Thursday, April 14, 2005

Pop Playground J. Lo

According to theorist Jean Baudrillard, all culture is based upon communication. This communication is based on the exchange of signs and symbols, and traditionally the symbolic world and the real world have been kept separate. In a mass communication culture, this is no longer the case. Electronic media has destroyed the distinctions between the symbolic and the real, creating what Baudrillard calls “hyperreality.” In hyperreality, signs become detached from their referents – representations no longer have any relationship to what they purport to represent. Signs only signify other signs, and meaning (as we traditionally think of it) is lost.

I like to think that in between postmodern dissections of American global policy decisions, Baudrillard follows the career of one of America’s most successful celebrities (and thus, a master of the hyperreality generator), Jennifer Lopez. Ms. Lopez (the only safe title due to intermittent marriages) has managed to fuse all parts of her celebrity into one brand: J. Lo. All signs – J. Lo the actress, J. Lo the singer, J. Lo the model – serve one purpose: to enhance the status of J. Lo. So that J. Lo star in more films, make more albums, and make the cover of more magazines. There is no deeper goal than increased visibility, which is a value that sets postmodern social reality apart from social realities of the past. Visibility is worth, and worth is visibility: how important can you be if you aren’t on TV? Cause and effect break down. Hyperreality personified. J. Lo.

I’ll admit I got a bit abstract fairly quickly. Don’t hold it against me (you should see the material I’m working from). If we go step by step in examining the wonders of J. Lo, things should get a little more concrete.

First, where did this fame come from? Jennifer’s first starring role was in Selena, the slain Tejano singer. Selena’s posthumously released album reached the top of the charts (we’ll suspend morbid social commentary on this for now). The movie appeals to a demographic rarely catered to by media bigwigs. Success! Jennifer becomes famous by adopting the persona of someone already famous. A famous singer. Cut to music career.

Jennifer can’t sing. She’s not terrible, but she isn’t much better than above average. However, she’s moderately famous, especially in key niche demographics in the Hispanic community, people that became fans through Selena. Jennifer can dance. And she is very, shall we say, presentable. This is more than enough for a successful pop album. Computers can wrench every passable note out of Jennifer’s throat through a myriad of compressions, filters, edits, and now and then a healthy slathering of vocoder. Everything works! Instant platinum success! Jennifer is big now. The Latin angle was hot that year. Now Jennifer is J. Lo, a name given to her by fans.

A film career based only on fame and a music career based on a film role. But the layers of hyperreality have only just begun. Soon, Jennifer herself becomes fodder for the advancement of J. Lo. High-profile relationship with Puff Daddy. Scandalous Grammy dress. High profile breakup with Puff Daddy. More headlines, more fame. More movies, of continually less edgy nature. The Cell, Angel Eyes, the current Maid in Manhattan -- all star vehicles in the traditional sense of the word, movies that ride a celebrity’s fame and thereby enhance it (The Cell melded this with state-of-the-art special effects for an awkward attempt at wider appeal). These movies are inconceivable without J. Lo; paradoxically, J. Lo’s characters are such blank templates that any actor could fill the role. J. Lo’s emotions rarely veer far from winningly sensitive and obsequiously nurturing. Of course, the roles have no real relationship to the films (which are barely films at all). The only relationship they have is as PR to J. Lo. J. Lo, the public presence. Not a real person. A hyperreal person.

Jennifer seems to have sensed something, and maybe her fans do too. In her subsequent albums, she maintains one thing again and again: she’s real. The title of her most successful song: “I’m Real” (the remix, natch). What does it mean for J. Lo to be real?

You like the way I dress
The way I wear my hair
Show me off to all your friends
Baby, I don't care
Just as long as you tell them who I am
Tell them I'm the one that made you give a damn
Don't ask where I've been
Or what I'm gonna do
Just know that I'm here with you
Don't try to understand
Baby, there's no mystery
‘Cause you know how I am

I’m real.

J. Lo seems to comment on her own hyperreal career right in the lyrics. She doesn’t care how she’s shown, as long as she’s sufficiently branded. Then she feints, exhorting the listener (fan, consumer, J. Lo buyer) to focus, not on the past or the future, but on the present. Does she ever say what it means to be real? Of course not. It’s a foregone conclusion. You know how she is. Real. In a really real way. There’s no mystery. Her newest single even states that to her “it’s like breathing.” Staying real. She does it naturally, all the time.

Clearly, “I’m real” means quite the opposite of what it is supposed to mean. It should affirm that J. Lo has a firm basis in Jennifer Lopez. But we know this is not the case. Not just because Baudrillard told us there is no real. It’s because J. Lo is the only thing that matters now. Not Jennifer. Not Jenny From the Block. When she says, “I’m real” we have no choice to conclude the opposite. Here we are again. Signs without reference. Cause and effect breaking down.

What should we conclude from this strange, paradoxical tone in J. Lo’s music? An identity crisis perhaps (which may explain this rash of marriages)? Whatever the reason, it strikes an odd note in a pop landscape that openly flaunts its lack of traditional notions of authenticity (O-Town’s career would make for another interesting examination in pop hyperreality). Perhaps Baudrillard can take a minute out of his busy day to write some lyrics that would fit J. Lo a little better. “I’m Hyperreal” anybody?

By: Gavin Mueller


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