May 19, 1948– Grace Jones:
“I can be a pain, but most of all, I can be a pleasure.”
She is one of the most creative and transgressive musicians of the 1980s; giving voice to the oppressed by offering a bold example of what it means to be free.
The above cover of the album Nightclubbing from 40 years ago features a painted photograph of Jones face by the French designer, photographer, and illustrator Jean-Paul Goude. The photo captures Jones in an androgynous outfit with an unlit cigarette, gazing towards the camera with her eyes slightly closed. It has been widely regarded as one of the most iconic album covers in American music, despite Goude’s and Jones’ controversial relationship and Goude’s admitted fetishization of Black women.
As late as the 1970s, it was illegal for two people of the same sex to dance together in most places in the USA. Gay people risked losing their jobs with even the hint of their sexuality being revealed. Before that Internet thing, it was in gay bars, clubs, and discos that the seeds of liberation were sown, and dance music was the soundtrack.
In 1975, Jones appeared on the scene, and when she sang I Need A Man, all lusty and rough, she was not just singing to gay people, but also for them, and as one of them. Jones is about as gay as a straight person can be. Her persona celebrates gayness, blackness and subverted gender norms. She was unlike anyone else in pop music: feminine, supple, seductive, and also butch and lewd. Ebony magazine wrote of her:
“Grace Jones is a question mark followed by an exclamation point.“
Even in the 21st century, Jones’s provocative charisma still seems bold. She continues to be very outré.
Born Beverly Grace Jones in Jamaica to a Pentecostal preacher and his wife, she moved to Syracuse, New York, with her family in 1960. She was 12 years old and didn’t have many friends. She was socially awkward in school and received below average grades. She left Syracuse University in her first year for a role in a play in Philadelphia. Jones moved to New York City in 1975, with a dream of becoming a big star.
Jones signed as a model with the Wilhelmina Agency while working nights as go-go dancer. Jones:
“Even though the agency kept me pretty busy, I auditioned for every play and film I could find. But they all wanted a Black American sound, and I just didn’t have it. Finally, I got tired of trotting around and took myself to Paris.“
In Paris, her blackness made her stand out from other models. Jones ended up on the covers of Stern, Pravda, and German Vogue. Her roommate at the time was Jessica Lange, also working as a model. Jones recorded a few singles in Europe. Talent managers, Cy and Eileen Berlin, heard one of her demos and were impressed by her energy and star quality. They signed her to their management company and Jones moved in with the couple.
The Berlins had legendary disco producer Tom Moulton work on Jones’ double-sided single, Sorry/That’s the Trouble (1976). It received plenty of play in the gay discos and then their next collaboration, I Need A Man went to the top of Billboard’s Disco Charts. Innovative Chris Blackwell‘s Island Records signed her. Island Records was the international ambassador of Reggae music and Jones’ Jamaican roots made for a good match.
Moulton and Jones made three albums together: Portfolio (1978), Fame (1979), Muse (1980).
Portfolio‘s continuous first side featured Broadway show tunes set to string arrangements with a disco beat. It is all rather odd, but the album’s second side contains a pop music masterpiece, Jones’ interpretation of Édith Piaf‘s signature song, La Vie En Rose. The same rawness that was so off-putting on Portfolio‘s Broadway tunes was what brought absolute heartbreak to La Vie En Rose.
On Fame, Jones’ confident vocals were perfect for the soulful lush romanticism. The material was made for her. The album is dedicated to her then-partner, Goude, who is also the father of her only child.
Muse features another nonstop A-side, this one Georgio Moroder‘s sadistic, sinful On Your Knees.
The first time that I saw Jones was in 1979, appearing on the musical television series The Midnight Special, where she performed Below The Belt. She was wearing a satin boxing robe with her hands taped for a fight. Midway through the song, she pulled a hot muscle dude from the audience, and pretended to knock him out. She then stood with a foot planted on his chest while singing: “Gotta take my chance/ Gotta go the distance”. As the song ended, Jones then did a victory dance while fake snow fell, or perhaps it was meant to be cocaine (this was 1979, after all). I was hooked.
As a producer, Blackwell did a smart thing by having Jones blend a Caribbean ease with a European audacity. He mixed rhythmic reggae with aggressive rock guitar, and added in atmospheric keyboards. He put together a sextet of studio musicians at his state-of-the-art Nassau studio, Compass Point. They became The Compass Point All-Stars and went on to play hits by Tom Tom Club, Robert Palmer, Joe Cocker, and many others.
The result of Jones’ Compass Point sessions was an unlikely remake of the punk band The Normals‘ Warm Leatherette. Jones’ version features her deadpan delivery and a slowed tempo. It makes fucking after a car crash is a kink worth trying. The album, Warm Leatherette (1980) was a hit and Jones followed it with the equally dangerous Nightclubbing (1981). Both albums, although brilliant, were confusing to the club kids who didn’t get the reggae sound and the beats were too slow for disco. At first, mostly ignored in the USA, both albums became big hits in Europe.
The cover of Nightclubbing perfectly captures the androgynous Jones clad in just a men’s Armani tuxedo jacket with an extreme flat-top haircut, unlit cigarette dangling from her mouth, her shoulders have been vastly widened to accentuate the sharp, masculine lines. On these blurred gender boundaries, Jones said:
“I go feminine, I go masculine; I am both, actually. I think the male side is a bit stronger in me and I have to tone it down sometimes. I’m not like a normal woman, that’s for sure…“
Living My Life (1982) was the apex of Jones/Compass Point All-Stars collaborations. Jones wrote her own lyrics for most of the songs. Recorded after of her breakup with Goude, the album has Jones going deeper and more percussive. But, a new virus and Ronald Reagan were killing off Jones’s core audience, and the freedom of the 1970s changed to contractions. The new cable station MTV began playing New Wave dance songs including Eurythmics, Culture Club, and The Cars. Jones’ singular appearance and meticulously crafted presentation made her perfect for the new music video channel, especially in that early, experimental era.
Jones is an astute visual artist. Her arresting image in the 1980s, wearing pointedly geometric designs that accentuated her angular features, flashed and flattered. She began finding work in films and stole scenes in Conan The Destroyer (1984) and the James Bond flick A View To A Kill (1985). She famously jumped off the Eiffel Tower after battling James Bond and was last seen sacrificing her life to prevent the destruction of Silicon Valley.
My favorite Jones song from this period is the ornate, opulent, nearly symphonic Slave To The Rhythm (1985), written for Frankie Goes To Hollywood, but re-worked for Jones, and produced by Trevor Horn. It was released as a single and then on the album with eight different versions of the track. The notion of a larger-than-life black woman singing metaphorically about slavery was profound. Jones appeared on the cover of The Face in whiteface. It was a worldwide hit and showed Jones’ incandescence and charisma to her best advantage.
The brilliant funk producer, Nile Rodgers brought Jones a true R&B hit with I’m Not Perfect (But I’m Perfect for You) in 1986. She followed it with the album Bulletproof Heart (1989) with the resplendent dance tune, Love On Top Of Love, a fine way to say goodbye to the decade.
Jones’ songs from the 1980s are declarations against repression, and a way of fighting back with the message: Those that are thought of as less than, will burn brighter than the oppressors. That was why she is so loved by gay people.
For some reason, Jones sat out the 1990s. Dance music was out of fashion, Grunge was the thing, but not Jones’ thing. Jones unexpectedly returned with a new album, Hurricane, in 2008, again with the Compass Point All-Stars. Jones’ come back was more polished and unpredictable than ever. The terrific single, Corporate Cannibal, is a protest against capitalist dehumanization.
In her memoir, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs (2015) Jones wrote about her preacher father. She describes her childhood as having been “crushed underneath the Bible”, and she has refused to ever enter another Jamaican church.
Jones has never stopped being iconic. During Paris Fashion Week in March 2019, Jones hit the runway for Tommy Hilfiger looking incredible in a gold bodysuit and striped blazer. She strutted to her 1981 hit Pull Up To The Bumper. She slayed at 70 years old, but she was just one of the models walking the runway at the show, all of whom were black, representing a wide array of body types and ages in a uniquely diverse showcase of fashion inspired by the 1970s.
Jones’ ties with the 1970s and 1980s New York art scene are important in understanding her visual identity. She was close to Andy Warhol, who created a number works of the singer. She also knew Keith Haring, who painted her head-to-toe for a series of photographs taken by Robert Mapplethorpe.
Jones’ persona is constantly changing, but she still stays true to herself. After all the decades, there is still no one like her. We invest in the confidence of our loved performers so that we might learn to love ourselves. For anyone who has ever felt too gay, too black, too female, or too much of an outsider for this world, Grace Jones is liberation.
“I can’t run out of different ideas. I am different. When can I run out of me?“Grace Jones