Ask Janelle Monae if she was scared or nervous to cover David Bowie's iconic "Heroes" as part of Pepsi's 2014 "Now Is What You Make It" campaign and the answer is blunt and resolute.
"Hellll no," she tells Rolling Stone from a "cave in Mexico City." "Bowie knows what’s up. He’s a fan and I’m a fan of him. The respect is mutual. I hear from his wife Iman that he’s a huge supporter of me, the way I dress and my music. I just hope that we made him proud."
Despite a basic adherence to the song's chord changes and gradual, grand buildup, Monae and her production team — the same group behind 2010's The ArchAndroid and 2013's The Electric Lady — radically update Bowie's 1977 classic. Eschewing the original's slow-burn guitar in favor of warbled dubstep-friendly synths, Monae transforms the track into an EDM/New Wave hybrid supporting her future soul vocals.
"Bowie is part of my musical DNA in so many ways," Monae says. "And 'Heroes’ is one of my favorite Bowie songs. When you love your favorite song, you want to keep some of the beautiful qualities of the original, but we brought Atlanta in the drums and wanted them to be thick and hit hard. It’s like us reimagining it. I thought, ‘If this song was in my dream, how would it get from our dream to my reality?’"
Monae says she was drawn to the song by its lyrical message as much as the music. "It’s very hopeful," says the singer. "The way the world is today, you can never write enough inspiring or motivating songs or songs that embolden the people and make us feel fearless. Those lyrics spoke to me as someone who is for the people. I try to inspire and lead by example and be the change that I want to see. So this song is a poster child for just that."
As part of the campaign, which aims to intertwine soccer and music, Monae filmed an interactive video for the track in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil with numerous global soccer stars. (The video is scheduled to appear in a Pepsi Max FutbolNow commercial during the 2014 World Cup.) Playing a busker in the spot, the role was method acting of sorts for the singer, who began her career in Atlanta walking around campuses with a guitar and playing in dorm lounges and library steps for whoever would hear her.
For Monae, she and the Thin White Duke have more in common than one might assume. "He’s mysterious and I love the mystery," says the singer. "He’s reinvented himself over and over again. Even now, he’s morphed into something that no one else is doing. That’s what I love most about him; he’s transcendent. He’s a true time traveler and I think that that is a part of who I am and the legacy that I want people to remember. I will never expire. Nor will David Bowie. And I say that with humility, but with the utmost confidence. "
Janelle Monae - "Heroes" (David Bowie cover)