Here’s a stumper: Is it more correct to ask who Grace Jones is, or what Grace Jones is? The model-actress-singer-diva-icon turns 70 today, and her appeal—which might once have appeared to be a particularly long-running flash in the pan—shows no signs of abating. The documentary Bloodlight and Bami, an intimate look at the performer, came out this year, and her memoir I’ll Never Write My Memoirs was a notable book of 2015.
Jones materialized onto the dancefloors and catwalks of mid-70s New York as if dropped from a passing spaceship. Single-handedly redefining “exotic”—back in the days when that questionable term meant “non-Caucasian”—Jones brought a fierce and, for the time, shockingly confrontational androgyny to the pages of fashion glossies. Simultaneously tribal, futurist, techno and primitive, Jones and her trademark glare fairly leapt off the page, daring you to look away. Many could not, and her modeling career, launched in 1966 when she was 18, has never truly ended.
Oh, and she made a bunch of records, many of them quite successful. 1981’s Nightclubbing, in particular, was an international hit, finding a particularly welcoming home in the antipodes, eventually being certified platinum in both Australia and New Zealand.
So, again: What, exactly, is Grace Jones? Is she a model-turned-singer, a singer-turned-model, or something else entirely? This being a music blog, we’re tempted to keep it simple and simply call her an “artist,” though that hardly does justice to her unique performative style.
Conveniently, it also sidesteps the fact that Jones’ voice may be the most limited of her gifts. This is a common complaint: That she can’t actually sing. While it’s true that the catwalk, not the conservatory, was her path to the stage, Jones quickly overcame any native vocal shortcomings and soon found that she was perfectly capable of holding her own in the recording studio. As her first producer Tom Moulton recounted in The Guardian:
“Grace had a real problem with her voice. She sounded like Bela Lugosi: She’d sing ‘I Need a Man’ and it sounded like: ‘I vant to suck your blood.’ I said: ‘What’s with the accent? You been watching horror movies?’ But she was incredibly aggressive and determined: ‘Whatever it takes, I’m going to make it,’ and boy, she meant it, too.”
Perhaps more to the point, Jones very quickly made sure that her flamboyant presentation and outré taste were the focus, as opposed to her voice, and herein lies her genius. If she wasn’t much of a composer per se, her talent for reframing everything from Broadway standards to edgy post-punk through the lens of her idiosyncratic vision was a winning formula, and one that thrived outside the boundaries of “traditional” musical ability.
What’s more, this seemingly disjointed mash-up of styles was a vivid snapshot of ‘70s gay nightlife in the very moment it was breaking out into the mainstream. The frisson of what had previously been underground and illicit, delivered by a woman who resembled, in her own words, “a bug from outer space,” was the perfect crystallization of a cultural moment. Could she sing? Who cared? Whatever her musical talent, or lack thereof, Jones’ identification with the spectral nightlife culture would help carry her career long past her music’s sell-by date.
Speaking of her music, Grace Jones is perhaps the perfect artist for a Cover Me’s tribute. Spanning some ten albums, her catalog is built largely on covers.
Fortunately for you, we won’t attempt a full track-by-track examination here. But roughly speaking, there are two phases to Jones’ covers career: A disco period, in which the artist was finding her footing as a performer and covering popular songs such as Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” and a pop / funk / post-punk period, characterized by her interpretation of songs like “Nightclubbing” by David Bowie and Iggy Pop.
Phase One: Disco Standards
Grace Jones was hardly unique in giving standards the disco treatment. Readers of a certain age will recall, perhaps with some discomfort, the slew of otherwise sane artists who submitted their work to the mid-70s “disco-izing” craze: Perry Como, Bobby Vinton, Ethel Merman. Yes, there is an Ethel Merman Disco Album. Look it up.
Unfortunately, Jones’ attempts did little to expand the genre. One could successfully argue that the world did not require a disco version of “Tomorrow” from Annie. Though if nothing else, leading off side two of her debut album with a seven-and-a-half minute version of Édith Piaf’s signature “La Vie en rose” offered an early indication that, come what may, Grace Jones was going to march to her own beat.
Jones made three albums in the disco vein: Portfolio, Fame, and Muse. All of them had some impact on the Billboard Dance Club Songs charts, but by 1979 the tide had definitively turned against disco, with Chicago’s infamous “Disco Demolition Night” casting a somewhat sour pall over the entire genre.
What happened next was even more improbable than Jones’ transition from modeling to singing. Adopting an alienated and emotionless presentation more akin to the likes of Ian Curtis—whose band, Joy Division, she would cover—Jones pivoted towards a hybrid of post-punk, reggae, pop and funk.
Phase Two: Nightclubbing
The surprise was how well that pivot worked. Backed up by a crack team of reggae players, typically at Island Record’s legendary Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, Jones blended seemingly disparate genres to create a wholly believable musical persona, one that was both avant-garde and well-suited to her strengths.
Many of the songs she covered in this period fell roughly into the post-punk genre: “Me! I Disconnect From You” (Gary Numan) and “She’s Lost Control” (Joy Division), “Demolition Man” (Sting) before it was recorded by the Police, and the pioneering electro-punk of “Warm Leatherette” (the Normal).
But Jones also chose some truly off-beat material, at least in the context of her new techno-sex-alien persona: “Breakdown” (Tom Petty), “Private Life” (Pretenders), “Use Me” (Bill Withers) and “Ring of Fire” (Johnny Cash).
It’s a testament to the strength of Grace Jones’ vision that these recordings were so successful. But Jones is, first and foremost, a performer. Onstage, her simultaneously hypersexualized and icy demeanor is thrilling to behold. Requiring nothing of her audience and yet assured of their utter subservience, she owns the stage like no one else can.
Grace Jones’ appeal hasn’t gone unnoticed by younger artists. Nicki Minaj, Rihanna and Lady Gaga are only a sampling of the many performers inspired by her, but Jones’ influence runs deep into photography, visual art, filmmaking and other genres. The Museum of the African Diaspora’s Grace Jones Project, the Edinburgh College of Art’s Ladies and Gentlemen: Miss Grace Jones symposium, and others have firmly cemented her place as a sort of living goddess of the avant-garde.
This illuminates a potentially inconvenient truth, at least from the perspective of a journal devoted to cover songs. If music was Grace Jones’ entrée to widespread fame, it may prove to be what she’s least remembered for. In crafting the permanent performance art piece entitled “Grace Jones,” the artist created a larger-than-life character independent of any genre, any traditional musical talent, and seemingly any bounds. Happy birthday Grace Jones, wherever and whatever you are. Long may you slay.
Want to know more about songs Grace Jones has covered? Just browse our archives, of course!