Vivid presents Janelle Monae @ Sydney Opera House (27/05/2012)

Caitlan Welsh

Janelle Monae was supposed to make her Australian debut at Good Vibrations a few years ago, but having now seen her stage show in all its overblown glory, it’s hard to imagine how it would have translated to a festival stage at five in the afternoon. It’s intended to be an immersive experience, soaked in the mythology of the ArchAndroid persona that drives all her music, but also in African-American culture, Hollywood, pop music and the places where they intertwine. (The program encourages audiences to wander the venue imitating Stevie Wonder and John Williams, and warns them that not only may “leaveweave” and “electrobutt” result from “jamming too hard”, children conceived within 48 hours of the show will be born with wings, and the performers can take no responsibility for such consequences.)

From the pantomime introduction from a top-hatted MC, to the Bond-credits introduction visuals that introduce the band, to the opening number itself – like The ArchAndroid, the show begins with a melded triptych of the cinematic Suite II Overture, and the rapidfire funk of Dance or Die and Faster. Monae is, predictably, revealed halfway through Dance to be one of three hooded figures at the top of the centre-stage staircase (nobody else on that stage is five foot nothing in spats) but when she ditches the hood to tap down the staircase, all eyes and flashing smile and hair rolled forward into the enormous trademark quiff, it’s still exciting.

She’s created a unique iconography about herself, down to the band’s monochrome suits. Matthew Perpetua wrote, reviewing The ArchAndroid for Pitchfork, that ”[h]er naked desire to become iconic is endearing”, and it’s absolutely true – she is committed completely to providing an all-encompassing live pop experience, the same way idols like Michael Jackson and Prince made their names. It does feel like a concert in a future or alternative world where these songs are already classics, and that’s part of the charm. But it can also make it feel odd, disconcerting, as if you’re at the wrong party.

The numbers that work best are ones that play on familiarity or sheer energy or both – Smile is a warm, approachable ballad that showcases her classic soul phrasing; epic closer Come Alive rides a nervy bassline halfway between Cab Calloway and the Violent Femmes for close to 15 minutes as Monae spasms on the floor like Little Richard and rubberises her knees and voice like Elvis; the one-two punch of Cold War and Tightrope (the latter fanfared by white-confetti cannons) have the manic energy of a finale, when they’re only the end of the first half.

A couple of savvy covers lift the energy and highlight her influences even more – a faithful Want You Back and a double-barrelled Bond interlude ( You Only Live Twice and Goldfinger, delivered Vegas-style from the staircase with Monae in a white dinner jacket and undone bow tie). How many pop singers can nail both the womanly gusto of Shirley Bassey and the chirpy effervescence of twelve-year-old Michael Jackson? And for that matter, how many sing live while painting in a cape, or using a Cyclops-style visor to fight hooded figures in Commedia masks? It’s not perfect and it’s not even all hers, but the scope and cohesion of her vision and aesthetic are incredible, and unlike anything else you’re likely to see this year. Next time she’s here, it should be in a stadium, and she should emerge onstage from a huge gilded figure of her own head. (It’s a shame she had to kill the vibe by ending with a cover of the most inane No.1 in recent memory, We Are Young, which is even boring when she sings it. It would be nice to see her get to the top of the charts on her own merits ASAP.)

I wonder how many people saw both shows and pondered the contrasts between Monae’s era-hopping monochrome showiness and Worden’s homespun, art-school pre-school neons, between the former’s confetti cannons and the latter’s fake snow flung from a hard hat. Both subvert the performance of femininity, Monae by appropriating the classic male performer’s uniform (the tuxedo) and Worden by making everything from her hair to her boots to her pom-pom-covered dress a little off-kilter, like a child allowed to dress herself. They create themselves as deconstructed archetypes, making audiences both recognise these characters and question them.