The Return of J. Lo

How did this happen?

Jennifer Lopez

America has spent this spring marveling at the resurrection of Jennifer Lopez. Just a year-and-a-half ago, it seemed impossible that this former icon of hip hop’s upward mobility would ever return to prominence. She fell on her overly fetishized backside during a failed comeback performance at the American Music Awards, and the single she was promoting, the plodding “Louboutins,” failed to crack the Billboard Top 100 chart and likely led to her split with her longtime label, Epic Records.

Now, the queen of the high-pitched Puerto Rican giggle has claimed a new throne, at American Idol’s judges table, and apparently won back her audience. Her club-banger “On the Floor” is a hit. People magazine named her the Most Beautiful Person of 2011 (Michelle Pfeiffer is the only other 41-year-old to have held that spot). And she’s whispering of plans to eventually launch her own talent show, Que Vida, aimed at the Latin market.

Why does Lopez, not long ago a punchline, now seem so relevant? It’s not because she made a great new album. Her Island Def Jam debut Love? came out last week to resoundingly negative reviews. An assembly line of top producers and writers (Lady Gaga co-penned two tracks) makes this release feel workmanlike, a typical attempt by a mature artists to reclaim her currency.

But the critical or even long-term commercial viability of Jennifer Lopez’s music doesn’t matter. Lopez was never an album artist, never even primarily a singer. Instead, she pioneered 21st century stardom by being an excellent floater, welcome in every entertainment stream from film to dance to fashion, but unwilling to settle within any of them.

Moreover, though Lopez has found a perfect platform on Idol, the show itself isn’t wholly responsible for her renewed success. Both of Lopez’s female predecessors, Paula Abdul and Kara DioGuardi, tried and failed to revive their own musical careers while serving at the feet of Ryan Seacrest. Lopez is particularly poised for this late-career breakthrough, because the kind of star she was in her Diddy-dating, blingtastic heyday is the precise model of pop success today.

In the early 2000s, Lopez was firing on all cylinders. Her chick flick The Wedding Planner was tops at the box office, and her album J. Lo sold more than 8 million copies worldwide. She was a tabloid darling and a fashion fixture, beginning the route she’d take into American department stores with several different brands of clothing, accessories and perfume.

It all changed when she and Affleck endured a bloody public split exacerbated by the flop sweat of their terrible romantic comedy Gigli. Lopez became a figure of fun, parodied along with Affleck on a South Park episode called “Fat Butt and Pancake Head” and roundly identified as box-office poison after subsequent film projects tanked. Her marriage to salsa music star Marc Anthony seemed to be a kind of retreat, not only into the domestic sphere but also toward the Latin entertainment market.

But that was all before two major pop-cultural developments took hold: the rise of reality television and the total dominance of the multifaceted pop diva. Both have altered the very concept of artistry within the mainstream, making it easier for fans and the media to appreciate Lopez’s strengths and forgive her shortcomings.

Lopez is often accused of not having much of a personality within her songs. Yet she has charmed from behind the Idol judges table by both giving good advice and projecting a winning personality. Sometimes she seems like a lost Kardashian: glamorous but warm, emotional but ultimately in control, and willing to laugh at herself, she’s the most enviable girl next door ever. (Shades of her biggest hit single, “Jenny From the Block.”)

Her identity as an assimilated Latina comfortable jumping from the hip-hop clubs to private soirees for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor also makes Lopez a star befitting the Obama era. Her Long Island-based life with Anthony and their twin toddlers firmly connects her to traditional Latino family values, yet she’s hanging on to her status as a hip-hop sex symbol through collaborations like her latest single, a Lil’ Wayne duet called “I’m Into You.” In the early 2000s, the strong boundaries that hip-hop’s stars and fans put around the genre meant that Lopez took heat as an interloper. Now she fits right in, alongside her many inheritors, from Fergie to Rihanna to Katy Perry.

This younger generation of artists, along with their producers, has created a new idea of pop—one that actively rejects the limitations posed by traditional notions of purity, authenticity, even musical talent. It’s no accident that “On the Floor” is produced by RedOne, who worked similar syncretic magic with Lady Gaga, and features a rap by Pitbull, the blue-eyed Cuban-American rapper who, like Lopez, has long posed a challenge to old ideas of what hip-hop could be.

Within this new context, all the old insults Lopez endured seem less relevant. She’s inauthentic? In a world where Ke$ha thrives, Lopez is old-school. She can’t sing that well? That’s why there’s Auto-Tune. She’s more a dancer than a singer? On the summer concert circuit, that will be a plus.

In the end, Jennifer Lopez remains what she’s always been: an old-fashioned trouper, ready to take on whatever challenge offers her the best chance to capture the fickle eye and ear of the American public.

Performing “On the Floor” on Idol last week, she busted out her best glitter and fiercest glare, but as a hydraulic lift carried her above the Zumba-ish dancers sweating below her, she lost control for a minute—and smiled. You could almost hear her thoughts. I know how to work it. And in pop America, working it still sometimes pays off.

Thanks to Chris Molanphy for chart assistance.