Thursday 19 December 2019

The Question in Bodies, Appendix 2: Fembot Pop

Charli XCX, “Femmebot” (2017)
Robyn, “Fembot” (2010)
Janelle Monae, “Electric Lady” (2015)
Grimes, “4ÆM” (2019), “We Appreciate Power” (2018)
Poppy, “Time is Up” (2018), “Hard Feelings” (2018)

There's a sense in which – as a person whose gender identity, although in a state of flux for as long as I can remember, is for the sake of safety usually expressed as male – I don't really get to make instructive statements on feminist issues. I can't. Empathy can only go so far: I've been told I'm empathic, but I don't think I am, particularly. What I am is observant, vigilant if you like. So all I can do here is observe, and report. I hope that's OK.

This post  comes with its own Spotify playlist, so if you're lucky enough to have Spotify, feel free to listen along.

An Ironic Dream of a Common Language for Women
(Kim Petras, video for “Heart to Break”)
 Donna Haraway wrote the Cyborg Manifesto in 1985, but we could be forgiven for thinking that its principles had in the ensuing time fallen by the wayside. Even back then, Haraway wrote that science fiction was full of cyborgs. The female cyborg, and her manufactured relative, the fembot or gynoid (both terms which go back to roughly when Haraway was writing, via Hajime Sorayama and, of all things, Charlie's Angels), or the slightly more agency-possessing parthenoid (a term which had a brief niche vogue in the mid 2010s) is still a mainstay in science fiction, but also has historically been a product, sometimes literally, of the cis/hetero male gaze. I wrote about this a while back, of the expectation that a sexy robot will have sex with you on demand.

But it's interesting then that while in film and on TV we're still living with those narratives – I'm eyeing the appearance of Hotbot (2016) on Netflix and struggling with myself not to watch it because I just know it's going to be terrible – it's in pop music where some of the most thoughtful explorations of the Feminist Cyborg have been found in the last decade. Specifically it's in Art Pop, which is that branch of pop music that is largely made by auteur solo artists, albeit ones who are natural collaborators, and who often cross-fertilise each other's work and while having control over it, aren't afraid to be part of a team. Many of these people are queer, trans and/or women. Which means of course that often Art Pop is not taken as seriously in criticism as it should be.

It's in pop music that women artists have embraced the cyberpunk aesthetic, often drenched in the glitchy jpeg rainbows of the early internet. And it's important to note that this visual aesthetic is often overlaid on otherwise unfuturistic pop too.
(LIZ, Planet Y2K)
Kim Petras, a figure of transaspirational perfection who makes the world better just by being in it (even if you don't like her songs) exists in a futuristic fairytale. Living art pop history lesson LIZ, who, although having been working for several years now, only released her debut album Planet Y2K a few weeks ago, consistently inhabits the virtual in her videos and cover art. PC Music's stable all look a bit cyberpunk (and remember cyberpunk has been a retro pursuit for decades now) – Hannah Diamond photoshops herself into a figure of glossy beauty, while SOPHIE uses deliberately shoddy 3D modelling to explore the depths of the Uncanny Valley and one-single wonder QT literally wanted you to think she was made in a lab. Arguably Art Pop is dominated by queer Seven-of-Nines, but it's when they sing about it that it gets really interesting.

Pleasure in the Confusion of Boundaries and Responsibility in their Construction
 Since we're talking about PC Music, I suppose we have to bring up PC Music's more famous pal, Charli XCX, who has spent the last couple of years fusing the PC Music sensibility with her own more mainstream work. In 2017, her “mixtape” Pop2 featured “Femmebot”.
(Charli XCX, Pop2)
Go fuck your prototype
I'm an upgrade of your stereotype
Don't come with a guarantee
I'll use you up like you're my battery
I feel the sparks between us
Electric shock
Hot-wired, if you mess it up
I'll self-destruct

The way you look at me
I-I-I short circuit
You make me lose control
It's automatic
You push my buttons
See-e-e-e how I work it
I-I-I-I get what I want
Like it or not
I'll be your femmebot
It's a seduction song, unromantic and brutally sexual. She's a machine: her voice is autotuned and robotic. It glitches. Charli sings about short circuits, power, control, but she's not the one under control: she is the wild card, the one that glitches at the look of her lover and goes on a sexual rampage like a haywire machine. She'll self destruct if you screw it up, but that's not up to you. She uses her sexual partner up like a battery; she reads their mind. She gets what she wants. She is “programmed to search and destroy” and will make you her “human toy”. She sings that she'll be your femmebot, but who belongs to who here? If she's your femmebot, it's on her terms and the duration of that is her call. She's not your femmebot. She's her femmebot.

The fembot has the agency here. It's a far cry from Yukari Fresh's turn as the vocalist for the Fantastic Plastic Machine track “Electric Lady Land” (from the 1999 album Luxury, listen here):
Yes, I understand
You are in command
Yes, Please teach me tonight
I will do you right
My wish is to be
Serving you complete
Press the "ENTER" key

I'm your Lady Machine
I'll be all that you need
The automated girl of your dreams
The 1990s were a worse decade than we remember, and this is pretty much the 90s for women in a nutshell. This is the classic lovebot, who just blankly does whatever you want with a Barbie doll smile. Submissive, obedient, and sort of boring, the worst sort of fetish figure.

But Charli is more Terminator than Barbie. If she's programmed for this, she programmed herself. Yukari Fresh might be featuring on a straight guy's song, but Charli is an autonomous unit, who gets the call as to when and where. That first line: “go fuck your prototype” is not the statement of a submissive fetish figure. She is coming for you. And resistance is, to coin a phrase, futile.

Charli XCX's double entendre-laden cybersex anthem is of course a metaphor. Nearly every song I'm talking about here is. But what's interesting is that at some point the fembot became less the pervy supervillain's henchwoman and sex-slave (“I like to see girls of that calibre,” smirks Dr Evil, as his Fembots shoot bullets from their nipples) and more a fantasy of dominance and agency.
(Robyn, Body Talk Pt 1)
Going back a few years, Swedish pop hero Robyn – one of the founding figures of modern art pop as a genre – gave us another song called “Fembot” on her 2010 album Body Talk, Pt 1.
I've got some news for you
Fembots have feelings too
You split my heart in two
Now what you gonna do?

Fresh out the box, the latest model
Generator running on full throttle
Can I get a fuel up? Hit the bottle (reboot)
I got a lotta automatic booty applications
Got a C-P-U maxed out sensation
Looking for a joy to man my station (reboot)
Rock the nation
The song starts with heartbreak. Discard her like a robot? She has feelings. Her heart will break. But now what are you gonna do?

It's a question addressed to both her and, presumably, the ex who abandoned her. What the ex is going to do is sit and watch as she reinvents herself as something sleek and sexual and fun, and not for them. It's a really funny song. Every sexy robot joke comes out, rattled off with machine-gun speed, but it's interesting how Robyn slows right down and sings "Initiating slut mode" with clearly enunciated relish.

Just like Charli XCX, Robyn-as-Fembot is a metaphor for liberation. The former lover has broken her heart, so she's going to go and have some fun, on her terms. And what you gonna do?

Robot sex is necessarily safe sex. You can't get a fembot pregnant. A fembot can't catch a STI. She's a fembot now and that means she's a machine for taking pleasure. The boundaries between human and machine are confused, but it is impossible for her to be irresponsible with them. The only irresponsible thing would be to be submissive still.

But as a fembot, she's done with that.

As she sings, “Once you've gone tech, you ain't ever going back.” She's reinvented. Rebuilt. It's the literal opposite of the movie fembot, who – either infantilised, made a care giver or treated as someone else's sextoy – is nearly always objectified. The pop fembot is her own thing. She is liberation.

A Creature in a Postgender World
Pop music's most complex examination of the cyborg as a metaphor for both liberation and the struggle for liberation is of course in the work of Janelle Monáe.

All of her albums have science fictional framing devices, but the first three – Metropolis: the Chase Suite (2008), The Archandroid (2010) and The Electric Lady (2013) – form the Metropolis trilogy, in which Monáe takes on the role of escaped android Cindy Mayweather in a dystopian retrofuture city. The fourth, Dirty Computer (2018) blows that up and creates a metaframing structure for its predecessors, essentially a retcon for the series.
(Janelle Monáe, video for “Many Moons”)
As a manufactured being, the android experiences the lot of the slave. In the video for the 2007 single “Many Moons” there is an android slave auction, and when all the androids being sold are Black – and several of the sellers, because no one is as ruthless a taskmaster as a fellow slave turned collaborator – that's pretty on the nose. But the android is also, ironically, more fluid than the flesh. The android is modifiable, both in terms of body and in her thoughts. She can be reprogrammed, and, freed from those who would oppress her, she reprograms herself, just as Charli XCX, any way she wants, to escape boundaries of sexuality and gender.

In Metropolis: The Chase Suite, Cindy Mayweather's love is hetero. Falling for a man ends her slavery, but also gets her hunted. In The Electric Lady, she's curiously casting her gaze on women (“Is it weird to like the way she wear her tights?” she asks, in “Q.U.E.E.N.”). By 2018's Dirty Computer, she's got literally a whole song about the pleasures of giving cunnilingus (“Pynk”). She's a pansexual posthuman poster child.
“I speak about androids because I think the android represents the new ‘other’. ” You can compare it to being a lesbian or being a gay man or being a black woman.” – Janelle Monáe (interviewed Evening Standard, 2013)
For Monáe, everything is a small rebellion. The android is both oppressed and the vehicle of liberation – because of course they are, because the oppressed person is the only one who can free themself from oppression. The oppressor isn't going to do it, nor is the supposed “ally”, who benefits from oppression (at best) unwillingly. It doesn't mean anything unless the oppressed themselves do the rising. But by their definition they have the tools to do so. Monáe's protagonists disappear into the Wonderground and engage in repeated small acts of rebellion. Every crushing of revolt, every reification of oppression, creates a new ground for rising. To quote theorist Dr. Joanne Hill, who wrote the single most transformative line of feminist theory I have ever read, “There is no single site of revolt and no dramatic resistance,” only small pushes against patriarchal aggression.

Transformation can only come piecemeal, and meaningful transformation can only come from below.
(Janelle Monáe, alternative artwork for The Electric Lady)
If I'm going to pick on any one specific song that works as a statement – and it's hard, there are loads – I guess it's going to have to be “Electric Lady” from the album of the same name.
I'll reprogram your mind
My spaceship leaves at 10
I'm where I wanna be, just you and me
Baby talking on the side, as the world spins around
Can you feel your spine unwind
Watch the water turn to wine
Ooh shock it one good time

Electric Lady, get way down
Cause tonight we gon' do what we wanna do
Lady, get way down
Cause tonight we gon' do what we wanna do
The Electric Lady reprograms your mind to understand the possibility of liberation and takes you up in her spaceship – and that's a pretty Afrofuturist picture right there, liberation as interstellar travel. Individuals like George Clinton and Sun Ra pictured the Black experience as the experience of the alien; Monáe's Archandroid comes from earth but has the potential to escape to the stars. And while our white fembot pop songs lean into the ironically mechanical and glitchy, Monáe's music is emotional and sincere.

As a liberator, she's Christlike, a Digital Christa, without the suffering and death, because in a way that's already done with. All she has left to give is hope.

But hope is a fragile thing.

The Awful Apocalyptic Telos
Monáe's sometime collaborator Grimes comes from pretty much the opposite direction.

I'm going to be straight up here: there is no artist whose music I like more and yet whose ideas I find quite so irritating. I spent two solid years listening to 2015's Art Angels pretty much every day. She may even have toppled St. Vincent from my top spot. But Grimes is very much what the kids call my “problematic fave”.
(Grimes, “So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth”)
It would be easy to draw conclusions from the celebrity gossip that has beset her – getting your own pet asshole transhumanist billionaire tends to do that – but you don't need to; her history of terrible social media takes and deliberate trolling is enough. Recent single “4ÆM” comes straight from the Cyberpunk 2077 soundtrack and has her in role as a cyborg idol (it's also absolutely banging, a piece of appropriative, frenetically confused techno, a dial up tone gone feral, and I love it).

The tracks that have already dropped from her long awaited upcoming album Miss Anthropocene (due out in February 2020) suggest a much less hopeful futuristic theme. While Janelle Monáe finds hope in the dystopian Wonderground, Grimes is, it seems, leaning hard into the embrace of dystopian tyranny as a good thing, and no track more expresses that than “We Appreciate Power”.

“We Appreciate Power” is a brilliant piece of art pop. It is genius. It is also flat out fascist. No other song I've heard in the last few years is in my opinion as good and at the same time quite as evil.
What will it take to make you capitulate?
We appreciate power
We appreciate power
Elevate the human race, putting makeup on my face
We appreciate power
We appreciate power, power

And if you long to never die
Baby, plug in, upload your mind
Come on, you're not even alive
If you're not backed up on a drive
Hilariously, within a day of “We Appreciate Power” coming out, Google apparently experienced a spike in searches for the dictionary definition of “capitulate”. Which is less, as some news outlets wanted to make out, to do with the ignorance of the kids, and more to do with what a specifically political term it is.
(Grimes, video for “We Appreciate Power”)
It's about surrendering to a new overlord. It's about a cessation of resistance to a conquering ruler. And that ruler is the Basilisk, the AI, the one that will torment a future simulation of you if you don't believe in it, bane of inexplicably influential technofutirist Eliezer Yudkowsky and his LessWrong community. And just, for one second, marvel if you will that there are people with fucking degrees and directorships of companies who take that seriously as a risk, because it is arrant nonsense, based upon the same sort of flat misunderstanding of what a human mind is that convinced Zac Snyder he understands people enough to be allowed to make films and isn't a suspected Lovecraftian alien in a human suit, failing to fake empathy. But it's also based on one of the two big fallacies that makes the Elon Musk variety of transhumanism fall to pieces: namely, the Copy Problem.

That is, transhumanists assume that the human mind at some point in the future can be digitally copied and uploaded onto a new medium. They describe this as immortality. But of course, assuming you even could copy the human mind intact, which most of the psychologists (the ones that your average Silicon Valley Asshole Billionaire has never bothered to read) deny is at all possible, not least because the mind and the body are a whole person, and a mind exists the way it does because it has a body, and what could run it as software? And what does it matter anyway, because if – and it's a ridiculous stretch, but let's run with it and say if – the human mind can be copied like data or software, then a copy of a file is not the original file, and the copy of a person is therefore not the original person, and if you're dead, and copied, you're still dead. So who, to be crude, gives a flying shit if some mad computer decides to send a simulated copy of you to hell hundreds of years in the future? You won't be there to see it. Because it's just a copy and you'll be dead.
(Grimes, "We Appreciate Power".)
The other major problem is of course the cost problem. Who's going to pay for all that storage? Poor people won't get to upload. We'll have a digital upper class of incomplete Xerox copies of people and an underclass of poor humans, a species divide on top of the class divide. Given that the very existence of these ideologies provide some evidence that Silicon Valley Billionaires as a class and the silver spoon-sucking pop stars who love them are kind of without a full range of human feeling anyway, I can't help feeling that the proponents of this variety of transhumanism see this as a feature rather than a bug.
Neanderthal to human being
Evolution, kill the gene
Biology is superficial
Intelligence is artificial
It's fascist. It is accidentally quite chilling as a result. The video reads like propaganda, with Grimes and guest vocalist Hana dressed in latex and posing threateningly with katanas and crossbows.

Anyway, Spotify told me the other day that “We Appreciate Power” was my second most played song of last year (#1 was “Whalesong” by YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN if you're interested, which comes as no surprise, because that particular song sounds like a chariot being pulled across the Arctic tundra by polar bears and if you don't think that's amazing, I'm not sure I know you). I genuinely love “We Appreciate Power”. I think it's catchy as hell. It's just you know, evil.

In 2018, Grimes briefly worked with the other cyborg social media art pop star of note, about whom I've already written at length. I mean Poppy, of course. Whatever Grimes did, she pissed Poppy off enough that Poppy broke character in an interview to say how much she disliked her, and since Poppy doesn't really break character, that's pretty damning.
(Poppy, video for “Time is Up”)
Anyway, at roughly the same time “We Appreciate Power” dropped, Poppy released her second full album, Am I a Girl? The whole theme of the album centres on that question. Does an artificial being with a feminine form count as a girl? Does she even have to? Many of the songs approach this obliquely, as a mode of empowerment. In album opener “In a Minute” for instance, revolution is a matter comparable with doing your makeup. In “The Rapture Ball” Poppy dances out the Apocalypse. In “Aristocrat” Poppy escapes the confines of class and wealth. The two songs however where Poppy directly approaches the robotic aren't quite so positive.

In “Hard Feelings” Poppy suggests her fembot persona is a construct made to replace another, that she is interchangeable.
Why do I have porcelain skin
With wires and electrics within?
So many questions
Tell me, what crimes will you make me commit?
Am I a replica of someone that you loved?
Someone you made me to replace
Am I a replica of someone flesh and blood?
Someone you made me to replace
Poppy's work skirts around issues of abuse all the time, and in her YouTube channel, we're invited to suspect she's brainwashed, or in a cult, or otherwise exploited by her working partner Titanic Sinclair, and this added to the (now settled) lawsuit from a former collaborator of Sinclair's accusing Poppy of stealing her act suggests simple irony. She's not committing any crimes and she's not made to. You just think she is.
(Poppy, video for “Time is Up”)
In Diplo collaboration “Time is Up” Poppy is again an artificial being..
In the factory
In the sterile place where they made me
I woke up alone
Dizzy from the programming
Have I been wiped again?
Oh my God, I don't even know
It's a mystery
Everyone around me's so busy
Is this my home?
Am I your prisoner or your deliverer?
Oh my God, you don't even know

I don't need air to breathe when you kill the bees
And every river bed is dry as a bone
I will still survive when the plants have died
And the atmosphere is just a big hole
Baby, your time is up
Here, the fembot survives the anthropocene extinction, and the woman is the artificial being. If the fembot is a metaphor, then the future is the person who asks “Am I a girl?” as an open ended question. The fluid in identity, the ones machined and remade, will survive when the older generations (and that includes Gen X, so, um, nice knowing you) reap the whirlwind.

Transgressed Boundaries, Potent Fusions, and Dangerous Possibilities
(Hannah Diamond, video for “Invisible”)
So, to reiterate: while in science fiction TV and cinema, the fembot (or gynoid, or parthenoid, or feminine android) is still mired in the idea of the sexbot and carries all that baggage, there's a whole branch of science fiction that lives outside the mainstream of cinema and TV, hidden in the underrated and misunderstood realm of collaborative pop music, that explores the fembot from the viewpoint of women, and which looks at the concept as a trope of liberation and agency. Here the fembot is a sexual terminator, a free agent, a metaphor for small rebellion and a means of survival in an increasingly hostile world. But it's dangerous, too. Any movement of liberation can be co-opted by the reactionary and the neoreactionary, and be a vehicle of forced capitulation. And that includes pop.

Pop music – and the pop music of women – has more here to give us than film. I hope Donna Haraway approves.