Grace Jones’s Disciples

Modern pop does imitate her for profit, but that’s not such a bad thing.

David Moir / Reuters

Who in the world dared tell Grace Jones to imitate? In a portion of her new memoir (titled, naturally, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs), she summarizes the baffling advice recently given to her: “Be like Sasha Fierce. Be like Miley Cyrus. Be like Rihanna. Be like Lady Gaga. Be like Rita Ora and Sia. Be like Madonna.”

Jones’s reply, inevitable and correct: “I cannot be like them—except to the extent that they are already being like me.”

She takes a dim view of the current-day stars whom she considers to be her “pupils,” writing that they “dress up as though they are challenging the status quo, but by now, wearing those clothes, pulling those faces, revealing those tattoos and breasts, singing to those fractured, spastic, melting beats—that is the status quo.” In her own career, Jones says, “I did things for the excitement, the dare, the fact that it was new, not for the money, and too many times I was the first, not the beneficiary.”

Even for fans of any of the stars she names, it’s hard to argue with Jones’s points. Her innovative looks and performances have been copied time and again, often overtly. When her imitators top the charts and make lots of money, it makes sense to call them “the status quo.” Still: Jones might be underselling her own worth, and by extension those of modern performers, by reducing all of pop power to novelty. Being new matters, but it’s not all that matters.

Jones had her own influences, from David Bowie to Josephine Baker. But she also, indeed, did things that no one had seen before. The body paint, the acrobatic poses, the boxy suit jackets, the butt-balanced champagne glass were aesthetic breakthroughs that have all been since recycled by younger entertainers. But her weirdness also had an ideology, a point, that elevated it from mere attention-seeking to actual provocation. As the critic Barry Walters recently wrote of Jones,

She was as queer as a relatively straight person could get. Her image celebrated blackness and subverted gender norms; she presented something we had never seen before in pop performance—a woman who was lithe, sexy, and hyperfeminine while also exuding a ribald, butch swagger. In ’79, Ebony got her je ne sais quoi exactly right: “Grace Jones is a question mark followed by an exclamation point.”

Harold Bloom’s 1973 book The Anxiety of Influence created a catalogue of terms to describe how some poets try to achieve originality in the face of the greatness that came before them. As I understand it, a few of those strategies essentially amount to building on the past—absorbing the predecessor’s work, and then either taking their intentions even further or using the bedrock to build something entirely different. It’s a useful way for thinking about influence in pop as well as poetry. Jones’s iconography is still transgressive enough to provoke gasps when Xeroxed for mass consumption, but it’s also a jumping-off point for the Xeroxers to embark upon their own, specific missions that entertain the culture while also attempting to challenge it.

In some cases, the performers who reuse Jones’s tricks (or their handlers—in her piece, Jones speculates that Rihanna doesn’t even realize she swiped Jones’s body-paint shtick) are just cashing in on vivid imagery for an audience who doesn’t remember the original. But you can go down the list of figures Jones named and find examples of ideology that overlaps with, but also extends, her agenda. Nicki Minaj loudly tries to celebrate black body types, just as Jones did, but with a distinct hip-hop twist—she takes stereotypically masculine swagger and turns it pink. The Sasha Fierce persona was Beyoncé’s attempt to embrace the raw sexuality and fearlessness that Jones stood for while also maintaining a space for a softer, more traditional side. Gaga has devoured portions of Jones’s wardrobe in her post-modern commentary on fame, celebrity, and identity. Kanye mines old-school racist imagery like Jones did to force people to confront it.

Not all of these campaigns consistently produce great music, and not all of them eloquently convey their message. And Jones is right to point out that she can still claim underground status while her pop progeny can’t—a fact that partly owes to the death of the stigma around “selling out” in the 21st century. But the most significant thing these people borrowed from Jones may not be outfits or attitudes, but the belief that sexy provocation, politics, and commercial success can coexist in a single entertainer. In any case, all involved probably realize that there only ever was and only ever will be one Grace Jones.