Something About Mary

With her humble poise and non-Diva tone, Mary J. Blige is the unlikely heiress to Aretha's throne

When Ms. Houston appropriated Chaka Khan's "I'm Every Woman," it was an act of corporate imperialism, sucking every female spirit into the vacuum of her bland histrionics. By contrast, there's an element of anonymity to Blige that was assisted by the arrival of Mary clones. Suddenly, every woman was her. "I'm just Mary," she testifies on "Deep Inside," while the beknighted Sir Elton John lends the familiar, percussive chords of "Bennie and the Jets." This from a woman who had her own full name, initial and all, tattooed in High Gothic font on her biceps. She's a round-the-way girl who becomes more iconic the harder she clings to her sense of selfhood.

There's a remarkable moment on Blige's 1998 live album, The Tour, when Blige shouts hoarsely, "Now, ladies, tonight if y'all feel like you're the only woman out there and can't no other bitch fuck with you, let me hear you scream." And then a thousand women explode at once in response. It's a shout of individuality, but it's a chorus of sisterhood as well.

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