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Make It New

Tracy Duffy
Contributing Writer

Last week, I went to see Janelle Monáe at the Highline Ballroom. The free concert was in celebration of The ArchAndroid, her new album, which debuted the same day as the show.

I was super-hyped to go, even making sure my new hairstyle was on board before the show (you can’t go to a Janelle Monáe show in New York without encountering the city’s finest and funkiest). I made a poor recording of the entire concert on my iPhone. I was very, very hype—but left feeling underwhelmed.

The reason I was excited to see Janelle perform was because I hadn’t been to one of her concerts in three years (and what an exciting three years it’s been for her). The last show I’d seen had been for her single release back in June of 2007 at the Apache in Atlanta—a place she’s pretty much outgrown, now that she’s done Letterman, Bad Boy, the world.

The show at the Highline had all the ingredients for greatness. The Wolfmasters in their tuxedos; a beautiful crowd; and the highest level of dramatic tension you could imagine, with a video screen projecting aerial shots of some city, presumably "Metropolis," as well as other interesting footage. I was surprised that, when Janelle and her grim reaper-attired crew came out on stage, three swaying, robed figures, Janelle was not the one in the middle, but the one on the left. She was wearing a white blouse with poofy, frilled shoulders. Fab.

But then, I soon realized that I had seen this show before. Most of the songs were new—but the old ones she performed in a near identical manner to the way she’d done them three years ago. On "Smile," yes, she ad-libbed; but I knew exactly what ad-libs she would do.

This could be for any number of reasons, which I won’t speculate about or go into. But watching her show, in which improvisation seemed to be in the backseat, I wondered how necessary improvisation/spontaneity/instantaneous creation are to art.

Perhaps you’ve heard me talking about my need for improvisation, in my artistic and personal life. I try not to ever do the same thing twice, perhaps to a fault. Today, when I was teaching one of my students, I didn’t want to return to the same website of exercises we’d used last week, even though plenty had gone untouched, because I wanted to make each tutoring session brand-new for him. This is really not necessary. You may also know that I rarely wear the same outfit twice. Yes, before you ask, I re-wear every item of clothing, but always in some new iteration. "Make it new," Ezra Pound said, and I always try to.

I would say that improvisation is my personal aesthetic. I don’t know if other people have personal aesthetics, because I don’t know if other people really view themselves through aesthetic lenses. But for me, it is essential that I am always creating—whether as a wannabe fashionista, or as a poet. And it’s essential that I make new things and make things new in order to feel like an artist.

Artists create. This is indisputable. But what I’m questioning is whether artists need to create spontaneously—for example, live on stage—in order to be considered true, or creative. Or, in other words, what makes Janelle a "performance artist," so to speak, if you take away the theatrics, costumes, and dance?

I also wonder if it’s necessary to be improvisational if you’re not a performance artist. For example, me. I’m a writer. And though I may spontaneously decide to take a poem in an unplanned direction in its initial writing, there is no evidence of this to the reader in the finished project. Yes, there is the example of the leap—a poetic move, stunt, gesture, impulse, etc.—in which the writer makes a drastic jump from one subject or scene to another that is superficially unrelated, but that actually draws attention to the poem’s focus. But even that can be calculated.

This is not to say that artistic improvisation isn’t calculated—because it is. When Esperanza Spalding solos on bass, and doubles her line with her voice—well, clearly, she knows what she’s going to play a few beats in advance, or else her fingers and voice would be in two different places. All art requires calculation—but what about that element of mystery, in which even the maker doesn’t know precisely where she is going?

I think this is essential to art. The novelist Tayari Jones teaches her students that if they know how their stories are going to end, the reader will, too. And Tayari is not a mystery writer, for the record. But she does understand that mystery is an essential component of art, as well as art-making. Most people are not going to read something if they already know what will happen, be said, or be decided. Similarly, I don’t go to concerts to stand and watch a CD being performed. If you’ve ever seen Janelle perform, you know her show is much more than that. However, without a serious dedication to reinventing her vocal performance for each show, I find it difficult to remain interested in her as a creative artist.