GRACE JONES / “I’ve Done It Again”
The other day I happened to hear Grace Jones’ “I’ve Done It Again.” Right away, I made a mental note to write about it on BoL. Two reasons. First, because it’s always been a mysterious song for me: I don’t know what Grace is singing about or why. Second, because the tune is so different from Grace’s usual fare, including the rest of the album in question, that being 1981’s Nightclubbing.
Nightclubbing is best known for “Pull Up To The Bumper,” a Top 5 Billboard R&B hit that became one of Grace’s signature songs and which remains, in my opinion, one of the great club/funk jams of all-time. At least two other songs from the album are well-known: a cover of Bill Withers’ “Use Me,” during which Grace somehow manages to sound like she’s the one doing all the using (despite Bill’s lyrics to the contrary) and “Walking In The Rain,” with its persona-defining and slightly frightening line, “Feeling like a woman / Looking like a man.” There’s also the dub-ish “Feel Up,” a rare Grace Jones-composed piece (almost all of Grace’s popular recordings are covers or are written by or with collaborators). All four of these better-known songs from Nightclubbing are united by a similar tone: the instrumentation is almost rap-like in its austerity and hardness; and, each tune is supported by the same crisp drum licks and lean basslines (courtesy of Kingston’s Sly & Robbie, respectively). “I’ve Done It Again” breaks the mold.
The almost-maudlin sentimentality of the melody announces itself from the first notes. But given what we know about Grace Jones, one fully expects Grace to come in swinging with closed fists, maybe with a derisive chuckle or a sarcastic throwaway line. This is, after all, a woman who crafted an entire career out of unapproachability: the iciness of her lyrical interpretations; the quasi-masculine yet somehow still feminine voice; that impossible body of hers—to me, she always looked like something that was never actually born, but was instead chiseled from a slab of black granite. And yet, when Grace sings the first line of “I’ve Done It Again,” she defies all of our preconceptions. She sounds practically fragile. But what’s the song about?
I’d always assumed it was an old song. (Meaning, much older than 1980 or ’81, when Grace recorded it.) With lines like, “First to cross the Mason-Dixon line / Overseeing wetbacks for some good California wine,” and the references to sailing and politics, the song seems to simultaneously romanticize and criticize European colonialism. It’s the same ambiguous tone struck by movies like On The Waterfront (which I happened to watch a few days ago), one which leaves you unable to decide which side of the fence the composer or director is on, or, if they even see the fence in the first place. I guess the line about LSD should’ve clued me in—I got hung up on the Roosevelt reference, but I’m pretty sure nobody was dropping acid back the ‘30s. In any event, whatever the song is about, I like it a lot. It’s an example of Grace Jones’ versatility and range as both a vocalist and as an interpreter of lyrics. Grace may be best known for her overwhelming personality and unique look, but she should be just as well known for her ability as a singer.
—Mtume ya Salaam
Are we afraid to live full out?
All authorities hate hard questions.
Good gracious, Grace Jones! She makes everything else seem conservative, like you're trying to hold on to something you really ought to leave behind. Which is what? Which is the illusion that there is safety and satisfaction in conformity. Is this not the society that enslaved/still enslaves us, except now instead of chains holding us, it’s consumables, the desire to have, to hold, to own things? Grace dumps on all of this and does so in an overtly visceral manner.
Grace’s image is all about confronting conformity at the subliminal emotional level. No political arguments. Just exposing the pleasure centers of our captivity.
One look at Grace doing her thing and we have to ask ourselves what is our thing about? Why does anyone watch Grace? Why do they care about what she does?
The best thing about Grace is that she causes us to question.
Hooray for questions!
Mtume, I have substituted the long version of “Use Me.”
Also, I have a little comment about the featured number, “I’ve Done It Again.” I do not have any answers as to what the song is really about. What I think is really note-worthy however is the implications of the song’s sound. On this number Grace sounds like Grace could have been Roberta Flack’s older sister, i.e. the one who could sing a little bit, but was really a pro at dramatic acting out. My point is that the sound of Grace Jones singing that we are most familiar with is a conscious projection rather than a result of Grace’s natural voice or a result of Grace not being able to “sing.” Grace was consciously being “Grace.” She knew what she was doing, had control of it, and was very deliberate in her send-up of the status quo.
And by the way, Mtume, I really, really like “I’ve Done It Again” almost as much as I dig Grace’s Slave To The Rhythm—and you know how much I dig that one. (See my salivatations re: Slave to the Rhythm).
Grace Jones. A true work of art.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Sunday, January 14th, 2007 at 12:52 am and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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