Electric Ladies: The Losses and Legacies of Betty Davis and Janelle Monáe

While Betty Davis is repeatedly described as a “pioneer,” this paper asks what exactly she found when she got where she was going, and what kinds of inroads she did or didn’t make for later black women artists like Janelle Monáe. Although Monáe launched her career four decades after Davis’s prime, the two can seem like kindred spirits—both ambitious children of the working class who left midsized American cities (Pittsburgh and Kansas City) to cultivate fierce alter egos (Davis’s sexually aggressive diva, Monáe’s rebellious android) and to curate ingenious musical crews (Davis’s star-studded bands, Monáe’s Wondaland Arts Society); both also are linked to visionary male mentors (Miles Davis and Prince). Finally, and perhaps most obviously, Monáe’s recent celebration of black female queer sexuality can seem indebted to Davis’s daring odes to promiscuity, prostitution, and S&M. Still, to compare the two artists’ musical performances and professional strategies is to better apprehend Davis’s relatively anti-virtuosic vocal aesthetic and her refusal to court commercial success—both of which suggest she was ahead of not only her own time but also our own.


Emily J. Lordi is associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is the author of two books: Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature (Rutgers UP, 2013) and Donny Hathaway Live (Bloomsbury 33⅓ series, 2016). In addition to scholarly articles on topics ranging from literary modernism to Beyoncé, she has published essays on such sites as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, The Root, and the Los Angeles Review of Books—the latest of which (for The New Yorker) is about Betty: They Say I’m Different. She is now writing a book on soul aesthetics.