If you haven't read Amy Wallace's fascinating, sad, exhaustive exploration of the rise and fall (and potential resurrection) of D'Angelo in GQ, you should. He comes across as a massively talented, vulnerable weirdo, and it's a great excuse to watch that "Untitled (How Does It Feel?)" video again, in case you are in the mood for a humongous boner. But the article is extra interesting for the ideas it stirs up about what happens when men find themselves objectified in ways usually reserved for women. In D'Angelo's case, it doesn't turn out well.
The disintegration of D'Angelo begins almost immediately after the release of the aforementioned video. Throngs of fans seemed more interested in D'Angelo's body than his music, and more committed to screaming "Take it off! Woooooooo!!!" than actually listening. The effect on the singer was powerful:
D'Angelo felt tortured, Questlove says, by the pressure to give the audience what it wanted. Worried that he didn't look as cut as he did in the video, he'd delay shows to do stomach crunches. He'd often give in, peeling off his shirt, but he resented being reduced to that. Wasn't he an artist? Couldn't the audience hear the power of his music and value him for that?...
"One time I got mad when a female threw money at me onstage, and that made me feel fucked-up, and I threw the money back at her," [D'Angelo] says. "I was like, 'I'm not a stripper.' "
Later, Questlove calls D'Angelo's complaints "some Kate Moss shit." The pressure and stress sent D'Angelo spiraling into an 11-year, cocaine-and-booze-fueled shenaniganathon, during which he was arrested for drug possession, crashed his Hummer, and pretty much deliberately packed 300 pounds on to his 5'7" frame.
Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress has a couple of great posts breaking down this progression: "So much of pop culture is like this," she says. "When a man experiences objectification, or stays at home with his kids, suddenly, this arena that women have been playing in for decades is a revelation. How does it feel, indeed?"
The idea that D'Angelo was subjected to the level of physical scrutiny that's built into every woman's life and then immediately went insane is...interesting. I mean this in the most sympathetic way possible—D'Angelo comes across as deeply endearing in Wallace's profile—but it makes me feel proud of women in a dorky way. Somehow, we handle it without taking an 11-year hiatus from our jobs. We've been conditioned to handle it because we have to handle it. And it shouldn't be that way, but right now it is, and we can deal. Fuck, it makes me feel like every woman on earth deserves the longest, most donutty, guilt-free fatso coke binge in history. Meanwhile, men, the ones who are dishing it out to us every day and making us handle it—well, it seems they can't really take it at all. Weird. Dishing, meet taking.
I would have expected that, when confronted with this phenomenon destroying one of their own, men would have a revelatory moment, a moment of empathy for women. Ha, PSYCH. Instead, D'Angelo gets the opposite. He gets "some Kate Moss shit" from his inner circle. Instead of becoming a sympathetic figure, he's feminized and dismissed in exactly the way that mouthy women are dismissed. Because, I guess, if you recognize that it sucks to be objectified, you'd have to stop objectifying people yourself. And that would obviously blow.
I'm not really saying that it's as cut-and-dried as all that: Clearly men are not a monolithic black hole of empathy, and Questlove isn't some archetypal male mean-girl. And yes, show business is worse than real life, and you could argue that there are plenty of male sex symbols who don't unravel at every catcall (although I don't know if anyone has commodified sweaty, forthright sexuality quite so intensely as D'Angelo). But the idea of having your physical appearance prioritized over your talents no matter what you do, and being harassed and ogled everywhere you go, is absolutely a feminine domain.
And it's interesting that, when stuck in a parallel situation (though male objectification will never be the same as female objectification, because, duh, big muscles), men behave pretty much the way women do. Most men don't rally around old, fat Elvis—they make fun of him. Just like insecure women do to conventionally unattractive women. In the same vein, the reaction from Questlove (who is not a small person) feels like an echo of the exasperation that average- or plus-sized women feel when supermodels complain about gaining ten pounds of baby weight, or get all woe-is-me about how hard it is to be pretty. I feel sympathy for him in that regard. It's all so complicated!
The difference, I guess, is that this episode ruined D'Angelo's life to the point where he had to physically remove himself from scrutiny by gaining 100 pounds and inflating his face with mountains of cocaine. The other 50% of the population—the lady half—we just have to deal with it. We don't have the luxury of escape, of dabbling in objectification and then growing a gross beard when it starts to get overwhelming. No matter what we look like, our bodies are up for public debate, and are the determining factor in our public value, for our entire lives. Neat!
So as deeply as I feel for D'Angelo, a teeny (shameful) part of me can't help but go, "See? This is what it feels like to be treated like a magic sex dummy." And then, on top of that, one more "See!?!?" because this is the pain of not being taken seriously when you complain. Because it sucks. See? It sucks. See you on coke-donut mountain. (Also, welcome back, D'Angelo.)