This isn’t a comeback, because Grace Jones never left.
Photos by The1point8
Grace Jones is floating. She is hovering through the crowd, sitting on the shoulders of a man who has been gifted the task of giving one of the most iconic performers of the last half-century a piggyback ride. Jones smiles, screams, and sings her way above us.
She closes her eyes and tilts her head, adorned by a flowing white horse’s mane, towards the sky. She is naked, except for some body paint, a corset, and heels. Her breasts are high and her eyes are focused.
On this Sunday night at LA’s FYF Festival, Jones is surrounded by a sea of hands, many of them holding phones, because this is 2016, and we all want to take this moment home with us as the Jamaican-born artist (singer/model/actress/fashion icon/muse/grandmother, to name a few) makes her way past us and back to the mainstage.
“We’re going to church. We’re going to chuuuurch,” she announces, before performing a brief rendition of “Amazing Grace.” The move is both a nod and a middle finger to the claustrophobic religious upbringing of her youth, from a woman who would go on to fashion herself into a goddess of her own design, garnering the praise of millions around the world. What a trick.
Jones’s 75-minute set pulls largely from her 80s catalog, a blend of disco, funk, reggae, synth and pop. On 1982’s “My Jamaican Guy,” she slings her long legs over a metal pole while the rest of her stretches and shimmies to the beat. Enduring ass-shaker “Pull Up to the Bumper” is delivered with the same delicious raunch it invoked 35 years ago, when some radio stations refused to play it due to the suggestive nature of lyrics like "Pull up to my bumper baby / In your long black limousine / Pull up to my bumper baby / Drive it in between." Her voice is low and strong, her delivery tight and powerful.
Jones’s musical output might not enjoy the mainstream familiarity of contemporaries like Prince, David Bowie, and most everyone who emerged out of Andy Warhol’s factory, but the Grace Jones experience is fundamentally less about the hits than the thrill of seeing her perform, a legend vital as ever in her element. Her primary medium is, perhaps, self-expression more than it is music, delivered with such force and conviction that she also demands, and creates, total presence from and for her audience. In this distracted world, an experience that visceral is as refreshing as it is difficult to pull off. Jones makes it all look easy, even while down on all fours and in heels.
As she digs into tracks like "I Need a Man" and "Corporate Cannibal," I dance harder, and find myself wanting more. I want to dress better, strut harder, and express myself more profoundly.
Even among FYF’s exceptionally-curated lineup—which also included Vince Staples, Tame Impala, Blood Orange, ANOHNI, and Kendrick Lamar—Jones is a standout booking. She has managed to exist outside the redundant, cannibalistic booking cycle and the same corporate-owned festivals across the country, and; now in her late 60s (she claims not to know her age), she exists outside pop culture’s obsession over how women performers age, or act; she exists outside of any whims except her own, and for that reason seeing her will always be a treat, and never a trend. This isn’t a comeback, because Grace Jones never left. The reunited LCD Soundsystem may have technically been the evening’s headliners, but as James Murphy noted, they were basically doing cleanup duty for the night’s real star.
“If you missed Grace Jones you fucked up,” Murphy went on to announce multiple times during his band’s performance. “You just fucked up. I don't want to tell you, but you're going to find out tomorrow from your friends that that were there, you fucked up.”
As Jones writhes on, Beyonce, Rihanna, and Britney Spears are respectively gyrating on stage at MTV’s Video Music Awards. Jones’s influence on each is undeniable, a point she underscored upon calling out Bey, Miley, Gaga and others in her autobiography for the sin of biting her style, and the even worse offense of not doing it that well. Unlike most modern pop arbiters, whose images are controlled to the point of total alienation, and whose sonic output is often part of an overarching marketing plan, Jones feels perpetually raw, spontaneous, and dangerous. If the younger queens of pop by all account slayed their respective performances, on the other side of the country, Jones embodied the ever-evolving font from which they have all flowed.
“We’ve got a club, love, and drug party!” Jones exclaims ahead of 1980’s “Love Is the Drug,” performed beneath a single spotlight. Her silver sequined bowling hat shimmers like a human mirrorball. With each song comes a new costume: a spiked, gold-plated skull mask, a variety of billowing black capes, a tulle headpiece, and a beaded chest plate, in turns looking like a cyborg, a panther, and Maleficent. She jokes about the importance of taking your drugs before going through airport security; she pole dances; and she does it all in front of her keyboardist son.
She’ll raze it all before the night is through, punctuating the performance by getting doused in red paint and then hula hooping for the duration of 1985’s “Slave to the Rhythm,” the camera closing in on tight shots of her corseted hips. It is surreal and spectacular. I fail to take a single good photo.
Katie Bain cannot hula hoop. Follow her on Twitter.
The1point8 is a photographer based in LA. Follow him on Instagram.