In the minds of many Edmontonians, October 16, 2012 will long be remembered as being a “Beiber hangover”. For some people, however, it will be the night one of their childhood crushes became a lot less innocent.
But before I get to that, let’s talk about the highlight of the night. The part that touched my heart, and I assume also the hearts of the predominantly female audience. I’m talking about Jesse Labelle. If you’ve heard of him, it’s probably the single “Heartbreak Coverup” with Alyssa Reid.
Or hopefully, “Straight Line” which I mentioned in my preview of the concert. Jesse Labelle was all I hoped he’d be and a bit more. Walking onto the stage alone and performing an acoustic take on “Easier” from his first album, Jesse was unassuming and humble, taking time to connect with the audience – exactly the way I’d want to experience a musician whose repertoire includes a lot of songs about love.
Jesse really knew how to interact with the crowd. Sitting in the left section, row D, I felt like he was gazing into my eyes, although I know the stage lights make that impossible. But the illusion of doing that is what makes it work when he sings the words “you’re beautiful” to hundreds of women every night. The most surprising song of Jesse’s set though was “Won’t Let You Down”, which closes his latest album, Two, and closed his set. I wasn’t overly impressed with the version on the album, but in the concert, the song slowly swelled to an overwhelming sonic experience, reinforcing the emotion of the lyrics.
Then Jordan Knight came on.
What a difference from Jesse.
I was instantly made uncomfortable the way Knight presented himself. Knight spent the first minute or so of his set standing on the stage putting on various poses, interspersed with the slow, deliberate movements a Greek God or a muscle builder might use to switch between poses. I couldn’t help but laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. Here we are, having had conversations about the effects of objectification for decades and Jordan Knight is standing in front of an audience, showcasing himself as a sexual object rather than as a musician.
Then the music started, and I thought, “okay, great. That’s over and I can experience him as an artist and a musician.” Except I couldn’t. His set was so overwhelmingly focused on sex that I couldn’t pay attention to the music. I’m not saying that sexuality doesn’t belong in performance or that sex can’t be art. However, when someone is onstage humping the air, grabbing their crotch, singing songs about love and sex, telling the crowd to say, “I love you, Jor-dan”, and the women of the crowd are cat-calling “take your pants off” I, as an audience member, am no longer at simply a musical performance, and am instead at a performance using sex to convey Something.
However, that Something was never revealed to me – that’s the problem. The only message I received was that this man is a sexual object. Moreover, because the focus on Knight’s virility was only expressed by the performer himself and the other performance elements didn’t support that presentation, it actually fell flat in convincing me to accept Jordan as a sexual object. If sex is to be used as a performance element to convey a message, it needs to work in harmony with the other elements of the performance.
So many other groups and media have gotten it right – Madonna‘s use of sexuality speaks to me about freedom of expression. The scenes using sex in bare and Dog Sees God made me think about the pain that can be hidden behind or covered up with sex. Modern dance is focused on the body, but rather than objectifying themselves through their performance, dancers allow you to experience the beauty of what the human body can do. Burlesque performances through the years have evolved from critiquing and making popular plays more accessible to the public, to questioning mainstream media’s assumptions about what is “beautiful” or “sexy”, to making a stylistic decision to tell a story.
I know it sounds like I’m coming down on someone for doing what “everyone else” in the industry does – objectifying themselves for the audience. But, that’s sort of my point. I don’t need to see your skin to appreciate you as an artist. I don’t need to see it to buy your music, or tickets to your concert, or basically, to allow you to make a living off of the art you make. I just need you to make good music. If you can do that, then great – I will support you and the art you create.
And if you do want to show me your skin, do it in a way that appeals to me as more than someone who wants to be a consumer of your sexuality. If you want to use your sexuality to enhance your art, that’s great – do it in a way that creates meaning for me. Otherwise, I might as well have spent my night at the strip club.
– Jenna Marynowski