Monday, April 21, 2008

Grace Jones does 'La Vie En Rose.'

This article initially appeared in README; Kunsole Songbook and other Stories, 2008. To get your hands on a copy or to understand fully what a Kunsu really is, please visit their website. The song’s initial impression is that of pure Disco; the signature track of her Studio 54 fame needed to be included on the A One Man Show performance video. By now, however, Grace Jones’ image is a critical blend of colonial African iconography, gender stereotypes and autohagiography by way of 80’s street culture. So how does one navigate this demand from new to old? She must seamlessly transition from her post-gendered persona to Disco Diva . To betray her image or betray her fans? This is a wicked and crazed performance.

Grace is shot in silhouette against a pink background. She plays the accordion, blurring the distinction of chanteuse and band hand. Shot from below, she is epic, mythic. Her flourishes are decidedly feminine (make-up, stilettos, gloves). She sports a suit, playing up her physical masculinities. The light slowly falls upon her face. Her shadow is cast as pink where a fiery yellow light defines her profile.

The first vocal line is an abject shock! A horror! She starts the tune speaking with a vulgar nonchalance. France’s most celebrated chanson d’amour becomes a callous litany. It’s true punk. The French only heightens her air of detachment. This marriage of the foreign tongue and emotional remove recalls Dietrich’s tuxedoed performance of ‘Quand L’amour est Mort’ in Josef Von Sternberg’s Morocco. Drifting beyond androgyny through a tunnel of postcolonialism, Jones toys with the anxiety that gives rise to fetishism – reveling in or satirizing her symbolic lack.

As Meriam Kershaw noted in her essay ‘Postcolonialism and Androgyny: The Performance Art of Grace Jones, “Since its colonial conquests in Africa, France in general and Paris in particular had cultivated a fascination with the myth of the Black Venus… Josephine Baker had exploited this obsession with signs of racial difference, and Jones, with her striking figure and provocative manner, filled the fascination of les parisiens for things foreign and new.” The colonized croons the grandest song of her oppressors. Using language as metaphor, Jones internalizes the colonial conflict aligning it with the individual’s pressure to conform to gendered stereotypes. Chanson meets battle cry.

At a midlyric point, Grace startlingly slips into her original croon, that emotive force we had at first anticipated. Her strong jaw loosens into diva-mouth. But in a fluid motion, it locks and darts back to a grimace once again. Her eyes glaze – perhaps they might have once shed tears, but now they turn to marbles. She’s not lost control. Jones transforms the tune into a schizophrenic assault, a brash ballet of denial – jeering the audience’s hopes of her song, her femininity. She shapes the first chorus’ final lyric from croon to cartoonish yowl.

Jones is careful to always present herself in either profile or frontal shots, rendering herself iconographic. The world of ikons is not just her sartorial stomping ground, it is her.

At an instrumental break, she casually plays music as if no longer under our scrutinous gaze. She activates her role as being watched, shaming the onlooker and thus denying the pleasure of cinematic scopophilia. Unlike the typical concert film, A One Man Show is marked by the audience’s absence. The lack of an active looking at of Grace Jones refuses the video’s spectator an identifiable look of desire. If, as Laura Mulvey describes in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, “the woman displayed has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium…” Jones dashes the dominating gaze by allowing it no sturdy ground. “As the spectator identifies with the main male protagonist, he projects his look onto that of his like, his screen surrogate…” It is through the gaze of the surrogate that the scopophilic tendency is fulfilled. Robbing the scene of any look but Jones’ accusatory outward glare, the video’s prevention of voyeuristic fulfillment produces Jones as the agendered object of erotic pleasure, the fetish.

As Mulvey details the Sternberg/Dietrich films, “she is no longer the bearer of guilt but a perfect product, whose body, stylized and fragmented by close-ups, is the content of the film and the direct recipient of the spectator’s look.” She presents herself to the spectator, a fetish to be looked at, an object outside of gender – outside of that love which might humanize her or the colonialist who may conquer her. For Jones, they’re one in the same. She recommences with her accordion accompaniment.

The second verse closes in on Grace. The camera is far tighter in. She sings in English and we begin to comprehend her. Her linguistic demystification betrays a vulnerability only heightened by her facial 3/4-turn and this more scrutinous camera angle. She clasps the microphone guardedly – as though it were a weapon. Grace is under attack. She wants not to proclaim her love yet she does. ‘The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game’ seems a more appropriate standard for the moment. Her eyes dart about as though on the hunt, mere moments distinguishing her from huntress to hunted. She barrels through the verse, gaining cool as the camera tracks back. After another snarling “La Vie” she renders herself iconic, encore.

As the final chorus begins, she is pure disco. Grace wears the accordion like a shawl and is again placed against a purely pink backdrop. She offers a theatrical, sideways turn and delivers into the mic as she is supposed to, all emotional and in 3/4 profile. It’s pink and lovely and soaring.

Then the yellow is back! We’re full frontal, Ikon Jones. She holds her accordion, no longer a shawl but a tool. She grabs the microphone and launches into a commanding and hateful tear through of “La Vie En Rose”s until we’re close-up. Her scowl and rage melts into a teardrop. Cut to a wider shot and she’s shedding a solitary tear. It’s meant to be emotional in a way that reads as sloppy, uncharacteristic.

It is, of course, an ironic destabilizing of the tune’s femininely gendered schmaltz. A body double erupts in a flamboyant gesture. She puts both hands to her head and flails them about in an obtusely parodic woe, ridiculing the song’s melodrama. As Jack Halberstam wrote of Grace, “She loses control and her crazy gender, something much more charismatic than androgyny, her masculine intensity and her feminine mania literally force a connection between disco and punk – we dance with her to the edge of sanity, crying now, laughing later.”

A schizophrenic Grace ends the track, a blank look across her face. She speaks the final lines confusedly, crushed – attempting to make amends of these conflicting demands. The tune closes with a broken spell. Grace sloughs off the accordion and allows it to drop to the ground for the retrieval by a stagehand.

Manifesting the disparate and crippling social conventions prescribed to her gender, what’s more – shaping colonialism as gender metaphor – Grace Jones’ performance is a conflicted dance. This is one of Jones’ most subversive works as it utilizes that most famous of chansons – her vehicle, even – as a grounds for the deconstruction of normative social conceptions of femininity, locking them, embattled, within a singular performance. She aligns the spectator’s gaze with the violating charge of colonialism and uses it to critique gender stereotypes. She is at once masochist and sadist demanding our gaze and ridiculing us for looking – traipsing from reverence to rape in a single note.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Trying to hear 'I Will Always Love You'

I was a child of the nineties. Raised in a rather small town with nominal theaters and on solely-network television channels, I had first access to certain cultural phenomena through parody. The nineties were no exception to the Vaudvillian lineage which was by then the network sitcom and comedy hours, lampooning contemporary social conventions and trends. Realizing something first in parody develops a stigma of superiority within the viewer. In watching, and reading the comedy inherent in the ridiculed source, it is common to develop a sense of mastery over the once-earnest subject. In short, it establishes you as one of a body of people who choose (or, as they might argue, know) to laugh as opposed to cry. The parodic viewer might argue strength over he who finds the intentional value in that which is being parodied as he resists the parodied subject’s powers of persuasion.

Imagine the maelstrom of emotions colliding within me in recent months as I drive, cook, bathe, dance… to the motion picture soundtrack for The Bodyguard (a film that I viewed for the first time mere months ago). In the 90’s, the stigma of The Bodyguard was inescapable. Whitney was a force of nature that lurked in every sound-emitting device. Having never seen the film, only its cavalcade of doppelgangers, I had always assumed this “superior” position and read it as a frivolous picture, its soundtrack: audio wallpaper. I was too avant garde to even allow a moment’s listen to this pop disc.

In my (more) adult years, having a personal affinity to the Dolly Parton version of the (in)famous ‘I Will Always Love You,’ I took Whitney’s as a commercial affront to more heartfelt coos. I had recently ended a relationship and sat in a room with Parton’s take, crying. Dolly didn’t help, but her tune felt personal in a way that made Whitney’s meretricious.

It’s an elaborate construction – the buying of Whitney’s version. Ridiculed as the film is (and it is ridiculous), it is as much a key to the tune’s success as Whitney’s back catalogue. I don’t know if I ever actually sat down and listened to her ‘I Will Always Love You’ in its entirety before my recent viewing of the film, but the clumsy build of the film’s narrative erupts in a magnificent use of the power-ballad. The Bodyguard is, essentially, a feature-length, big budget trailer for the tune. In that final 3 minutes, my jaw dropped and I basked in the brilliant workings of this contrived picture. I let the track in – for the first time. And I will always love you.

It’s a way of owning a moment, of conjuring a feeling with every press of the repeat button. With one play, we’re whirling on the runway, loosening the scarf and leaping into the arms of our loved one (let’s, for the moment forget that he happens to be a be-crew-cutted Kevin Costner). The track’s structure is such that each listen is a mounting narrative unto itself. Whitney starts off solo. This is her Dolly moment. She’s isolated (read: emotional?) in her delivery – though that mechanically magnificent voice which gave her great fame also robs Dolly’s vulnerability from the tune. Hence the a capella. Hold the schmaltz. Tell it like it is. And then an acoustic guitar. That helps. We’re treated to this sparsity for what feels like some time – interesting in the Houston cannon. It picks up after a while and we earn a beat - there’s our Whitney and the title line that now arrives as naturally as the pledge of allegiance. (I still can’t get into that sax interlude, however.) Perhaps the most dramatic moment in the song does not even flow from Whitney at all. It’s that kick drum that assures us that the best is yet to come – that she will always love you, again – Bigger! Just before the final bellowing “Iiiiiiiii,” it penetrates a false close of the song like a lite in the darkness. Then we’re in Whitney’s downpour. This is the big crescendo, the Oscar moment (had the song not been written 19 years prior), the moment that sells the chemistry absent in the films preceding 2 hours. That’s a lot for one moment, but Whitney sure knows how to work it. Repeat.

It’s difficult to be of a certain cultural persuasion and try a listen at this song. Not listening in the spirit of my youth in which I snigger and alienate the tracks foolishness nor the non-listening which the track has probably most frequently found: pouring from mall walls, doctor’s offices and from parking lot speakers, disguised as rocks. Perhaps this is in partial reaction to the cold irony of my initial take, but I buy into it and allow myself to assume a subservient role to a tune so precisely constructed for mass consumption that it is still the greatest selling female pop single of all time.

My initial impulse was that of embarrassment. Much like Carl Wilson who recently contributed to the 33 1/3 series a slim volume on Céline Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love, my first few weeks of listening were done at low volumes with closed windows lest the neighbors or casual passers-by know my folly. But that is no way to treat this track! This is a behemoth. Whitney does not deliver Dolly’s coos but traverses the world with her chords. As soon as I became comfortable with this new love, the volume raised and the car windows were lowered. I owned it.

Now I’m not thoroughly convinced that this tune has the slightest thing to do with the song Parton’s wrote and performed. I’m interested in how, in discussing the track, my allusions have been spacial and have only referenced the title line of the lyric. I think ‘I Will Always Love You’ obliterates the necessity of language. ‘I Will Always Love You,’ because of its being as a cover, its being as a vehicle and its exhaustive repetitions is post-linguistic. Just as Rachel never truly falls for Frank in the film, I never, for a moment, even register the words Whitney barrels through in her delivery. (I remember an embarrassing moment some years back at a Karaoke bar in which I selected the track in jest, feeling oh-so familiar with it, only to find myself surprisingly at a loss for words - I had no idea how this song I "knew" went.) I know this is ‘I Will Always Love You’ because I know ‘I Will Always Love You.’ It is impossible to hear ‘I Will Always Love You’ (as a recording, a woman singing in a room) as the first few notes find the listener rapt in the exhaustive pop connotations that the song has since endowed.

These are personal (at school dances, weddings or my television watching and solitary crying), cultural post- and narratively pre-scribed. The song’s great commercial success has rendered it a glistening beacon of connotation and abstraction. I listen and I recall late night hit collection infomercials. I see scenes from shows as diverse as The Critic and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I wade through memories so steeped in my unconscious that they’re not truly memories at all, but vague feelings of recognition. And finally I see Rachel Marron. I’ve been doing my best to hear it these past few months, but there I always find myself, on that runway, tugging at my scarf and hurtling into the arms of love. Until I hit repeat and do it all over again.