The Interviews Mary J. Blige

December 5, 2010

Mary J. Blige
Getting Down To Business
By High Robertson

When conducting phone interviews, my standard opening is to ask the interviewee what they have planned for the day. Even if there’s nothing noteworthy to talk about, at the very least it allows the artist to settle into our chat and not feel as though I’m trying to ambush them from the very start… So when Mary J. Blige replies that she’s in L.A. doing an interview with me, and shows no inclination to expand on that (“Um, I’m in L.A. Los Angeles, California. Doing an interview with you. That’s what I’m up to.”), I start having a bad feeling about this… Indeed, as we progress Blige seems to have very little interest in answering any of my questions with any detail whatsoever.

It’s not as though we don’t have anything to discuss; the talking points, in fact, are endless. After twenty years, nine Grammys, eight multi-platinum albums and fifty million albums sold, Blige is making her way to Australia for the very first time to headline the huge Ragamuffin Festival – alongside acts like Jimmy Cliff and The Original Wailers. But don’t read anything into an R&B star performing at what’s traditionally been a reggae-based festival; she tells me she’s not planning any reggae-fied versions of her enormous back-catalogue, nor is she making a statement about her love for her herbal namesake… The reason a reggae festival is what finally enticed Blige out here, she says, is simply because “they asked”. And when I inquire as to what she’s looking forward to most about her first trip downunder, she tells me she wants to “see some things.”

Another talking point? The new album Mary J. Blige is currently working on, with a roll-call of the top producers in the hip hop world that includes Jay-Z, Swizz Beatz, Ne-Yo and Q-Tip – along with many others. But it turns out we already know what it’s going to sound like… “I mean, basically it’s the formula that I do all the rest of my albums with,” Blige reveals. “Where I’m at right now, what’s around me, what I’m coming through, what I am victorious in… People expect from me what they want from me. So I just make what people want.”

“What people want” has, for much of Blige’s career, been to hear her sing about overcoming the hardships of her life – abusive relationships, childhood torment, substance abuse… The basic template is catharsis-by-numbers, with Blige battling her demons over swelling string arrangements and R&B production. It’s the content of the songs as much as the style itself that has endeared her to so many for so long. “I think people in general just want to know that they’re not the only one suffering,” she says. “So if you have someone that you love, like Mary J. Blige, or Michael Jackson, or Janet Jackson – when Mary J. Blige speaks to you, and she’s this huge superstar, [and she] says to you ‘I’m going through this too’ or ‘I went through this too,’ it makes people feel better. It makes people look at you as not so untouchable. And now you become loveable. You become touchable, and when they see you they’re not thinking about killing you, they’re thinking about hugging you. They’re thinking about giving you something that you gave to them.”

Here, then, is the centre of the Mary J. Blige world view: it all comes down to respect and reciprocity. Do unto others, stay neutral, and get along. It’s a philosophy that encompasses everything, from her frequent collaborations with hip hop and very non-hip hop stars (including Sting, Elton John and Andrea Boccelli), her detachment to any of the famous rivalries and ‘beefs’ through the history of her genre, and her tendency to work with lots of producers at once (there are seventeen producers listed on her last album Stronger With Each Tear – and only twelve tracks).

The longer the interview goes on, the more answers Blige gives that are seemingly devoid of any real interest in the subject matter… She tells me that she features on other people’s songs “because they request [her] presence”; and she works with countless producers because “they all have something different to offer”, rather than because they reinforce her own artistic vision. This last one is especially significant, because her artistic vision seems to consist of creating the music that people want to hear. And then Blige makes it easy for me, explaining that she enjoys doing guest vocals on other people’s songs because she likes “to work with people that have great personalities” – and I realise that, despite talking to her for ten minutes, I have absolutely no sense of what she is like as a person at all.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. She writes huge hits and puts on a huge show; fifty million Mary J. Blige fans can’t be wrong. And in an industry as ego-dominated as the music world (and particularly the hip hop world), Blige may well have hit on the perfect method for winning friends and influencing people: do your work, do it well, keep your head down, and don’t say anything that might upset anyone. It certainly seems to be working for her.

With: Jimmy Cliff, Maxi Priest, The Original Wailers, Sean Paul, Ky-Mani Marley and more
Where: Raggamuffin @ Parramatta Park
When: Friday January 28, 2011


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