L to R: Detail from “Alligator Man” episode of Atlanta; detail from Zeal & Ardor’s Devil is Fine album cover (2017); Sheila Bridges, Tarnish (2017); Janet Jackson (1987); detail from Kia LaBeija Featuring the Moon (2018).
Black One Shot is a series that stages brevity and precision in response to a single work of black art, contemporary and/or prescient. Using a 1000-word conceit, it references the pressures on scholars and curators to present complex discussions and formulations of blackness for public consumption, political action, and academic relevance. It disputes staid frameworks of interpretation that cannot or will not account for the speculative, ambivalent, and irreconcilable ways of black forms. It speaks to the ongoing case for black lives and art mattering. And it conjures up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object.
As an assembly of strategies, impulses, and circuits, these pieces conduct an historiographic and aesthetic review of how blackness and the arts demand and distend. We circulate them as a new measure of art criticism, one keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness, pleasure, and critical contemplation. Black visual and expressive culture and all to which it is connected is better for these queries.
With 30+ contributors, b.O.s. will run the course of summertime, when the living is (un)easy. We invite you to follow and share as new work is issued every two weeks. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, editor of ASAP/J.
This fourth transmission (7.16.18) features Glenda R. Carpio on Atlanta‘s “Alligator Man” episode, Charles “Chip” Linscott on Zeal and Ardor’s “Blood in the River,” Macushla Robinson on Sheila Bridges’ Tarnish, Textures Material Culture Lab on Janet Jackson’s Skinny Jeans, and Keith M. Harris on Kia LaBeija Featuring the Moon.
– Michael Boyce Gillespie and Lisa Uddin (Editors)
From the moment Janet Jackson flicks on the lights in her “The Pleasure Principle” video (1987), to the time she grabs her denim jacket to leave, she is captivating. Her dance moves, her shaggy, doobie-wrap haircut, knee pads, midriff baring, front-tied shirt, and light-washed jacket all come together to tell an enthralling story about reclaiming power from a lover after a romance gone sour. The video’s visual richness emerges as Jackson moves through a warehouse while dappled light defines her silhouette clothed in a now iconic pair of skinny jeans. These jeans, faded, dark, and flexible, fit the video’s overall aesthetic—both of Jackson and of the enviable, minimally decorated warehouse loft.1 A close reading of the skinny Guess jeans—for which we all begged our parents after our idol sported them—reveals a fascinating politics of dress woven into their stretchy design. We are drawn to the way her jeans mediate the architectural space of the loft – that is, how the garment’s character facilitates access to and innovative movement through the space “itself,” and how, in turn, the space, in all its modular dimensions, becomes possible through the garment. More, we are thinking of architecture as an intricately designed fabric, the tight black jeans guiding and directing where and how Jackson’s movements are executed. The jeans and the loft space are ultimately engaged in a dance where each acclimates to the other allowing for a dynamic and fluid interplay between freedom and control.2
Through this interplay, Jackson develops a different sense of style and place than the traditional dance studio or aerobic gym that was ubiquitous in 1980s popular culture. Her sleek performance enters the fashion scene at a time when workout chic was a popular trend among young white women: brightly colored leggings paired with graphic leotards, leg warmers, and a baggy T-shirt were an everyday staple inside and outside the aerobics studio. Yet, in the video, Jackson sports all-black, offering up an alternative workout wear. Like her garments, Jackson’s choreography (by Barry Lather instead of her usual choreographer, Paula Abdul) contrasts with the hyper-feminine aesthetic of 80s exercise culture. Her tight jeans give her enough room to bounce, pop, leap, and sway, perfectly fitting her sexy, athletic form as she, solo, executes martial-arts-influenced movements (in a space more dojo than fitness center)—replete with back flips, splits, and dizzying spins—that are well outside her usual jazz dance lexicon.
Jackson’s worn, ashy black jeans have a punk vibe that channel a style beyond what was crystallizing in popular culture as essential hip hop fashion, and in a seemingly private space beyond the public alleys and parks where hip hop dance was supposedly honed. Breakdancing films such as Wild Style (Charlie Ahearn,1983), Breakin’ (Joel Silberg, 1984) and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (Sam Firstenberg, 1984) introduced hip hop culture to a mass audience. Jackson’s “Pleasure Principle” vernacular aesthetic are a close relative to that of the b-boys and b-girls stealing the scene in these dance and fashion-centered films. Yet, her black Adidas aren’t the classic hip-hop shell-toes made popular by Run-DMC, but the boxing-style flat-soled sneakers popular in the 1980s punk and skateboarding scenes. Emphasizing the punky quality of Jackson’s faded jeans and shoes is the wrist bands and bandages she wears as accessories, like her brother Michael.3 Poor white kids on the streets of downtown Manhattan weren’t the only ones defining punk style, nor were black youth only popularizing baggy jeans. While baggy jeans have become synonymous with hip hop culture, most youth of the so-called hip hop generation were wearing slim-fitting jeans in the 1980s.4 Sure, there is some similarity in her look to the androgyny of the Ramones: with the shaggy bowl cut and the long bangs that graze her eyelashes plus those skinny jeans. However, Jackson is accessing the liberatory, transgressive spirit of punk fashion while also showing its “uptown” roots: there are black punks in black communities. The warehouse loft setting especially, which manages to simultaneously communicate abandonment and exclusivity (access that most street youth would not have but would have desired), becomes a key signifier, an alternative way to see and understand the variegation within black, “urban” youth cultures and style politics.
And so, the jeans are a bridge between time, space, and musical genres that elucidate the expansive terrain of black ‘80s fashion. Jackson borrows from and innovates black girl “alternative” styles, sitting, sartorially, between soul-funk rockers Betty Davis and Labelle’s Afrofuturistic, intergalactic space suit punk, Afro-British punk icon Poly Styrene’s eclectic hat game, and percussionist Sheila E’s “Glam Rock,” with its lace and crushed velvet wares. These women, among others, introduced us to new styles and spaces (the stage, the dive bar, the interior of a space ship), and also showed us—through movement and sonic interpretation—how to mediate those spaces. Jackson is a vital link in a black-girl punk/alternative genealogy whose role as such renders late-twentieth and early twenty-first century artists such as Kelis, Alexis Brown (of Straight Line Stitch), and Janelle Monáe all the more legible (and less exceptional).5
The conversation around these skinny jeans, however, isn’t merely about structures and bending time and genre because, ultimately, Jackson uses the space of the loft to physically work through her own heartbreak. Garments live on the body. Thus, it makes sense to consider how the fitted jeans serve as both a conduit and incubator of human emotions.6 In this case, Jackson’s jeans express her power (and vulnerability) to assert her feelings and needs, a heart pouring (or purging) that ultimately compels her to leave her lover.7 She vigorously dances through, across, and out of pain. It’s an articulation that we can clock because of the elastic quality of the jeans that hug every inch of Jackson’s sculpted body. The jeans are her “breakup body” garment that archive her gritty emotional and spatialized pilgrimage from heartbreak to liberation to, finally, control.
This is one of five essays from the fourth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:
b.O.s. 4.1 / “Alligator Man” / Glenda R. Carpio
b.O.s. 4.2 / “Blood in the River” / Charles P. (“Chip”) Linscott
b.O.s. 4.3 / Tarnish / Macushla Robinson
b.O.s. 4.5 / Kia featuring the moon / Keith M. Harris
About the editors:
Michael Boyce Gillespie is Associate Professor of Film at The City College of New York, CUNY. He has published on film theory, black visual and expressive culture, and contemporary art. Recent work includes co-editing (w/ Racquel Gates) the “Dimensions in Black: Perspectives on Black Film and Media” dossier for Film Quarterly 71.2 (Winter 2017). He is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). He is currently working on his next book tentatively titled Death Grips: Film Blackness and Cinema in the Wake. He would rather live in Oakland than Wakanda.
Lisa Uddin is Associate Professor of Art History and Visual Culture Studies and Paul Garrett Fellow at Whitman College. She has published widely on race, space, and human/nonhuman entanglements in modern and contemporary visual culture, and is the author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). Her current book project, Sunspots: Black Cosmologies of California Design, considers black expressive practices in formations of California architecture and urbanism since the 1960s. She is mid-tone beige.
- Jackson’s “Pleasure Principle” look is a drastic departure from those in the “Nasty” and “Control” videos.
- We are intentionally moving beyond the fashion industry’s usage of the “architectural” as a way to describe how haute couture designers such as Pierre Balmain (Balmain) and Rei Kawakubo (Comme des Garçons) incorporate architectural elements into their designs. Instead, we are invested in employing architectural theory to analyze how dressed bodies, like architecture, determine how we understand, confront, and engage with a space. This piece is a first step toward fleshing out our theory. For more on bodies, clothing, and architecture see: Dorinne Kondo, About Face: Performing Race in Fashion and Theater (New York: Routledge, 1997); Anne Anlin Cheng, Second Skin: Josephine Baker & the Modern Surface (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
- Jackson revisits this black, skinny jeans punk look in the video for her hard rock track “Black Cat,” on her album Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989).
- Baggy jeans did not become massively popular until the early 1990s. Yet, there is an erasure of this early hip hop moment where slim-fitting jeans were in style. This flattening of hip hop fashion history further distorts the blurred lines between hip hop and black punk cultures.
- For more on punks of color see: Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, “Why is the History of Punk Music so White?” Dazed, November 12, 2015 <http://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/28372/1/why-is-the-history-of-punk-music-so-white>, Mimi Thi Nguyen, “Minor Threats,” Radical History Review, Vol. 2015, No. 122 (Spring 2015): 11-24, Mimi Thi Nguyen, “Riot Grrrl, Race, and Revival,” Women and Performance, Vol. 22, No. 2-3 (Winter 2012): 173-196. On black women rock, funk, and punk genealogies see: Emily J. Lordi, The Artful, Erotic, and Still Misunderstood Funk of Betty Davis, New Yorker, May 2, 2018. <https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-artful-erotic-and-still-misunderstood-funk-of-betty-davis>
- For more on clothing and the affective, see Tanisha C. Ford, “A Black Girl Song for Dajerria,” QED, Vol. 4, No.3 (Fall 2017): 156-160.
- Art was truly reflecting life: Jackson had recently left her real-life husband, James DeBarge, after his drug addiction had become unmanageable. It is quite plausible that this song/video was a meditation on that broken marriage; VH1, Driven: Janet Jackson, 2001. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Ut7K8NIgkg>