Does D'Angelo's body image distract from his music?

OPINION - Why does it appear that people still insist on obsessing about the man’s abs (or lack thereof)?...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

At long last, music lovers have reason to celebrate: soul singer extraordinaire D’Angelo has finally ended his self-imposed exile. After years spent battling an array of personal demons and dodging breathless headlines that implored, ‘What Happened?’ Michael Eugene Archer is reclaiming his rightful place as the musical heir to Marvin Gaye. Fresh on the heels of a triumphant performance at the BET Music Awards — his first live televised show in nearly 12 years — the Virginia-reared heartthrob is poised to give the public something it’s awaited for more than a decade: a third album.

So why does it appear that people still insist on obsessing about the man’s abs (or lack thereof)?

Lucky listeners across the country are cheering D’Angelo’s revival, with his live performances packing venues and drawing near-universal acclaim.  Yet the one topic dogging the beleaguered singer is the one that seemingly prompted his emotional spiral into oblivion. Some fans just can’t seem to shake their monomaniacal focus on his physique.

theGrio slideshow: 2012 BET Awards show highlights

During his hotly-anticipated BET performance, social networks and the blogosphere were peppered with snarky commentary about his physical appearance. More than a few female wags are lamenting the crooner’s lack of beefcake and noticeably thicker midsection, which D’Angelo kept concealed under a sleeveless T-shirt and vest for the entire performance. That’s a head-spinning turnabout for a singer who, in his earlier performances, used to flash skin better than a Chippendale’s dancer (or an extra on the set of Magic Mike), often without betraying the slightest hint of shame.

The parlous state of soul music, combined with the slow-fade most neo-soul artists have done since the genre’s heyday in the early 2000s, should make people more inclined to applaud D’Angelo’s still-prodigious musical talents. We should all breathe easier now that one of R&B’s biggest talents is back on the path to redemption.

So what gives with all the talk about his appearance? By most accounts, D’Angelo still looks in pretty good shape, as a recent photo shoot with GQ magazine would attest. Still, his newfound modesty is an exponent of the years he spent navigating the rough shoals of drug abuse and legal trouble — and the period at which he allowed his chiseled body to atrophy.

Indeed, his widely read interview with GQ details how D’Angelo’s road to perdition – something the author aptly describes as the singer’s “descent into hell” – effectively began with his now iconic video for “Untitled (How Does it Feel).” More than any other aspect of his performances, those five minutes on the small screen did the most to propel D’Angelo into the firmament of musical sex-symboldom on a par with Jimi Hendrix or Prince. But an unfortunate side effect of becoming eye candy for the ladies was a near-simultaneous denigration of D’Angelo’s unisex appeal: his silky voice and smooth lyrics.

In one of the numerous post-mortems about D’Angelo’s career that took place during his 12-years of enforced seclusion, the singer reportedly couldn’t go on stage without having hordes of screaming women demand he take off his shirt. Cynics might note that some men should be so lucky as to be objectified by the opposite sex. But for an artist who takes his craft seriously, it dealt a body blow to his creative faculties. One culture watcher compared the treatment D’Angelo received from his more shallow fans to the objectification many female artists get from male admirers: almost like a Twilight Zone episode in extremis.

Perhaps, but the relentless speculation about what D’Angelo might have going on underneath his shirt is a commentary on another cultural phenomenon that makes no distinction between the sexes. The entertainment industry in general, and music in particular, is notoriously image-obsessed and youth-oriented.

The mantra “sex sells” is more than just an adage: it’s practically a commandment. It’s what compels aging superstars like Madonna to resort to the antics of far more youthful performers in a desperate attempt to capture the public’s attention. In a world where singers like Rihanna and Usher draw huge amounts of attention for public displays of sexuality — which, not coincidentally, helps them sell records — the message is clear. Fairly or unfairly, the industry encourages certain stars “taking it off” with impunity, and rewards them accordingly with record sales and accolades. And let’s face facts: by and large, the fans like it. How else to explain the success of the aforementioned stars, while stellar singers like Anthony Hamilton or Ledisi languish in relative obscurity?

With that as a backdrop, the Los Angeles Times pointedly noted how D’Angelo left the stage of a recent performance without singing his breakthrough smash, “Untitled.” It’s not hard to fathom the reasons why Mr. Archer might want to skip that song, given all the baggage that comes along with it. As Maxwell’s BlackSummer’sNight album sales showed, music listeners tend to reward artists that return from an extended hiatus. Still, parts of D’Angelo’s fan base thirsty for a shirtless singer may need to steel themselves for disappointment. Let’s hope it doesn’t translate into lower record sales for an artist who deserves to be welcomed back to the scene unconditionally.