One image has stuck to my brain from childhood, one of many, but this one stayed a little stronger and lasted a little longer. For years I remembered a figure wrapped in bandages in front of a microphone. The lights moved, the music started, and they – whoever they were – slowly began to unpeel their costume, shucking themselves free of the fabric. A phrase came to me, one I’d always remember. I watched this figure and thought… ‘mummy man’. Somehow, while they slowly unwrapped themselves on national television, I thought of mummies in bandages. Yet my babyish brain also translated this figure as a man. Mummy, a word also meaning mother, is a role I associated with a woman because I knew nothing else. Man, of course, meant man which was me and my brothers and my dad. A kid in ’80s Scotland knew that boys were boys and girls were girls and there was nothing in between. How limited! Back then, that was my entire experience in the world. So there it was on Wogan, a Mummy Man singing a song while unwrapping themself on the stage. Their face was covered yet I assumed the person performing their song was a man. I watched completely enthralled by what I was watching on the telly.
Did I understand? No, yet somehow…a deeper understanding was forming, something about identity, gender, and the line in between. This, of course, was my introduction to Grace Jones. The clip was a segment on Wogan. Grace Jones was already an international icon, an androgynous pop superstar, and a cinematic idol. Grace Jones looked like pure power. My sisters knew all about her and at some point gave me a little talk when I asked. According to them, Grace Jones was going to be in the new James Bond film, which they were going to see because of Duran Duran. But what about Grace?
Years later, I was able to buy her albums, listen to her songs. Nightclubbing is one of those effortlessly cool, completely seminal records that rightly cut through all the noise in order to impact. I listen to it on occasion, needing the right mood. But when I press play, I know I’m going to have pure quality. The songwriting, the vocals, and the backing tracks – deceptively complicated arrangements – are one hundred percent right. Years later I understood the full power of that moment on screen when I was a child, looking at Grace Jones on Wogan. Oh, I always understood, but now I know. Looking at the clip above, the first thing that strikes me is how completely baffled Terry Wogan is after the song. We take Lady Gaga’s Avant methodology for granted, but Grace was doing it decades earlier, utterly baffling people with her brilliance.
High fashion in pop music makes pop art, doesn’t it?
I think when you look back at your earlier years, the moments that are the strongest in your memory are the ones that mean the most to you. Sometimes, we don’t quite know why. Mostly, we do. Certain songs, books, and television talk to us in a language we immediately translate even if we don’t always understand the literal meaning at the time. Outsiders talk to other outsiders, our strangeness making us relate to each other. Grace Jones could be male or female or both or neither. I sometimes felt the same way. That one performance to promote a pop song undid everything I knew. When you don’t fit into neat little boxes, you always find something that makes sense of how you feel. For a quick moment all the way back in the mid-’80s, I found that on Wogan thanks to Grace Jones. That footage was proof there was more to the world. No longer were boys just boys and girls just girls. You could live in between, or be both, or neither. That night, I saw someone be themself without a care for how they looked to other people. Terry jovially tried to stifle his laughter. At least he tried. Not everyone did when I went to school, suffering the same kind of laughter. It wasn’t always easy to rise above that, but sometimes I’d half-remember that footage and replace the laughter with a better soundtrack and a voice that could only belong to Grace Jones.
What a lesson, what a teacher.