To twerk at the symphony: Tipping on the tightrope with Janelle Monae

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"Normally the Symphony is like, stuffy!" -- woman in the bathroom stall next to me post-Monae.
PHOTO BY CAITLIN DONOHUE

There was a moment at Janelle Monae's show at the SF Symphony last night when it looked as if the diorama of world-class musicians behind the diminutive person in black-and-white striped shoes, pompadour, and endless progression of tailored tuxedo jackets was a natural growth. If the trombone-and-oboe look isn't an every day occurance for Monae, she did not let on as the final moments of Prince's "Take Me With You" surged around her. The andro-android turned her back to the audience and almost subconsciously, began waving her arms, a sudden conductor. 

And then by the end of the next song the entire spangly gown crowd was on their pave-jeweled feet, twerking in the aisle. Maybe Monae can't always have a back-up symphony, but the Symphony should always have a Monae in front of it.

"I've never seen that before," said a friend whose been to "over a dozen" shows at Davies Symphony Hall. The crucial moment when floor-length dresses with complicated back straps found themselves navigating approximations of Monae's duck-footed pops and jazz hands, came about three quarters of the way through the show, after her covers of the tender "Smile" (originally an instrumental in Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, eventually sung by Nat King Cole in 1954), the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back", "Goldfinger", and her own concotions: "Peach Tree Blues", "Sincerely, Jane".

"I did not quite feel comfortable with myself as a young woman," the famously androgynously attired Monae announced to the crowd. The song that followed, she said, was meant to assist anyone feeling similarly unhinged. "For everybody out there who has ever felt weak, this song is for you." 

She launched into a one-two of her singles "Cold War" and "Tightrope", and we went there. Had the elder statespeople, the rich blonde stunners, the swath of young, well-turnt, and apparently rich (considering the ticket price for the show, which was a fundraiser gala for the Symphony's impressive public school programming), the tightly-curled man who secured his ginger locks with what I swear was a black tie scrunchie, ever felt out of place? "You better know what you're fighting for," Monae hollered, thrillingly. You could feel the crowd feeling their own, each, personal fight, even if it was just their plans to breach the VIP lounge at the post-show open bar reception across the street at City Hall. 

She ran into the crowd? She dropped her new single featuring Erykah Badu in an absolutly inevitable encore? She wins the day. On Monday, Monae takes the show to Chicago's Symphony, a stand-in for an ailing Queen Aretha Franklin. I doubt the Windy City will be disappointed, and I hope it wears its dancing scrunchie. 

FYI, the show was one in a series of concerts at which the Symphony is featuring guest artists from varying genres -- Rufus Wainwright is coming up June 9, will he get the crowds rolling ass in the aisles too?