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.