Jennifer Lopez at the Super Bowl? It’s the Role She Was Born to Play

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The halftime show demands a pop unicorn. Twenty-one years into a music career that doesn’t always get enough credit, J. Lo is ready to take center stage.

Some time in 1998, riding high on critical acclaim for her performance alongside George Clooney in Steven Soderbergh’s sultry crime thriller “Out of Sight,” the rising actress Jennifer Lopez approached her manager with an unconventional idea: She wanted to make an album.

 

Lopez recalled his response was not encouraging in a recent “CBS Sunday Morning” interview: “Well, you know, you won’t be taken seriously as an actress now if you make a record, so how about we just stick to the acting right now?” That was not an option. The experience of playing the Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez in a 1997 biopic had reignited a fire. “Once I did the movie ‘Selena,’ I was like, No, I’m doing it,” she said with a flash in her eyes.

On Sunday, Lopez will headline the Super Bowl halftime show with Shakira, joining the recent ranks of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Madonna and Katy Perry. Her status as a triple-threat pop cultural polyglot by now feels so inevitable that it can be easy to forget what she risked in 1999 when she released her debut album, “On the 6.” A Los Angeles Times profile from that May — headline: “It’s Not ‘La Vida Loca’ to Her” — wondered why she would “put her red-hot film career on hold for more than a year to make an album.” (It’s hard to think of a contemporary equivalent to this surprise: Perhaps if Timothée Chalamet announced a break to focus on his rap career?) Even in the waning boom days of the recording industry, J. Lo’s music career was far from a guaranteed triumph.

But the gambit worked, of course. Her debut single, “If You Had My Love,” held No. 1 on the Billboard chart for five weeks that summer; “On the 6” went multiplatinum and was nominated for two Grammys. Her 2001 follow-up, “J.Lo,” fared even better, and its debut atop the album chart made her the first person in history to score a No. 1 album and a No. 1 movie (“The Wedding Planner”) simultaneously.

In some sense, though, that manager’s prophecy came true. “The Wedding Planner” was not exactly “Out of Sight”: The daffy, predictable rom-com that asked its audience to believe that Jennifer Lopez was Italian currently holds a 16 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. “Gigli” would soon follow — and that’s all that needs to be said about that. In pursuing a pop career, and thus a less solemn and obedient identity as a Serious Actress, Lopez telegraphed early on that she was a bit too restless to play by Hollywood’s rules. Pop music offered Lopez more flexibility anyway: Leading roles weren’t exactly flowing to Latinas, and meaningful conversations about diversity in the movie industry were more than a decade away.

Now, over 20 years after her first pivot to music, a jilted Hollywood seems once again to be thumbing its nose at Lopez. Though she was widely expected to receive her first Oscar nomination for her complex, defiantly unsentimental performance as stripper-turned-grifter Ramona Vega in the hit movie “Hustlers, the Academy left her in the cold. (“First of all, ‘Hustlers’ is not an Oscar movie,” one 91-year-old Academy voter recently told Page Six.) The supporting actress nominees are all white.

It does not feel entirely coincidental that this rebuke happened on the heels of yet another year when Lopez worked overtime to remind the world that — far from a side-hustle or a part-time vanity project — she is still very much an active musician. In April she released a new single, “Medicine,” which features the rapper French Montana and has a surreal, Busby-Berkley-meets-haute-couture music video. Then, following a successful Las Vegas residency that ended in 2018, last summer Lopez embarked on the 38-date (and $54.7 million-grossing) It’s My Party arena tour; her performances were an entertaining and impressively athletic blend of showgirl glitz and South Bronx grit.

Lopez in 1999, the year she released her debut album, “On the 6.”

The tour was also evidence that Lopez is particularly well-suited for the Super Bowl halftime show — an event that calls for a glitter-encrusted ringmaster’s charisma, a catalog of hits that anyone can sing along to, and a kind of professionalized sass and sex appeal that does not quite veer into the territory of an F.C.C. violation (as Janet Jackson and M.I.A. can attest). It should be an especially fitting display of her talents: The quintessential Jennifer Lopez experience is an audiovisual one, allowing her to glide fluidly between music, movement and the theatrical star-power that can keep an audience riveted. And given both Justin Timberlake’s somnolent 2018 performance and Maroon 5 and Travis Scott’s haphazard, cringe-inducing celebration of Adam Levine’s chest tattoos, the past few halftime shows have offered plenty of room for improvement.

Lopez’s musical career has not been without its misfires, but she has remained tenaciously committed to it as a necessary creative outlet. Its duration alone, in the fickle and ageist world of pop, is staggering: The 50-year-old Lopez has stuck around long enough to ride the wave of two different “Latin booms,” from “Bailamos” to Bad Bunny. She’s moved relatively nimbly with the changing tides, from the airy confections of the “TRL” era to the harder crystalline beats that accompanied the EDM-crazed 2010s. One of the most successful singles of Lopez’s career, the driving, sing-song-y Pitbull collaboration “On the Floor” came in 2011, a full 12 years after her debut album.

But from “On the 6” to her recent Oscar snub, Lopez seems to have found, in her pop career, a sense of freedom and validation that has eluded her in Hollywood, where she continues to vibrate at a slightly different frequency. She founded her own production company and in 2016 starred in one of its creations, the network cop show “Shades of Blue,” while others were leaning toward prestige TV. The figure of the Serious Actress is still cut from a stiff, restrictive cloth. But if you know one thing about J. Lo, it’s that she has an innate desire to move.

At least in the pop-cultural consciousness, Lopez was first known as a dancer. There she is grooving in the video for Janet Jackson’s 1993 hit “That’s the Way Love Goes,” and backing New Kids on the Block in an American Music Awards performance that screams 1991. (Even before then, she’d cut her teeth in musical theater, appearing in regional productions of “Oklahoma!” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.”) In 1992, she bested 2,000 other hopefuls when she snagged a coveted spot as a Fly Girl on the sketch comedy show “In Living Color.” But Lopez didn’t want to be hemmed too tightly into that role either: She turned down an offer to be a backing dancer on Jackson’s tour because she wanted to act.

By the time she’d established herself onscreen — “Selena” was her breakthrough — and finally got around to giving pop stardom a go, Jenny had been around the proverbial block. On the Billboard charts and MTV, Lopez suddenly found herself competing with upstarts nearly half her age. Remember that 1999 marked not just the year of “On the 6,” but also the arrival of “Baby One More Time” and “Genie in a Bottle” — by 17-year-old Britney Spears and 18-year-old Christina Aguilera. Lopez turned 30 that July.

Lopez was expected to earn an Oscar nomination for “Hustlers.”

Especially for women, pop is often considered the domain of the almost criminally young. But in her most iconic music videos, Lopez’s age actually gave her something of an edge. Compared to the nymphets sharing her “TRL” airtime, Lopez projected a grown woman who was in full control of her image, at ease with her sexuality and confident in her incessantly Googled body.

On an episode of the podcast Still Processing, the New York Times writer Jenna Wortham suggested that Lopez’s music videos created a space in which she could express more of herself than she could in almost any of her movie roles — whether it was the bumbling and questionably Italian rom-com heroine, the cat-fighting rival (“Monster in Law”) or the tragic victim (“Enough”). “You see this woman who knows exactly where she is, in space and time,” Wortham said. “She’s not tripping over things, she doesn’t have to fight with anybody, she’s paying her own bills, her life is not in danger. She is exactly where she’s supposed to be, and she looks like she’s loving every minute of it.”

Perhaps because of her varied résumé, Lopez isn’t always thought of as a pop superstar. But when she’s good, she is better than she gets credit for. The pulsating “Waiting for Tonight” remains a Y2K dance floor classic; her brassy 2004 single “Get Right” is an eternal fan favorite; even “Dinero,” her playfully raucous 2018 collaboration with Cardi B and DJ Khaled proves she can ham it up with a new generation of kindred spirits. She has admitted recently that she accepted the gig as a judge on “American Idol” in part to garner a little more respect in the music world. “I don’t think I had been taken seriously up until then for what I knew about music,” Lopez told Variety. (She was a judge on the show from 2010 to 2016.)

Plenty of Hollywood types told her that job might jeopardize her film career, too — but Lopez had heard that one before. “I was like, ‘The truth is, I’m not getting offered a whole bunch of movies,’” she said, “so what are they not going to offer me?”

The major cultural events of the next two weeks will once again draw attention to the duality of Lopez’s stardom. That will probably be to her advantage. The Oscars are poised to be especially bland this year, with their lack of diversity, predictable narratives and old-fashioned reverence for movies about white male rage. It would have been an honor to have been invited, sure, but that’s not J. Lo’s kind of party anyway. Maybe the greatest gift the Oscar ceremony can offer her is the opportunity to upstage it the weekend before.

One thought on “Jennifer Lopez at the Super Bowl? It’s the Role She Was Born to Play

  1. Reblogged this on It Is What It Is and commented:
    #BoricuaPride … I’m not a football fan. I AM a J-Lo fan … halt-time, I’ll be watching!! … ‘On Sunday, Lopez will headline the Super Bowl halftime show with Shakira, joining the recent ranks of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Madonna and Katy Perry’ … ‘

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