The 80’s were a magical time. Maybe that’s why when I imagine Grace Jones, I imagine her as a time traveling cyborg from the future. I can see her off boarding her ship with mystical-looking fog behind her; I can see her sly grin as she looks around, mocking us, gently. How silly and limited we are; if only we could see what she sees. That’s what she’s thinking as she takes a drag of her space-cigarette-from-the- future.
I feel that’s a good way to set the scene for Warm Leatherette, Grace Jones’s fourth album, which breaks away from the style of her previous albums. By 1980 she had already established a strong gay following in the NYC disco circuit, but for Warm Leatherette, she decided to give herself a sonic and visual makeover. Apparently, the cover artwork for this album is the first time her signature androgynous look was showcased (flat top haircut and all); and musically, you can hear her moving away from disco and toward something much weirder. Interestingly enough, she didn’t actually write most of the songs on the album. The only song that she received writing credits for is “A Rolling Stone,” and for that track she was a co-writer. The rest of the songs are covers, but re-imagined so heavily that they really become her own. Apparently, Tom Petty even wrote an additional verse for her version of “Breakdown.”
Grace Jones is a great singer, but her voice often sounds sort of emotionally tone deaf, robotic. In life, an emotionally tone deaf person could be kind of hurtful, but in this album, it’s actually pretty funny. Take the title track “Warm Leatherette” as an example. Merriam Webster’s defines “leatherette” as “imitation leather,” so that translates to “warm imitation leather.” The obvious reference to the leather community aside, she’s also teasing us about some of our commonly held assumptions. The song and album is a “warm imitation,” an imitation full of warmth. Maybe it’s also a reference to other kinds of imitation. An imitation of a “real” woman? An imitation of emotional warmth? The title track could support any of these interpretations. The call and response style sounds like some kind of fascist Hail Mary, but when you listen to the words you realize it’s all a big joke, (sort of). If there’s anything serious here, it’s about the need to stop trying to make rational sense of everything, to learn to appreciate the beauty of the nonsensical. She invites us to lighten up a little and have some fun. “Quick, let’s make love before we die.”
Even though this album is Grace Jones’s move away from disco and the gay male community of the 70’s, Warm Leatherette still feels rooted in the queer community to me, and I can still hear the disco party in the background. I can see myself watching a drag queen in San Francisco perform “Warm Leatherette.” This album feels current to me; it still speaks to people, even 35 years later. Maybe Grace Jones really is a time traveler from the future. It wouldn’t surprise me. Warm Leatherette is a guiding light (or maybe more like a guiding disco ball) for anyone who is looking for a different way to live. Her glamorous, yet androgynous appearance, her unusual singing style, and her dry humor can all be seen as a path going somewhere else. Somewhere less conventional. Somewhere a little more risky. Somewhere a lot more fun.
Of course, you could also ignore all of this and dance, and I get the sense that’d be fine, too. Tracks like “Love is the Drug” and “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game” are great for that.