ARTIST VS. MUSE (Part Six: The Artist)

Featured image: still from “Corporate Cannibal,” directed by Nick Hooker

This is the sixth in a series of posts I’ll be making this month about the singer Grace Jones and her romantic and creative partnership with the artist Jean-Paul Goude. You can find the previous posts here: PART ONE, PART TWO, PART THREE, PART FOUR, PART FIVE. Check back on Thursday for the exciting conclusion, and feel free to let me know what you think of the series in a comment.

PART SIX: The Artist

Unlike the unfortunate ghost of Jeanne Duval, Grace Jones is rarely silent. After Slave to the Rhythm, Jones switched from Island to Capitol Music Group, which released her next two albums, Inside Story and Bulletproof Heart. These albums were a disappointing step backwards for the singer. Their conventional dance-pop sound suggests that Capitol was hoping to relive Jones’ disco queen heyday. With the exception of the successful single “I’m Not Perfect (But I’m Perfect for You),” the effort was doomed by a combination of uninspired production and unfocused lyrics. The latter was at least partially Jones’ fault—Inside Story was the first of her albums in which she participated in the writing of every song. In another first, she also directed the music video for “I’m Not Perfect,” in which she submits herself to the many tiny tortures that supposedly produce beauty. In her memoir, she calls the concept “a metaphor for how Jean-Paul rearranged me.” To transform into “one of his impossible Graces,” Jones would have to be “pummeled, invaded, electrocuted, suffocated, bleached, blackened, dissected, and skinned.”

Aside from the premise, the boldest fingerprint Jones’ directorial touch left on the video may be the quirky cameos she wrangled out of her friends—Keith Haring, Tina Chow, and Andy Warhol all make appearances, turning the video into a time capsule from the late-80s art scene. Any further effort Jones may have made to distinguish herself as a director would have been stymied by Capitol. The label made every effort to undermine her authority over the shoot, which left her so frustrated that her family began to worry about her mental health. “My family felt I was being paranoid, but I wasn’t going mad,” she recalls. “I was just trying to concentrate on a technically difficult task while I was being talked to like I was a silly pop singer who’d gotten carried away with her own ego…Had I been a man, they would have considered I was merely retaining control, or professionally fretting about the details.”

I'm not perfect
Jones wearing a skirt painted by Keith Haring in the “I’m Not Perfect” video.

After the unpleasant experience with Capitol, Jones swore she would never record another album. She stuck to that vow for nearly twenty years, although she did produce a handful of promotional singles and contribute to a few movie soundtracks (including Boomerang) in that time. The drought ended with Hurricane, released in 2008 by Wall of Sound, a London-based independent label. Produced by Ivor Guest, who convinced Jones to record the album, and including contributions from Brian Eno and the reunited Compass Point All Stars, Hurricane is Jones’ first proper follow-up to Living My Life. “Well Well Well” is dedicated to the late Alex Sadkin, who engineered the Compass Point albums, and wouldn’t sound out of place on any one of them. “Corporate Cannibal,” in which Jones sings from the perspective of a demonic CEO, updates the Compass Point sound with the woozy, backwards-stumbling mood that currently dominates hip-hop. The song’s music video, directed by Nick Hooker, echoes the best of Jones’ videos by focusing on the singer’s subtly emotive face, enhancing the undiminished force of her presence with warping effects that stretch her body to fill the frame. In this video, “I am not decoration,” Jones writes. “I am pure signal.”

Hurricane is not only Jones’ best work since Nightclubbing, but also her most personal album to date. As on Inside Story and Bulletproof Heart, Jones wrote every song with help from various collaborators. The album is dedicated to her father. Her son Paulo Goude wrote an early draft of “Sunset Sunrise,” and her mother Marjorie contributed backing vocals to “Williams’ Blood.” On the latter track, Jones uses the two sides of her family as a symbolic dichotomy, proclaiming herself a truer descendant of the Williams line—which includes her mother, a church singer, and her maternal grandfather, a jazz pianist who played with Nat King Cole—than of the Jones line, represented by her father, a pastor, and her brother, the megachurch preacher Noel Jones. The final refrain declares, “I’ve got the Williams’ blood in me!” The gospel undercurrent that runs throughout the song rushes to the fore at its conclusion, when Jones and her mother sing a few lines of “Amazing Grace” together. Despite its relatively unimpressive commercial reception, Hurricane proves that Jones need not resort to cover songs to produce exciting music, so long as she has the support of a label that gives her the freedom to take risks. The album successfully weds the power of Grace Jones the persona with the vulnerability of Grace Jones the person.

Jonathan de Villiers
Jones working on a chocolate replica of her own head in a promotional photograph for Hurricane (Jonathan de Villiers)

Although Jones’ most recent albums feature her original songwriting most prominently, Jones has consistently written her own songs, with assistance from her producers, since her debut. As a writer, Jones casts herself in a few recurring roles. On “Pull Up to the Bumper,” “Feel Up,” and “My Jamaican Guy,” from her Compass Point era, she is a fun-loving seductress, an unmistakably Jamaican libertine in search of a good shag. On “Hollywood Liar” and “White Collar Crime,” both from Inside Story, she is an unsubtle leftist bohemian, decrying the pretension and avarice of the upper class. “Corporate Cannibal” is Jones’ political mode at its best: because she adopts the voice of the villain rather than the would-be hero, she avoids sounding like the most self-righteous protester at a campus rally. But Jones is never more compelling than when she plays herself. The fury and defiance that animate “Living My Life” could only have been stoked by true rejection, truly felt. “You hate me for living my life,” the song accuses. And while Goude was immortalizing their relationship in images, Jones was documenting it in songs. After an argument, she wrote “Nipple to the Bottle:” the standout line is “I won’t do it tonight.” She also likely had Goude in mind when she wrote “Art Groupie,” from which she pulled the impish title of her autobiography, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs. As the title makes clear, the lyrics, which were written with Barry Reynolds, cleverly acknowledge Jones’ reputation for absorbing the aura of creativity that surrounded her artist friends and lovers while contributing nothing more than a pretty face. But unlike Jones’ perfunctory film acting, “Art Groupie” offers more than just a knowing wink. The haunting chorus, which the singer intones over whispered backing vocals, is an honest admission of her desire to see herself reflected, bigger and more beautiful, in the creations of her admiring lover:

Love me in a picture
Kiss me in a cast
Touch me in a sculpture
Whisper in my mask

By writing and performing this self-aware, sincere piece of work—in other words, by practicing her own art—Jones simultaneously accepts and subverts her talentless-model reputation. Although her autobiography charms with entertaining anecdotes and a conversational tone (not to mention the fact that it served as the foundation for this series), Jones and Morley need not have written it. Jones has been writing her memoirs for the past forty years, one song at a time.

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