From D'Angelo's first photoshoot in ten years (Image via GQ)
The June Issue of GQ features an excellent article about the imminent return of soul artist D’Angelo, possibly best remembered for his 2000 video for “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” in which the shirtless singer sealed his future as a sex symbol -- a clip many a lady of a certain generation probably remembers quite fondly.
The GQ story covers a lot of ground from D’Angelo’s subsequent personal problems, his substance abuse and the 2005 car accident that nearly killed him, as well as a lot of thought-provoking comments on the nature of fame for black artists.
But what stood out to me most was the role the famed video for “Untitled” -- the very thing that made him a crossover success -- may have played in D’Angelo’s frustrated decline out of the spotlight.
The [video] shoot took six hours, and it changed D's life. Trenier got his wish: Thanks to D'Angelo's luscious physicality, albums started flying off the shelves. But the trouble began right away, at the start of the Voodoo tour in L.A. "It was a week of warm-up gigs at House of Blues just to kick off the tour, draw some attention, break in the band," says Alan Leeds, D's tour manager then and now. "And from the beginning, it's 'Take it off!' "
Questlove, the tour's bandleader, was alarmed. "We thought, okay, we're going to build the perfect art machine, and people are going to love and appreciate it," he says. "And then by mid-tour it just became, what can we do to stop the 'Take it off' stuff?"
D'Angelo felt tortured, Questlove says, by the pressure to give the audience what it wanted. Worried that he didn't look as cut as he did in the video, he'd delay shows to do stomach crunches. He'd often give in, peeling off his shirt, but he resented being reduced to that.
Too often we assume that even while the compulsory sexualization of women is a problem, returning the favor to the opposite sex is totally A-OK. A little taste of their own medicine, right? Why shouldn’t the ladies get to ogle men as nothing more than objects? They do it to us, whether we meet their standards or not. Women are constantly reminded, by culture and by individuals, that one of their primary social responisbilities is to look a certain way, to be attractive by whatever standard is currently in vogue.
Of course, objectification gender-turnabout ignores the damage that inescapable body judgment can do, and even while women are for the most part socialized to accept it as a natural part of their lives, it is an exhausting way to live.
For men, it can be outright destructive, because although women get the brunt of this kind of behavior, women have also developed a vocabulary with which to discuss it -- a woman can say "I feel a lot of pressure to maintain a certain appearance" and it's understood as a common experience.
Men, on the other hand, are not given room nor language to talk about such problems; they’re "lady issues," (or, as Questlove terms it in the GQ interview, "Kate Moss shit") and a guy who claims to be bothered risks having his masculinity questioned. Given that men are usually exclusively the dispensers of sexual objectification, only rarely finding themselves on the receiving end -- when they do, they’re supposed to like it.
How often have you heard a guy say,, "I WISH women would objectify me, har har!" See, it’s a funny joke, because men are supposed to be obsessed with women and sex 24-7, and so being reduced to a sexual object by ladies should be a dream come true, right? Except the truth is they really don't want that, because being objectified to the exclusion of anything else you might be accomplishing in your life totally, totally sucks.
This is what D'Angelo discovered, when he found himself in a place where other people’s sexualized expectations were interfering with his ability to be an artist. D’Angelo’s problem was compounded by the fact that his is black, and the bodies and sexualities of black men (and all black folks) have sufferred centuries of portrayals as savage, ferocious, and utterly out of control.
In the post-Civil-War South, untold numbers of black men were lynched on this basis, because white men believed they had raped (or were planning to rape or otherwise seduce) white women. It’s an ugly history, but it's one too terrible to ignore.
The prospect of fans -- even female fans -- taking ownership of D’Angelo’s body to the extent of feeling entitled to demand that he disrobe during concerts... do I even have to make the obvious metaphor here? It's a problem.
While D’Angelo himself downplays any lingering bodily insecurity in the GQ interview, there are clues throughout that seem to indicate it’s still a concern for him. He even mentions it in the lyrics to at least one song (one that may or may not make it onto the new album). Regardless, his story is a needed reminder that reducing people to bodies and appearance over accomplishments and art is a dangerous and destructive habit, and one that takes a heavy toll on even the most talented individuals.