She’s not the stereotype. The 27-year-old is jazzy, sophisticated and fun as herself. And that’s what girls need to see. I’m excited that her music, so seriously anchored in old-school R&B, bends all genres and still maintains pop appeal.

I am here for the “Electric Lady” takeover. I love that she has songs like “Ghetto Woman,” which so intently lifts the spirit:

Carry on ghetto woman, cause even though they laugh and talk about the clothes you wear, I wish they could just realize all you ever needed was someone to free your mind. Carry on ghetto woman because even in your darkest hours I see your light.

I’m equally happy to welcome Ariana Grande, 20, to the music scene. Her album “Yours Truly” came out last Tuesday and is soaring up the charts. It may not be the artsy, expressive experience Monae offers, but it has a place with its love songs that evoke memories of high school first crushes instead of hot-in-the-pants hormone anthems. Grande isn’t pushing the scandalous sex-pot archetype. She’s quirky, cute and refreshing. She’s part Zooey Deschanel and, with that multi-octave voice, part Mariah Carey.

This isn’t the girl who would usually be the pop standout. And that’s what makes this all the more awesome. She found fame on Nickelodeon’s “Victorious,” playing Cat Valentine, not the star but the ditzy sidekick with the red velvety hair and whispery voice. She and another sidekick (Jennette McCurdy of “iCarly”) now have their own Nick show, “Sam & Cat.” This rise, along with the album, is big on levels deeper than album sales.

Just as Monae reps for the everyday girls in middle class homes and the brown girls who go unheard, Grande represents the girls in the shadows, the underdogs. Together, they are bringing balance to pop culture. They are creating lanes and dreams for girls who don’t fit the mold.

So maybe when those young ladies at home singing “Q.U.E.E.N.” and “The Way” get opportunities to shine, they won’t be engulfed by the blurred lines. They’ll be empowered to draw their own.

Jeneé Osterheldt’s column runs on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. To reach her, call 816-234-4380 or send email to josterheldt@kcstar.com. “Like” her page on Facebook and never miss a column. You also can follow her at Twitter.com/jeneeinkc.

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