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9 February 2024

Jennifer Lopez’s beautifully unhinged visual album

This Is Me... Now is a bizarre but poetic record of her rekindled love for Ben Affleck.

By Kate Mossman

Today, Jennifer Lopez seems younger than she should be – she’s 54 – but she always seemed older than other popstars back in the day. She was also a different body shape – one of her many influences on culture was shifting mainstream beauty standards to align more with a figure like hers, specifically in the area of bums. She was the first celebrity to embrace a camp nickname, as she did by calling her second album “J-Lo”, when she was already famous as Jennifer Lopez. The moniker liberated her from the ethnic weight of Lopez, but she recorded hits in Spanish and English so she had it both ways. She was the first woman to demonstrate that a Madonna could be a Latina, and Latina voices are one of the dominant forces in global pop now. Which makes it even more ridiculous that she was made to team up with another Latina woman, Shakira, to do the Super Bowl in 2020, and didn’t just do it on her own.

Lopez was always more about class than race, anyway: “Jenny from the Block” was a small cultural moment (are you really “still Jenny from the block”?). We didn’t allow rich, princessey stars to talk about humble beginnings back then without questioning their authenticity. She carried out early experiments in being a pop chameleon, and she was taken much more seriously by black audiences after she remixed her second record and called it J To Tha L-O. But her popularity was always tempered with the suggestion that she was musically untalented. Just this month, the actress Ayo Edibiri hosted and episode of Saturday Night Life on which Lopez was the musical guest, and had to address comments she had made on a podcast in 2020 calling Lopez’s career “one long scam” because she can’t sing. Perhaps this sort of snobbery comes from the fact that Lopez had already broken through in film when she decided to pivot to pop. She starred in Out Of Sight, and was brilliant in Hustlers – tipped for an Oscar nomination, but snubbed at the last minute. The problem was, Lopez couldn’t let go of rom coms, a dying genre. She won’t give them up – she can’t. After a ten year break from music, she has written her own.

This Is Me… Now is a visual album about her rekindled love for Ben Affleck, whom she dated in the early noughties, then broke up with, then married in 2022. Their relationship – “Bennifer” – set the template for Noughties celebrity couple names, and the title of this new record is a reference to This Is Me… Then, the 2002 album that came in the middle of Lopez’s original Affleck era. Their relationship ended because of excessive media attention, so it’s funny that she’s now made a movie about it. While his bearded face only flashes for a couple of frames – and he is never mentioned by name – some of the lyrics are pretty candid when you know who they’re aimed at: “That’s why you and me can go until it’s light out” (“To Be Yours”). 

The accompanying movie – a “narrative-driven cinematic odyssey” running at 65 minutes long – is quite beautifully unhinged, apparently with a budget rivalling one of Affleck’s superhero films. In the opening scenes, Lopez is working alongside other blue-collar women in a “heart factory”. Far up in the sky, a round table of sci-fi Gods, one of whom is played by Jane Fonda, sit in a kind of black hole: “I told you she couldn’t be alone!”

Lopez watches Love Story on repeat in the dark, lip-syncing; she bounces from one whiskey-swigging boyfriend to another – until a group of friends stage an intervention (“You’re out partying on a random tuesday!”) and she attends Love Addicts Anonymous (it’s a real thing) and breaks out into the kind of jerky dance routine reminiscent of early noughties films like Save The Last Dance. She learns to love her eight-year-old self. When her therapist, who looks like a rapper, offers her a ride home you wonder if she’s going to end up with him – but she dances off in the rain with a hummingbird, happy on her own, but never giving up hope of the one great love.

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“Realness” was always Lopez’s thing and there is a poetic circularity in picking that up again, post therapy, and after three marriages, with this project. The general aesthetic is also very 2002: vast action sets, long crocheted cardigans, ripped jeans and bare feet. Her soft Bronx voiceover recalls simpler, more hopeful times in film, and her belief in “the one” is at odds with our younger, polyamorous generations. Musically it is retro too – a kind of airy RnB. “Dear Ben Part II” features an acoustic flourish reminiscent of Craig David. There are huge numbers of co-writers at work: one song, “Hearts and Flowers”, credits sixteen, though you wouldn’t know. “Broken Like Me” (sung during the Love Addicts scene) has a very similar melody to Lionel Richie’s “Hello”. There are many minor keys here: love is mournful, even when rekindled. 

Affleck apparently activates the “artiste in her” – he is her muse, regardless of whether he inspires anything of true artistic merit. The climax of the record, and movie, for me, is “Midnight Trip To Vegas”, which she performs dressed like a belly dancer, in the shadow of a huge piece of twisted bark. The lyrics hint at their broken engagement, and their impetuous marriage many years later. “We are drowning in orchid arrangements… what if it’s raining… then you whispered to me, let’s get out of here… throw the kids in the back of the pink Cadillac.” They head to Vegas on a whim; even when her love has his hand on her thigh, whizzing through the desert with the top down “singing Freddie Mercury”, the kids (presumably her 15-year-old twins, and his three by the actress Jennifer Garner) are in the back. What a great moment that is. 

It is a rather good story, after all – the kind of things concept albums should be made of. Sometimes J-Lo’s decisions can seem impetuous or bizarre, but she always seems to be on brand. What next for her? She recently bought the rights to the Bob the Builder movie, which will be set in Cuba and which, she says, will get to the heart of “what it means to build”.

[See also: Opera singer David Butt Philip on how Brexit is impacting British musicians]

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