A Cure For Gravity (1999)
I’ll just admit right here at the top that this is a blog post on a book that is, shall we say, “in progress.” Hey, I’m on page 81! I just have been so terrible at updating this blog, I thought I could jumpstart my writing by commenting on something that is really fresh in my mind. So fresh, I’m still reading it!
I’m no Joe Jackson aficionado, though I liked a lot of his songs they played on KROQ back in the day. I haven’t closely followed his career, so I know very little about what he is doing currently and I know nothing about his personal life. I have, however, been thinking a lot about him in relationship to the New Wave masculinity project I’ve been (embarrassingly slow in) working on. As the project currently stands, I have Jackson and Elvis Costello grouped into the same category: Dorks Who Want Revenge. I’m not sure about that category title but I do think it characterizes a lot of Costello’s early work and though Jackson isn’t “dorky” in the same way Costello is, his early work does include an examination of masculinity that is particularly biting. They both wrote songs that featured narrators who wanted revenge: on the girls who rejected them, on the world that confused them, on themselves for being so uncertain about who and what they are.
In a paper I delivered at the last Popular Culture Association Conference, I included some thoughts on Jackson because I’d titled my paper “I’m The Man,” not thinking that profoundly about what a weird song about capitalism it actually was (“I’m the man who sold you the hula hoop!” is a truly odd and wonderful lyrical refrain). Jackson’s album I’m the Man was released in 1979 and contains several meditations on manhood including the titular song and “It’s Different for Girls.” Jackson has a marked preoccupation with investigating definitions of masculinity which go beyond reflections of heteronormative romance or a patriarchal need for control. Jackson’s “It’s Different for Girls”, is, for example, an epic instance of mansplaining captured in song. In the lyrics, a man urges a woman to rethink her desire to have a one night stand with him. She’s down for it but Jackson’s man is there to remind her that he was always told that “it’s different for girls.” She couldn’t possibly want just sex because he knows better! Women want to be in love! The woman, in turn, laments throughout the song “who said anything about love?” while the man continues to argue that sex should mean something because “it’s different for girls,” ably turning a rock cliché on its head.
Jackson’s men are, like Costello’s, often losers in the war of the sexes and also like Costello, Jackson uses a wry intellect to skewer his masculine subjects. In The Trouser Press Guide to New Wave Records, Jackson’s songs are described as “tough and wiry … mixed with an edgy sensibility with a self-deprecating wit that put[s] him in a class apart from his serious, serious peers” (149). Jackson frequently uses a “regular bloke” persona to create ironic portraits of modern masculinity in a state of flux. In “I’m the Man,” Jackson embodies the persona of a hustler and inventor who has graced the world with fads like the hula hoop, the skateboard, and kung fu (it’s truly a wild song). A vision of capitalism in human form, Jackson’s “man” is locked in a cycle of invention and failure; a cycle that nonetheless successfully separates the masses from their money, and perhaps also reflects how capitalism separates men from more complex and sensitive forms of masculine identity. In “I’m the Man,” Jackson’s man is framed as someone to mock and pity, a man for whom masculinity is a performance deployed to part a sucker from his money. Like any variety of disguises, dressing as a man is no more powerful than any other choice. Jackson drains traditional masculinity of its importance leaving behind an empty suit, neither useful nor fashionable.
One of the things I didn’t know about Jackson before I started reading his autobiography is that he identifies as bisexual. This revelation has added an interesting layer to my thoughts about his work, particularly in a song like “Is She Really Going Out With Him.” Suddenly, the song takes on extra depth when imagining Jackson alternately longing for the “she” or the “him” in the title. A song which directly engages with Jackson’s sexual identity is “Real Men,” the lead single from 1982’s Night and Day (which also contained the hit “Steppin’ Out”). Notably, in this song, the narrator queries his listener: what is a man?
Take your mind back, I don’t know when
Sometime when it always seemed
To be just us and them
Girls that wore pink
And boys that wore blue
Boys that always grew up better men
Than me and you
What’s a man now, what’s a man mean
Is he rough or is he rugged
Is he cultural and clean
Now it’s all change, it’s got to change more
Cause we think it’s getting better
But nobody’s really sure
The song is a ballad, sung as a mournful recounting of a lost traditional masculinity and a confusion about what a modern man might be. As the song goes on, however, Jackson twists this expected narrative of “sad man longs for the past when men were men” as his song turns to a contemplation of gay men, correcting those who call them “f*gg*t” (unless you’re a “friend,” implying Jackson has insider knowledge of how the word could be deployed within the gay community), and finally ends with a reminder to men that women are surpassing them:
Time to get scared, time to change plan
Don’t know how to treat a lady
Don’t know how to be a man
Time to admit, what you call defeat
Cause there’s women running past you now
And you just drag your feet
Though Jackson evinces an understanding for those men contemplating what it means to be a man now, he doesn’t feel sorry for them. He asks them instead to step up and move forward into modernity with women. His early work is filled with observations about a world that is just about to turn feral (just look at the lyrics for “Look Sharp”: “Big shot, thanks a lot, gotta go, it’s getting late/ I got a date with my tailor now, thanks for putting me so straight/ Tell me how they rob me blind on every street/ But check your watch and wallet now before I go and you’re too late”) and attack those of us who live in it.
His autobiography, A Cure For Gravity, was written in 1999, 15 or so years after these early cynical songs were written. Jackson narrates his life story with a wry but kind and generous eye for his past. As with most of the postpunk/New Wave autobiographies I’ve read, Jackson reflects on his working class background and how it contributed to his desire to play music. Just as his career has been punctuated by peripatetic experimentation in everything from jazz to classical music, so too was the young Jackson interested in a range of sounds. He states, “It wasn’t that I didn’t know, at seventeen, that my tastes were broader than those of my peers. I just didn’t care. After all, my musical heroes were eclectic, and I think I grasped the essential fact that in being so, they were being true to themselves” (72). It seems clear that Jackson has remained true to himself as he followed his eclectic interests throughout the albums he’s released over the years. I’m eager to read about his adventures as I progress through this book.
I’ll leave you with a favorite of mine: