This morning, Tom Watson was on the cover of my hometown newspaper, The Kansas City Star. Watson is a golfer, older than most, who hasn’t won a major tournament in 25 years but finds himself one stroke off the lead – and one stroke ahead of Earl Woods’ son – in The Masters. There’s a peculiar phenomenon among people from the smaller corners of the country: when one of our own – like Watson – makes it on the national stage, we freak out.
The feeling is particularly strong for emigrants to the coast when a native comes to us, and so it was last night as I watched Janelle Monae perform at the Highline Ballroom, in New York City. A fellow Kansas Citian-turned-New Yorker had tweeted: “Janelle. I love you. This is going to be so huge. Reppin’ KCK too!!” I retweeted.
Monae went to Schlagle High School in Kansas City, KS, and like me, moved out East for college and, unlike me, sounds like a young, funkier Diana Ross. She’s got a style that’s Vogue-worthy, a mildly-viral dance to call her own, and stage presence to make Bowie or Prince proud. (The Artist, who recently attended a Monae show in Minneapolis, on Janelle: “She is so smart”)
Like any up-and-comer, Midwestern or otherwise, Monae has holes to fill – namely, the holes in her short set list. The first half of last night’s show was dedicated to new music none of the audience had heard, because, with only one album, there’s only so many songs an audience could know. It took five songs to hit “Cold War,” Monae’s new single and battle cry, and for anyone in the crowd to see fit to throw their arm in the air. Monae pranced around shadow-boxing – “This is a Cold War/do you know what you’re fighting for ?” – as clips of Muhammed Ali and Luke Skywalker played on a screen behind.
The sold-out show’s up-and-down start was worrisome. But I most feared for her – as we’re prone to do, when our champions falter – when, midway through the encore, with the crowd finally in a heat, Monae’s towering bouffant burst into a cascade of straggling strands covering her face. She tried, for a moment, to fix her coiffing malfunction mid-song, still singing gamely to her jumpy single, “Many Moons.” Then, perhaps realizing the crowd enjoyed the display of humanity, she broke into a brief smile, for the first time all night. She hit the staccato finale:
Stepchild, freak show
Black girl, bad hair
The crowd of New Yorkers was pulsing, and pulsing on her terms. Tom Watson would be proud.