Jenny on the Chopping Block

Kevin Fallon
The Daily Beast
Jenny on the Chopping Block

The best thing Jennifer Lopez has done in the past five years as a recording artist is fall on her ass.

No, this is not a J.Lo butt joke. This is a point.

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Back in 2009, Jennifer Lopez was performing her single “Louboutins”—a decent, not spectacular song that never really took off the way it was expected to—at the American Music Awards. In the middle of a complicated dance sequence that involved climbing a mountain of men, leaping off the top of their human staircase, and immediately launching into more intricate choreography, she fell. On her ass. And it was important.

You see, that might have been the last time we saw something that seemed genuine from Jennifer Lopez. Carefully and impressively, Ms. Lopez has spent the years since storming the music industry with 1999’s On the 6 crafting one of those Old Hollywood personas, where the celebrity is untouchable and every move is orchestrated to telegraph flawless perfection. It’s the kind of persona where celebrities aren’t humans, they’re gods.

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How Lopez has transformed herself to the point that “I’m still Jenny from the block” reads less like statement and more like a doth-protest-too-much mistruth is subject for another essay. But what it’s done to her career is apt for now, as her eighth studio album, A.K.A., is released today.

The 14 tracks on A.K.A. seem desperate to perfectly replicate every single movement that’s dominating pop music right now, in turn coming off superficial, inauthentic, and, at times, unlistenable—an ailment that could probably be attributed to J.Lo’s persona. Whereas Beyoncé strives to be #flawless, there’s a knowing, self-aware sense of fun to the way she does it. Lopez’s attempts at being flawless, in contrast, come off disconnected and uninteresting, especially in her music.

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There’s even arguable proof that music fans, presumably even those who still have a soft spot for Lopez’s best hits (“Waiting for Tonight,” “I’m Real”), have little interest in the persona that the star has steadily built over time. According to The Wrap, A.K.A. is expected to sell between 25,000 and 35,000 units this week, a pretty pathetic number for one of the most recognizable names in music. It’s not a surprising number, though, as each of Lopez’s albums have done successively worse commercially. Her first three albums went multi-platinum, but her fourth only managed gold status and the next three didn’t even approach that.

All of this raises the question: What is going on with J.Lo?

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She’s an actress who hardly acts (apologies to Ice Age: Continental Drift fans). She’s a singer who can’t get people to listen to her songs (did you even know Jennifer Lopez was releasing an album today?). She’s succeeding as a celebrity, sure. That American Idol money is nothing to scoff at, we're forever obsessed with who she is or isn’t dating, and it’s a pretty big deal to be asked to do the World Cup song, even if it is crap. Plus, we still care about her. (Hello, you’ve read at least this much of an examination of her career.)

But isn’t there something a little depressing about the fact that her music career has reached this nadir? Sure, Jennifer Lopez was never a groundbreaking artist, but she was a good one. “If You Had My Love” was silky-smooth with just the right amount of anguished yearning. “Let’s Get Loud” proved just how alive Lopez becomes when performing in a Latin element.  (See her recent tribute to Celia Cruz for more on that. Or just go watch Selena.) And millennials just need to look at a photo of her next to Ja Rule to feel sad about what’s been lost.

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A.K.A. is, at best, a hodgepodge of rip-offs of other musicians’ styles and, at worst, just horribly bland. It kicks off with the one-two punch of “A.K.A.,” which sounds like a track M.I.A. would’ve rejected for good reason, and “First Love,” which, sure, has a sort-of “Crazy In Love” beat driving it, to continue the Beyoncé comparisons, but lacks any sort of life in the vocals.

To that regard, there’s some irony in the fact that, midway through the album on a track called “Emotions,” Lopez wails in auto-tuned anguish, “Someone took my emotions…” The biggest problem with A.K.A. is just that. For all the cacophonous arrangements and genre schizophrenia the album assaults us with, there’s a startling lack of humanity or, yep!, emotions. (I heard they’ve been stolen. I also heard that they are kind-of crucial elements in music.)

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It’s actually the softer songs that stand out. “Never Satisfied” is a legitimately moving ballad, and the rare song on A.K.A. to allow Lopez to be unbridled, singing with a pleasurable lack of vocal restraint. Listen closely enough, and you can hear a bit of emotional catharsis.

And I think I actually heard a crack in her voice in “Let It Be Me.” Not because she was hitting a bum note, either—because she was feeling something. Backed with only a spare string arrangement, she sang with imperfections and it is the closest thing she has to a perfect song on the album—despite her apparently aggressively effort to polish each of the other tracks until they sparkle with generic perfection.

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Take, for example, the closing triplet of “Troubeaux,” “Expertease,” and “Same Girl,” three songs that are best categorized as easy listening meets urban pop. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard music that could be classified in that genre before, and I’m not sure it’s a good thing that I have now. Can music be both milquetoast and hard-hitting at the same time? It can now.

Not that her attempts at lively club bangers fare much better. There’s “I Luh Ya Papi,” which, what in the goddamned hell is this song? And “Tens,” with its opening call to “clap, bitches, clap / snap, bitches, snap,” seems to attempt dance-floor camp but misses the mark entirely, landing a bull’s-eye on failed parody instead. Other songs, like “So Good,” are downright grating.   

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On the other hand, “Booty” is an example of Lopez venturing into the campier arenas of pop music and succeeding. “She got the boom to shake the room,” she sings on a track that belongs on the current charts alongside deplorable pop genius like Jason Derulo’s “Wiggle” and Pitbull’s “Timber.” The staccato beat guides you to the dance floor, the Ibiza-ready swells to keep you grooving when you get there, and the silly-sexy lyrics that are perfect to belt along with like the fools we are.

The song is asinine, but it’s fun, which is more than can be said about much of pop music and certainly more than can be said of much of A.K.A. This perfect persona Lopez has created has zapped her of much of her relatability, especially in her music. But it’s also sucked with it much of her fun, too.

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Will the tanking of A.K.A. kill Jennifer Lopez’s career? No. As long as J.Lo is Instagramming selfies in a bikini and no makeup and looking impossibly beautiful, Lopez will have a career. But here’s hoping that it will chip away at whatever this self-consciousness is that has her so eager to prove she’s unattainably perfect that her music, which used to be so good, now misses the mark entirely.

Maybe then she’ll understand that, in today’s world, it’s not a bad thing to be goofy and vulnerable and raw and a little damaged. That it’s OK to fall on her ass. That we may even want her to, too. And not because we’re rooting for her to fail, but because we want her to succeed.

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