Grace Jones’ message has always been empowerment through sheer glamour. It’s an understatement to say she’s intimidating; she promises to demolish anyone who throws her shade, especially if it’s some weak-ass man. But she isn’t above a good dick metaphor, either. You can be queen of the street scene and the runway, but sometimes you still gotta cruise for it, ya know? Even Grace Jones is concerned with finding that perfect long black limousine. I suspect that Jones’ gay followers particularly enjoyed this ode to the cruising life, back when cruising was still a relatively harmless pastime. Jones certainly earned her place as gay icon; her gender-bending, aggressively self-assured take-no-shit persona is emblematic of the free-for-all sexual underground of the 1970’s.
You can feel sorry for anyone who gets on the bad side of Grace Jones. She seems like someone who suffers no fools, especially the male kind. She’s a goddess who puts weak mortals in their place with one withering glance. And this is the ultimate withering put-down song, taking aim at the specific narcissism found in entertainment types. The types who can’t tell where the spotlight ends, the types who confuse their own mediocre selves with the characters they play for the public. Those are the one who need to get shot down hardest. Who better to do that than a woman who’s rubbed shoulders with the glitziest glitterati from Warhol’s New York to Saint Laurent’s Paris? Of course, to give credit where no one remembers to, the song was actually written by Chrissie Hynde, who has rubbed shoulders with plenty of friends in low places herself. But Grace Jones has walked away with songs belonging to the likes of Piaf; Chrissie Hynde had no choice but to accept second best.
Ladies and gentlemen, Grace Jones is here with her reply every single one of those romanticized odes to male sexual entitlement; “If I don’t give it, you ain’t gonna get it.” Also, “you’re still a baby.” Tell ’em Grace, tell ’em. Grace Jones lived to put a stiletto boot up the ass of all the expected conventions of what it meant to be a woman (and especially a woman of color) in the glamour industry. She was – and remains – terrifyingly unique, and not shy about it. Being glamorous and weird in a hostile world, as an act of defiance. Or call it being defiant as an act of glamour. So of course she would call bullshit on that old trope where male-gaze-havers pressure women to prove their worth by putting out, and she would make a pop hit out of it too.
Grace Jones was an excellent fashion model who became an even better musician. But more than anything, she was a genius maker of images. With inspiration from collaborators of such caliber as Jean Paul Goude, Helmut Newton, Claude Montana, Andy Warhol, and Nile Rodgers (among many other glitterati) Jones created a glamorous, otherworldly persona that combined everything from glam rock and disco to French chanson, drag shows to haute couture. This song is an ode to a love affair (with one of the less famous members of The Wailers) and a tribute to the singer’s native Jamaica. In typical Jones fashion, it seamlessly fuses a multitude of diverse interests.
It takes serious balls to tackle a song that’s a national treasure. And Grace Jones is nothing if not ballsy. Jones first shot to fame in the 1970’s as a fashion model, and it soon became evident that her personality was too huge for mere dress-wearing. Modeling is a great career, but even the most successful models eventually find it frivolous. Unfortunately, being beautiful in front of the camera doesn’t always translate into being good at other things, and even if you do have other talents, it’s often hard to be taken seriously once people have you labeled as a really gifted coathanger. Grace Jones, however, is not most other models and she set out to prove herself as a musical talent in the most fearless way possible. By releasing a cover of an Edith Piaf song, and not just any Edith Piaf song, but La Vie en Rose, one of The Little Sparrow’s most cherished numbers. It was a huge gamble. There’s no better way of making an idiot of yourself than butchering a Piaf song. But Jones absolutely nailed it. She very wisely avoided any sign of imitation, setting it to a slow-burn Bossa Nova beat, and belting it out without trying to copy Piaf’s famous vibrato. In this way, Jones earned her first big hit, and established herself as a serious vocalist. Since then, with almost a dozen albums under her belt, Jones has attained undeniable icon status. Though there’s no comparing her (or anyone else) to Piaf’s cultural standing, it’s still kind of awe-inspiring to hear her claim such a classic song for herself and make it a part of her own legend.
(Photo by Jean-Paul Goude)
Grace Jones is a Jamaican who spent years living in New York and Paris. All of those places can be heard in her music. Jones is mostly thought of as some kind of a nightclub act. Not entirely off target; a lot of her music is great for dancing, and she’s one of the icons of the Studio 54 era. But it’s wrong to think of her as ‘a model who made disco records’. Jones always had more force of personality than mere modeling could express. All that charisma had to go somewhere, and what better place than the stage for a world-traveling clubland habitue? Jones had a great image, which is a fine way to start a musical career, but not enough to carry it through. Lucky for her she’s also a fantastic singer. Her music is a sophisticated balance of elements, and this song is a fine example. Recorded in the Bahamas with reggae luminaries Sly & Robbie, it combines traces of reggae, rock and pop, and makes it all sound impeccably European. The other common perception of Grace Jones is that she’s incredibly avant-garde, a walking art installation. Again, that’s not exactly wrong. Jones very much used her image as a means of artistic expression, and still does. But you couldn’t call her pretentious for all that. She was just expressing herself, and the diverse elements in her style and her music were natural reflections of her life experiences. She lived in Paris, so she sang in French and played accordion. She partied in New York, so she used disco beats. She went back home to Jamaica and picked up some steel drums. And for an artsy avant-garde art person, her music sure is broadly appealing.
Gender flouting cuts both ways. Grace Jones is indisputably the first lady of androgynous androids. All a bloke has to do to stir up a little confusion is put on a touch of eyeliner, but women’s tuxedos are the hight of fashion, and it takes some work for a woman to make dressing manly a statement. A woman in pants, or short haired isn’t confusing to the status quo. Whereas a man becomes effete if he as much as flicks his wrists the wrong way. Which begs questions, such as What is masculinity that it is so easily challenged? Why does one have to learn how to be a man, while becoming a woman comes naturally? Why does masculinity have to be proven and constantly maintained with macho gestures? No woman ever has to worry about her intrinsic femininity being questioned? There’s almost nothing, short of surgery and hormonal injections that a woman can do to herself to undermine her femininity. Even the bullest dykes don’t have their femaleness in doubt: they’re not any less female, and let me ask my lesbian friends about this further, but I think they still have a sense of female pride. Could it be that human nature is essentially female, and masculine characteristics are a construct of society? Is femininity our default setting? Is that why men have to work so damn hard to suppress it? Those are all deep questions that can, and do, fill books. Whatever you may think, it remains – it’s hard work for a woman to butch up enough to be shocking. There have been few female icons who’ve created a truly androgynous image. Most of the time a woman in trousers is just a woman in trousers. Not many women can put on trousers and enter the ‘fourth sex.’ Perhaps it’s because women’s sexual identity is naturally more fluid than men’s that women have more a roomier window for this kind of self-expression. No small part of it is what society views as allowable. It wasn’t that long ago that female sexual expression was restricted to nothing, so we see now a mass inversion of sexual mores in progress. What this has to do with fashion model cum singer Grace Jones. She took what biology gave her and turned herself into an androgynous, geometric, fourth sex, superhuman droid. She cut a disturbingly masculine figure in her suits and flat-top haircut. When she put on menswear she didn’t look like a dyke, she didn’t look like a normal woman, she looked like a new creature (possibly related to a nomi?) And not in the “fuck me, I’m provocative!” way favored by girls who want to sell records. There’s a line between a purely performative identity and one that stems from a real sense of conviction. It’s a hard line sometimes to find, and it lies in the oft-confusing land of camp, where you can be both. It seems clear that the outrageous image of Grace Jones comes as an expression of inner selfhood, not as a gimmick or a promotion. That’s why even in our Gaga-inundated jaded popsphere, the sight of Jones still provokes a reaction of What the what is that? Jones, for her part, has no use for young acolytes who seem still undecided how camp their their image needs to be.
- Butch is Not an Accident (pioneersblog.wordpress.com) This is a little blog post that’s an example of the way that society presupposes feminineness (and a desire for feminineness) in women regardless of how they choose to present themselves. Women, society thinks, cannot (and should not) suppress their femininity no matter how hard they try.