J. Lo Keeps It Un-Real

Jennifer Lopez can't forget to stay real. To her, it's like breathing. 

Apparently, she doesn't want you to forget it either, given that she keeps singing about it. The genius of this repetition is that it makes the "real" seem (almost) real: You hear it enough, it feels like, well, breathing.

Even if what's real for her and what's real for you aren't exactly the same thing, the J. Lo version clearly has its appeal. Her up-from-the-Bronx story has everything going for it, from early desires (those shots of young Lopez in dance class that appear on Driven suggest she once had an almost endearing vulnerability; she's so energetic, so eager), to rapturous romances to tabloidish thrills.

In the retelling, the story expands. As Diane Sawyer puts it, "She's not just a star. She's a kind of supernova." And it has inspired the J. Lo machine to monumental acts of imagination, not to mention reiteration ("I'm still, I'm still ..."). 

Recently, she's taken to dropping a realness-affirming single at the same time she's appearing in broadly unreal romantic comedies. So, for instance, she'll proclaim, "I'm Real" (in original and remix versions) while starring in The Wedding Planner and planning a marriage, say, to Cris Judd. (The record and movie opened at the top of their respective charts in 2001; the marriage did less well.)

This year, Lopez is working the same combination, with the release of a fourth album ("This is Me ... Then," selling 314,132 copies in its first week, but who's counting?), a hit single ("Jenny From the Block," featuring homegirl with very real-looking MCs Jadakiss and Styles), a non-meltdown interview with Diane Sawyer concerning her big pink diamond from the Sexiest Man Alive ("He is my partner, he is my best friend"), and, of course, the feel-goody Cinderella movie, Maid in Manhattan.

As the marketing for the album included -- or morphed into -- marketing for the movie and the marriage, "This Is Me ... Then" seemed almost anti-climatic. Still, it handles its business much like her previous albums have done: It's pleasant and insubstantial, less dancey than ballady this time, attributed to her so-very-sincere love with La Ben, though her slender voice is hardly the sort to manage big sound. 

Laced through with hip-hop beats and dreamy keyboard work, "This is Me ... Then" is blithely out of touch, because it can be. Her representation of a "real" Jennifer, then or now, needn't expose anything beyond the wealth of non-information (and gossip that passes as news and information) that's already out there.

"I can be anything you need," Lopez coos at the end of "The One" (which borrows concept, sound and lyrics from "You Are Everything"). 

And it's true, that is precisely what Lopez can be, much as her first (and very smart) video, for "If You Had My Love," narrated, with its emphasis on fantasy and voyeurism.

The new CD comes with a mini-brochure for "Glow," her "fresh, sexy, clean" fragrance/body lotion/shower gel-line, and that's pretty much what it feels like: a means to sell you something else -- mostly, Lopez the Dream Girl. The tracks cover limited thematic ground having to do with her inspiring new romance. Both the deft opener, "Still," and the cover of Carly Simon's "You Belong to Me" feature surprisingly airy arrangements, with the elegant Omar Hakim on drums.

In keeping with Lopez's penchant for profitable duets-with-rappers, the album also includes a respectable duet with LL Cool J, "All I Have," which they performed with earnest charm on the Today Show Dec. 6 for the students at Kips Bay High School, her alma mater. 

The kids loved the show, and no wonder: They can almost imagine being Dream Girl, making the leap she's made, with limited skills, ferocious determination, and an apparently unshakable faith in herself. 

A little girl asked her, "Jennifer, how important are family values to you?" Do you wonder what she said? In fact, after affirming the value of family, she recalled childhood details, sincerely: "I hated Spanish music ... All you ever ate was Puerto Rican food and ... for variety, you wanted something else. Can we have McDonald's? Can we have pizza? Will you please make some spaghetti? You know what I mean?" The kids nodded; they knew.

Lopez's love songs are less sincere -- seeming. Inspired by you-know-who, these include "Loving You," "Baby I Love You," and "Dear Ben." They are syrupy-synthy declarations of foreverness, the last with these lyrics: "I think God made you for me, / A mix of passion and fidelity." You're happy for her, and for Ben, too, but the point's been made already, more than once and in more than one venue.

Then again, again, Lopez has a gift for repetition. Still relatively new to the industry's mega-echelons (as compared to Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey), J. Lo has early on figured out how to use the overexposure to her advantage. She's not fighting it but rather turns it back around on the would-be invaders, who are, of course, renowned for repetition. 

Feature writers and interviewers (print and TV) like to rehearse her history, so public in its repetition: "Fly Girl" to Selena to On the 6, as well as her relationships, marriages to "waiter" Ojani Noa and "choreographer" Judd, press-ready romance with Puffy, and now, the engagement with Affleck. Jennifer Lopez's new album, "This is Me ... Then."

As lovely as Lopez appears in almost every public appearance -- is there a star who smiles more readily for photographers? -- the best-selling narratives remain the ones where she's a "diva" demanding candles and 250-thread count sheets (and recently, according to the Star, a pre-nup); a serial bride (she's already been compared unfavorably to Liz Taylor); or a selfish temptress: Noa dissed her in the New York Mirror (Nov. 29), claiming that she dumped him and will dump Affleck. "Jennifer does what Jennifer wants," he says, "To hell with anyone else." Her response to this doubtless daunting coverage is actually admirably calculated. She meets it head-on. When paparazzi beleaguered her with the new beau (even more than they had with the others, save Puffy), Jen and Ben took their own show to the media, holding hands, smooching for cameras, and, in the video for "Jenny From the Block," doing it all again to a beat. 

She tells Sawyer on Primetime Live, "A lot of times they catch us ... They'll be across the street and then we'll see them after and be like, is that a camera across the street, underneath that car?" 

In MTV's Making the Video, Affleck appeared frequently, hanging out on set as well as performing as Ben Affleck for the video scenes that emulated press harassment (the movie star swore that he wouldn't do another music video: "They don't make any sense," he whined, and he's right, but then, neither do most movies).

Lopez appears variously dressed and undressed, and everywhere -- introduced in her room, she's shot by a voyeuristic video camera, suggesting that she's monitored even in her "private" moments. The media vultures shoot her through windows, reading Inquisitor magazine, on the video set, on a yacht, at the Barefoot Bar and Grill, at the gas station. 

Repeated freeze frames suggest that the couple has little respite: Every time they turn around (and even when they don't), someone's snapping their picture. Lopez knows how to play this game: She comes right back with the sappiest of lyrics and the tritest of beats, just daring you to forget the damn song.

"Nothin' phony, don't hate on me," Lopez sings. "What you get is what you see." Now, you know that's not true. Everything about Lopez is coiffed, polished and perfected. But the video appears to grant you views of the private, spontaneous Jennifer, juxtaposed with the primped, shiny-bodied and shopping Lopez. 

The fact that these private images are "explicit" -- with her naked breasts blurred out for MTV consumers and her topless sunbathing and watery frolicking with Ben framed as "playfully seductive" -- briefly landed this video in the secondary press as an object of titillation, and in the "dirty vs. degrading" debate recently raised by MuchMusic (including, no surprise, Christina's video for "Dirrty," as well as the usual hubbub over Britney, Trina, Kim, et. al.).

The very imprecision of this distinction -- dirty or degrading -- is addressed by "Jenny From the Block," however obliquely. The "morality" of display, of the difference between private and public, is partly determined by the presumed producer's intentions (pornography intends stimulation; gallery art might not), but it's more precisely a function of cultural anxiety. Lopez has refined her design: She's at ease with her spectacular body and offers just enough of it for view -- on magazine covers, in videos, in movies -- that she's repeatedly voted "Sexiest" woman/Latina/star/artist/ body. 

She knows enough to appreciate what she calls "my public," listing them, along with her life and God, as objects of her genuine affection. Whether or not you believe her, the refrain -- "Used to have a little, now I have a lot, / No matter where I go, I know where I came from" -- makes sure you're aware of the fantasy poles of her self-definition.

Affection of all sorts gets another fantasy-go in Maid in Manhattan. Based on a John Hughes story, written by Kevin (Working Girl, Meet Joe Black) Wade and directed by Wayne Wang, this "ethnic" modification of Pretty Woman-meets-Working Girl uses the "iconic" Lopez strategically. 

She plays Marisa Ventura, dedicated single mom, proud Bronx native, mostly respectful daughter, loyal friend. Every morning she rides the bus to school with her son, Ty (Tyler Garcia Posey, the kid Arnold cozied up to in Collateral Damage), then takes the subway to the Upper East Side, where she works as a maid at the upscale Beresford Hotel.

Stunning in her form-fitting uniform, Marisa "strives to be invisible" and treats guests with utmost care and attention to detail. This sets up the film's basic Cultural Insight: Rich, "upstairs" people are vain and selfish, and "downstairs" people -- including Marisa's maid-buddy, Stephanie (Marissa Matrone), and butler-father-figure, Lionel (Bob Hoskins) -- are earthy and compassionate.

To illustrate: Marisa "creatively" leaves a bundle of lavender on the pillow of one notorious diva, but Caroline (Natasha Richardson) only tosses it aside, distracted by a phone conversation about her favorite topic, her own ridiculous love life.

This moralized split is underlined by a raced one: The hotel clients and managers (those with speaking parts, anyway) are white, and the maids are mostly Latina, black and Asian. This makes the "us" and "them" dynamic more interesting to think about than it is to watch, in that the film assumes viewers' identification with the maids. This connection is somewhat mediated by the fact that Marisa's best friends are simple stereotypes -- for instance, the lusty "big black mama" -- but their central function is to boost Marisa. And she looks fabulous: diligent, reliable, smart and energetic.

And real, of course. Though she wants to apply for a management position, she also knows that "maids" (however you understand that term to resonate here, in terms of race or class) are rarely moved up that particular ladder. When Stephanie submits an application for her, their boss (Frances Conroy) sniffily agrees that she just might make the grade, because "anything is possible."

Whatever Marisa's ambitions, this distinction between classes remains in place until she meets the man of her dreams, a classically beautiful scion of a wealthy political family and U.S. Senate candidate-to-be, Chris Marshall (Ralph Fiennes). The crossing-over is helped by the fact that he walks in on Marisa while she's trying on Ms. Super Snob's Dolce & Gabbana white wool suit, and mistakes her for someone "like him."

That said, Chris is also coded as a "rebel" who might consider dating out of his class, when you see that he'd rather play with his dog than adhere to the schedule set up by his nitty manager, Jerry (Stanley Tucci, who has now, officially, played this type too often). Chris is the cardboardiest of Prince Charmings, hanging onto every word that Marisa utters concerning life in the projects (because, she admits vaguely, she grew up around there, and besides, he's plainly clueless and happy being so), resiliently unaware that Marisa is lying to him for days and, once they share a blissful night together, willing to marry her even when he learns of her elaborate deception.

More tiresomely, Marisa's service industry friends all aid in her deception, dressing her in a gorgeous gown, matching slippers, and a Harry Winston necklace for a ball (or, a fundraiser). Stephanie sends her on her way, teary with delight: "For one night, you're living it for all of us!"

In the world of "Jenny From the Block," this is a serious, vaguely honest reverie. Even if Lopez looks unreal, she really is real. No matter the entourage, the super-duper mainstream fiance, or the diva rep, she knows where she came from. 

"Don't be fooled by the rocks that I got," she sings. "I'm still, I'm still Jenny from the block." 

She's living it for all of us.

Cynthia Fuchs, an associate professor of English, African American studies, and film & media studies at George Mason University, is the film/TV editor for PopMatters and film reviewer for Philadelphia Citypaper. Her reviews appear in PopPolitics each week.


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