By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
In mid-December, the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper ran an interview with Mary J. Blige, in which she said, “The blacker you are, the worse it is for you [in America]. If you’re mixed, you’ve got a shot. If you cater to what white America wants you to do and how they want you to look, you can survive. But if you want to be yourself, and try to do things that fit you, and your skin, nobody cares about that. At the end of the day, white America dominates and rules. And it’s racist.” Needless to say, that interview was a hot e-mail item, linked on countless Web sites, and the source of not a little controversy. But Blige’s candid observations were draped in unintentional comedy (or tragedy) by the posters hawking her new album, The Breakthrough, which had already papered American cities coast to coast by the time the interview dropped. On those posters, Blige is caught black-and-white style — skin lightened, eyebrows plucked and dyed, and blond hair twisted in a Heidi braid. And in the PR shot accompanying the new CD, her flowing blond locks and heavily airbrushed face reveal acquiescence, not resistance, to the cultural forces she lambasts in her quote. Granted, Blige has been rocking blond wigs and weaves for years. At least now she’s upped her hair-glue game. Maybe that’s “progress.”
Blige doesn’t much sing about the issues she discussed with The Guardian — not explicitly, anyway. But her voice has, in part, been shaped by them. Much of the domestic violence, emotional abuse and self-hatred she’s sung about from the beginning are side effects and consequences of racial hierarchy and power plays. The anguish, the exhaustion, the fury and the sadness in her vocals — even those eardrum-splattering sounds resulting from her legendary pitch problem — all seep from wounds larger and older than the first-person woes outlined in her discography. In her actual lyrics, however, Blige has rarely lifted her eyes from her own navel to acknowledge a larger world — except to thank fans who share her pain, and to offer herself as their patron saint.
The Breakthrough is so named because it’s supposedly a reflection of Blige’s newfound vocal prowess and her shedding of negativity. And it is that. Partially. But it could also easily be subtitled, “Yeah, I’m happy now . . . but remember when I wasn’t?” (And make no mistake, even happy Blige sounds like she’ll cut you.) Song titles like “Enough Cryin’,” “Gonna Break Through,” “Good Woman Down,” “Take Me As I Am,” “Baggage” and “Father in You” let you know that she ain’t straying too far from the script that’s made her rich and famous. On the spoken intro to “Good Woman Down,” Blige somberly states, “In my life, I seen it all. And now it’s time for me to pass on this knowledge to you, all my troubled sisters. This is my gift to you.” From there the song spins a tale about young Mary watching her daddy beat down her mommy, with Blige vowing that she’d never let a man lay hands on her. Except she does. Correction: She did. Now she’s a survivor dispensing advise, singing songs of devotion.
The embarrassingly facile “Father In You” (“When I was a baby/I didn’t get a hug from daddy/That’s why I need a hug from you?.?.?.”) is a somber ode to her husband; “Take Me as I Am” starts off with Blige speaking about herself in third person (“She’s been down and out/She’s been wrote about/She’s been talked about, constantly/She’s been up and down/She’s been pushed around”) before segueing into a grim first-person victory chant (“You know I’ve been holdin’ on/Try to make me weak/But I still stay strong/Put my life all up in these songs/Just so you can feel me.”). And “Ain’t Really Love” has a chorus filled with the philosophizing of high school girls recounting imbalanced love affairs for Maury Povich. What becomes clear after a while is that, despite almost all the songs sweeping toward codas of enlightenment and self-discovery, Blige is still trapped in a self-scribed iconography of assault-and-battery survivor and Lifetime movie-of-the-week champion. She keeps pumping the well of victimization and Oprah-esque heroism — not only because that’s what sells, but because that’s a huge part of how she sees herself as a person and artist.
Her lyrics are prose poems that unfold personal narratives of struggle and triumph, continuously circling back to grief and wrongdoing before tacking on bruised happy endings. Pop-psych analysis and solutions peppering the songs are meant to demonstrate growth and insight into past behavior, but what they really do is provide the professional victim’s egoistic high. In “Can’t Get Enough,” when she tells her man, “I love it when you tell me the truth about me,” what comes through is not her appreciation of his honesty, but the condensed, seemingly contradictory underlying sentiment: I love?.?.?.?me. And not in a healthy sense, but in a mired-in-my-own-shit-and-ego way. Perpetual lancing of one’s own wounds isn’t an act of healing, or even of brutal honesty. Eventually, it becomes an exercise in narcissism, and the pain recalled and the pain self-inflicted become fetishes.
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