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“Looking back at New Jill Swing with, Um, a Glint of Umbrage, to Say the Least”

Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote in one of the great Sherlock Holmes stories something about how the detective character could spot a lie, or human fabrication, as differentiated from reality, on the basis of a complexity quality. That is, the man-made bits of fiction were differentiable from truths in that, ironically, they were not more complex and convoluted, but actually simpler. The idea was grounded in this one crucial quote that went something along the lines of that for great detail and great stories we must look to life itself, which is the arbiter of manifestations and circumstances that are too elaborate and uncanny for the human mind to ever muster.

I now give this syllogism some fairly unfortunate wheels, anyway, if I apply it to some of the foundational hits of early-’90s groups like TLC and Salt-N-Pepa, who you have to admit just seem like way too big of horn-balls to be real. Of course, everybody knows that sex sells [1], and da** it even seemed to work for these broads, as TLC would follow their ’92 debut Ooooooohhh… on the TLC Tip with hit singles from two subsequent albums, and Salt-N-Pepa would earn a slot at Woodstock ’94 with what was apparently their, um, direct approach to sexuality.

An apt credo to glean from this, though, might be that “Sex sells out,” and gives you, at least theoretically, the type of fame that belittles your true identity and makes you regret that you ever went after financial gain so unscrupulously. And not that “No Scrubs” is that much more inspiring, with its fervently materialistic bent, but it is sort of sad in a way (though also funny, I think, if you process it right) to hear Left Eye basically whore herself out verbally in lead group single “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg,” or their cohorts just go generally guy-crazy on “Shoop” or “What a Man” or whatever sort of agape, self-debasing schmooze you would happen to pick out of a hat from that group.

Now, I don’t think anybody should postulate that it’s easy, along these lines, to become a pop star and actually achieve any sort of LONGEVITY, particularly seeing as, again, these young people are almost certainly encouraged by the record company to stoop themselves to a sort of dispositional lowbrow carnality [2]. This is especially the case if, say, Tasmin Archer and Dionne Farris are any indication, who wove out the fresh and listenable tapestries of “Sleeping Satellite” and “I Know,” respectively, and then seemed to never be heard from again. Lenny Kravitz shone bright in his early days with “It Ain’t over ’til it’s over” but barely kept his feet stumbling through the forgettable “Are You Gonna Go My Way?”, to then have his career pretty much saved by Austin Powers and at least regain his feet with “Fly away” and “Again.” Hootie & the Blowfish, too, seemed to find their inspiration tank on their sophomore slump, in the wake of a hearty and robust debut album of Cracked Rear View.

But if the omnipresent repetition of that karaoke denizen Afroman, who per report gets his nutrients by crawling on a pile of elephant feces, is any indication, than a souring factor in this whole equation can be the general public themselves. This yields a situation where the sort of reductive, shameless sexuality emanating from pop music, and hence emitting friction to the true “muse” of the artist, so to speak, is less the vehicle of a “brainwashing” tactic on the part of the record company [3] than it is a case of just “giving them something they can feel” [4], to turn a phrase. Katy Perry represents a pretty useful sort of foil — “playing hard to get” in her music of kissing a girl and having “the eye of the tiger / The fighter” only to in real life get pinned with “sexual harassment,” per August 2019 storylines of a 2012 incident involving the singer grabbing a man’s underwear at a party and pulling them down, exposing his private jewels. He**, maybe we’re better off just getting this stuff out in the open in music! Anyway, it’s clear that the news itself can sometimes toggle that fine line between information and voyeurism, as can music itself, so maybe we should be championing these divas of New Jill Swing and their constructive illumination of humanity’s lustful vices and banal impulses.

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[1] There’s a hilarious segment in the Exile in Guyville DVD with the dude from Urge Overkill vetoing Phair’s initial, “corny” album cover ideas and telling her to go into the photo booth and show some skin, a method which ended up indeed spawning the actual cover.

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[2] Along these lines, I think what eventually killed Motown was its obstinate adherence of ostensibly exclusivity to a sort of romantic realm, when more vital might have been a unifying message for the black race instead of one that cleaves them along high school-caliber romantic trifling.

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[3]This is still just a theoretical statement, however, as obviously there are people who see the deleterious effects of excessive, synthetic sexuality in music, as does such a vulgarity emanate from movies and television commercials, just as culpably.

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[4] You won’t find a much more inspired but also culturally pliable (in the sense of endorsing a conventional sort of sexuality) radio hit from the ’90s than this En Vogue joint, “Giving Him Something He Can Feel,” with its being continually listenable and awe-inspiring and also earmarking a group that generally did a relatively good job of retaining their moral integrity in the face of the pretty skin machine [I mean that “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get it)” video seems a little less risqué in the light of, say, Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.”

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