Dirty computer, walk in line
If you look closer, you’ll recognize
That I’m not that special, I’m broke inside
Crashing slowly, the bugs are in me
Dirty computer, breaking down
Picking my face up off the ground
I’ll love you in this space and time
‘Cause baby all I’ll ever be is
Your dirty computer.
— Janelle Monae, Dirty Computer
Last week, Janelle Monae released her much-anticipated album and accompanying “emotion picture,” Dirty Computer. I’ve been a fan of hers for years now, but something in this record’s sex-saturated swagger knocked me flat at first listen.
While the album is rife with beat-heavy bangers, the title track establishes a melancholy, wistful tone and introduces the “Dirty Computer”—a person who doesn’t conform to established norms, a person who needs to be “fixed.” In the visual album, Monae plays a “dirty computer” named Jane who has been captured by some sort of establishment that specializes in removing “bugs” from nonconforming machines.
The record poignantly evokes the formidable struggles of a queer person of color and simultaneously throws a jubilant middle finger at a society hell-bent on destroying them. It’s a creative feat of razor-edged social commentary disguised as a danceable collection of “songs of the summer.” But although I can happily bop along to most of the album while driving to work, the first track pushes me to the brink of tears. The lyrics, I think, speak to the internalized oppression of Monae’s character—that she has been told over and over again to believe in her defectiveness, and to believe that she needs to be “cleaned.”
I can’t for a second imagine what it’s like to be black or openly queer in America. But I know what it’s like to feel like a dirty computer: to be too skeptical, too sexual, too female, too honest. I’ve written before about my qualms with how the church addresses sexuality, among other things. But something I realized while listening to Dirty Computer is that I’ve failed to reckon with the ideological repression inherent to my religious upbringing. I’ve failed to reckon with the fact that if I were to be honest about my convictions (or lack thereof), I would be cast aside as a heretic, and perhaps appropriately so.
Monae’s album stirred me because to my understanding, dirty computers aren’t just people who act or look contrary to the dominant in-group, but they’re also people who think differently. And there are aspects of Christianity that, if I’m honest, I cannot believe or support. I can’t believe that premarital sex is inherently morally problematic. I’m moving in with my boyfriend this fall, and I truly believe that it’s a responsible decision. I can’t believe that faith in Jesus is the only ticket to heaven, or that belief in a god is essential to living a virtuous—or even holy—life. Honestly, I’m not even sure I can believe that hell exists, and if it does, who belongs there. I’m not supposed to believe these things, though, and to give unchristian ideas credence would be anathema. And yet I, not the church, am the dirty computer—the problematic entity to be cleaned, to be purged of viruses and bugs. American Christianity is ever seeking to shame the Other—either into assimilation or annihilation. The same could be said for white supremacy, and that parallel appalls me.
Bringing it back to the album, Dirty Computer is more than a sixty-minute summer sex jam: it’s a celebration, a “fuck you,” and a challenge. By creating fearlessly, Monae invites listeners into an empowered imaginative space. She’s helped me stop trying to squish all of my ideas into Christian orthodoxy and let my mind breathe. Even if she doesn’t take a sledgehammer to the tenets of your dearly-held faith, she’ll at least put you in the mood for dancing, kissing, and cruising with the windows down.
Anyway, there are certainly worse ways to spend a spring evening. Break out your sunglasses and your good speakers, invite your favorite weirdo, and take a byte.
Caitlin Gent (’15) graduated with a writing major. She lives in Milwaukee and works in fundraising and development. When she’s not working, Caitlin is usually walking with a friend or singing in the kitchen. She likes to wax poetic about Wisconsin to anyone who will listen.