Fly Girl Unbound

Jennifer Lopez in the age of abundance


Technically speaking, I could drape myself head to toe in Jennifer Lopez. There's the clothing line (velour jump suits), the jewelry (pink diamonds), the perfume (Glow by J. Lo), the sunglasses and the swimwear. Her newest movie debuts this week, she's being Googled right now in The Netherlands, and my mailbox is full of spam with her name on it. Oh, and she sings, too.

So what is it with J. Lo? If there were ever a good argument for the existence of that ineffable "something," it is the ascendance of a mediocre singer/actress to cultural domination, Madonna-style. But J. Lo has the singular ability to spread that gilded charm elsewhere—specifically to her fiancé, the under-whelming Ben Affleck, who looks like some kid who went to your high school. In other words, that "something" has spawned a power couple of staggering market value, and out of precious little raw material.

The Affleck-Lo courtship is its own reality miniseries, complete with music videos, Diane Sawyer interviews, and MTV specials. It's also a bizarre cultural phenomenon. When did monogamy become cool? Somewhere on the way from Temptation Island to The Bachelorette, finding a soul mate became a social imperative.

In a decade where we watch Ozzy Osbourne kiss his daughter rather than rip apart small animals—and on the same network—once-edgy pop stars cash in on the conventional. The Madonna of the '80s could never have survived the stigma of a happy marriage precisely because she epitomized the hard-edged sexual liberation of the age. The material girl scrupulously avoided saccharine scenes of mutual affection; we liked her riding the borderline between fierce independence and unstable celebrity match-ups. Now that she's hitched up and Kabbalahed out, no one's listening. We can't quite take her seriously as she pontificates on family life from her staid London home.

Lopez was once as aggressively sexual as her '80s predecessors, and her Oscars outfits were as daring as anything Madonna or Cyndi Lauper would trot out for the award circuit. But as she steadily builds her empire, Lopez has tuned in to an America less interested in shock value and more willing to be charmed. The malleable J. Lo has slipped into the role of conventional fiancée so convincingly, it's hard to remember her last arrest.

Far be it from me to claim that J.Lo's new domesticity is as phony as, for example, her exhausting-for-all-concerned pose as an around-the-way girl. We long ago traded celebrity skepticism for slavish ingestion of whatever the publicists feed us—not because we believe it, really, but because, as with professional wrestling, it's more fun if you play along. Thus America is content to view the wifely Jen as a figure unblemished by her abortive marriage to Ojani Noa, or her even more damning (marrying your backup dancer being the modern equivalent of Thomas Jefferson's couplings with Sally Hemings) less-than-one-year stint with Cris Judd. In succeeding where La Ciccone has gone south, Lopez is merely using the same technique Madonna herself used to undo Debbie Harry—aping the original's tricks and style, but polishing the whole production for a more expansive and sales-minded age.

Celebrity couples are nothing new; Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor served up marital relations for mass consumption on the big screen. Yet Burton and Taylor had a dark edge that J. Lo and Affleck won't touch—a relationship rooted in adultery that carried the public along through two messy divorces. The squeaky-clean primness of the reformed, pearl-laden J. Lo stands in stark contrast. It's hard to imagine "Jenny from the block" playing the caustic Martha of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Where Burton and Taylor could thrive on controversy, Jen and Ben ride on tales of domestic bliss. Even if things get ugly, unhappy realities may not get past the bulwark of dogged publicists and all-consuming media campaigns. Still, in the marked absence of conflict, we watch.

Ben and Lo have two films coming out this year, both in the ever-marketable genre of (what else?) romantic comedy. Last week, Ben expressed utter shock at the idea that he and J. Lo were trying to generate hype, telling Extra, "The weirdest thing is people think it's like a publicity stunt, it's all orchestrated. What am I, Rock Hudson in the '30s?"

Rock Hudson, by the way, was 5 years old in 1930, but that shouldn't cast doubt on Affleck's sincerity. If it really is love, and there is no reason to think otherwise, they'll have to watch for the Martha Stewart phenomenon—in which an empire built on personality has the fragility of reputation. Happily for Affleck, J. Lo might be the only woman alive for whom fidelity is worth millions in clothing contracts.

J. Lo may be the diva of the moment, but she has many more metamorphoses ahead of her if she is to get anywhere near the running time of a legend like Madonna. Her attempts to achieve extended cultural relevance in the throes of marriage will be a performance worth watching.