by Molly Young
When was the last time you saw the Jennifer Lopez video for "Love Don't Cost a Thing"? Was it recently? Do you remember what it feels like to behold a perfect visual disquisition on femininity?
The song came out in 2001 and plays mainly now on in-house TV channels for low-budget gyms. This is where I saw it.
My love don't cost a coat
The first thing you notice in "Love Don't Cost a Thing" is also the only thing you notice, which is J. Lo's physical person. For a good minute or so, she is no more than a body. Nouns might occur to you (hair-skin-breasts-thighs) but it is difficult to register anything else. The song is white noise. The point of the video is to present J.Lo as an Ideal Woman.
Which she was, or was informally considered. And isn't considered anymore--something you can prove by looking around and tabulating how many young girls recognizably imitate her today (negligible) versus how many imitated her in 2001 (uncountable).
Many accessories! Note expert application of bronzer.
Elaine Scarry, writing on beauty, notes that "beauty is sometimes disparaged on the ground that it causes a contagion of imitation, as when a legion of people begin to style themselves after a particular movie starlet."
At her peak, J. Lo was a particularly seductive star to imitate because of her self-embellishment. She wore dramatic clothing, lots of jewelry and extravagant makeup, all of which could be mimicked, if not replicated. (See Gwen Stefani for another practitioner of this business savvy. Associating oneself with objects is the key to branding!)
The Boricua beauty/booty from the Bronx loaded herself up with visual cues that instantly became associated with her, and which connoted her beauty while actually having nothing to do with it. Naturally, her clothing, jewelry and perfume enterprises sold briskly.
Scrupulous grooming is a sign of wealth
The genius element of J. Lo's "Love Don't Cost a Thing" video is that it fully refutes this gambit. The plot revolves around J.Lo methodically stripping herself of embellishment, starting the video in full glamour mode and winding up, at song's end, fresh-faced and nearly naked on a beach. The camera tracks her evolution as she slips off bracelets, tosses away sunglasses, coat, and handbag, and abandons her fancy car and mansion.
The plot line of the song and video, of course, revolves around the premise that J.Lo's wealthy lover is substituting gifts for affection, when what J.Lo needs "is not available in stores." It's a funny conceit given that the ultra-dolled-up J.Lo is presumably what attracted the dude in the first place.
Baby, credit cards aren't romance
But she's done with it. Off come the necklaces, makeup, clothes. The surprise is what's left: I woulda never pegged J.Lo for a classic beauty--so much of beauty lies in native expressiveness, and it's hard to gauge this from tabloid pictures or even films--but her image from the closing frames of the video is impossible to shake.
It's a dissociative experience, and it centers on a figure that doesn't look like Jennifer Lopez at all. The woman in the video is so beautiful, in fact, that she loses all of J.Lo's specificity and reminds one, instead, of images like Sargent's Madame X or Renoir's portraits of Jeanne Samary. You know, timeless. And with that mixture of ruthlessness and vulnerability that attends all portraits - whether by accident or not - of feminine paragons.
Molly Young is the contributing editor to This Recording. Here is her website.
The fitting end to an exhausting saga
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