None of us really know why we're here. As in, here on earth, shuffling through each day in the hope that at some point we'll find the time to replicate ourselves by having children or find true happiness or maybe just find a two-bed flat in zone 2 for less than £2 million. Organised religion has pegged our purpose to serving a god; branches of western philosophy have grounded the meaning of life in a sense of morality; nihilists have figured none of it matters; and many of the Indian sub-continent's theories on life and the afterlife have given humanity a sense of the overall impermanence of life.
In all of this, there is Jessie J. She – of 2011 Brits Critics Choice Award and 'no, I never explicitly said I was bisexual' fame – has been on a hiatus of sorts for more than two years. In that time, her Instagram account has turned into both her public voice and her magnus opus. It's the little peek offered behind the curtain, and one that previous generations would have never really seen when their favourite artist was taking a break from the album promo cycle. Back then rabid stans had to just politely sit on their hands and wait until Nat King Cole or Shirley Bassey put out another absolute banger. But this is 2017, so instead Jessie J's Instagram has become an extension of her. It's become the vehicle with which she demonstrates her purpose in life. It has become the meaning of her existence.
Come, take my hand and walk with me into the thicket of her self-shot videos. Not unlike a giant panda needing to gnaw through tonnes of bamboo to gain enough energy for the day, Jessie J has to post a short cameraphone video to prove to you, dear follower, that she has the range. She has to remind the people that she can sing – that she can really SANG, yes lawd. She says as much, in the caption underneath a shaky handheld video of literal wooden floorboards, from early January. It's soundtracked by Jessie turning her surname – Cornish – into a multi-syllabic melisma, and captioned: "When I have to introduce myself to the new up and coming artists at events. Just to let them know I still got it! IMAGINE. Some any over the top diva flex."
Over-the-top diva flex indeed. A cursory glance over her Instagram would lead you to one of two conclusions: either that Jessie J has a huge ego, and feeds it with reminders of her own vocal prowess; or that Jessie J floats through the world without a sense of self-awareness, posting these almost unfathomably intimate video snippets without seeing how they may register as boastful, cringey and/or endearing. But I put it to you that the reality is neither. Instead, Jessie will wither unless she sings and shares a ten-second run at least once every two months. When Jessie J doesn't make her voice ripple over one note, turning it into about 18 notes, the lifeblood seeps from her body. That can be the only explanation.
The record industry last really heard from Jessie in 2014. She released her third album, Sweet Talker, in October of that year and it went onto chart well – peaking at number 10 in the US and number 5 in the UK – but shifted fewer units than its predecessors Alive, from 2013, and Who You Are, her 2011 debut. Jessie's early empowerment-tagline lyrics and social consciousness brought her fans close, and they seemed to want her to function as both life coach and entertainment. You can see it now on forums where people with Mockingjay avatars argue about the merit of her past releases, or in the comments under her videos: "Jessie's underrated but she's changed." She's become, to fans critical of her glossier recent sound, a sexed-up commercial entity rather than the east London girl they all thought they knew.
Her Instagram account has operated as a sort of antidote to that. While Jessie may have been touring the world, singing about how she can "give it to you all the time," or sitting in her big swivelling chair on The Voice, she's also posted a combination of inspirational quotes, behind-the-scenes shots and the odd food pic to her 'gram. Most of her behaviour tends to be spread across the patterns a group of researchers noticed when they looked into people's habits on Instagram. According to Yuheng Hu, Lydia Manikonda and Subbarao Kambhampati of Arizona State University, most of us on Instagram tend to fall into one of five groups: selfie lovers, inspirational quote distributors, friend or selfie fans, "activity" people – ie: here's a photo of my feel while I get a pedicure, or a snapshot from a very exclusive rooftop party – and people who take photos of their food (but are partial to sharing a good selfie or "activity" pic).
"To our knowledge," the researchers wrote in 2014, "this is the first in-depth study of content and users on Instagram." But not even this accounts for Jessie J's Instagram. There is no real category for selfies that are actually videos and are also built around singing a cappella to ensure no one has forgotten your talents while you've been on a break from the studio. Jessie's Instagram account is like the musical manifestation of asking whether a tree makes a sound if it falls in the forest where there's no one to hear it. Does Jessie J, recording artist, live performer and reality show judge, truly exist if there isn't an extremely recent video of vocal acrobatics to prove it?
By using self-shot, almost entirely black-and-white videos in this way, Jessie J is telling us all that she is here and she is alive. It's one thing when someone else films her – take, for example, this video of her doing the most and giving people chills in a version of "Do It Like a Dude", posted in 2016. This is Jessie flexing for an audience, doing the sorts of improvised trills that had led to the viral success of the 2014 Shreds version of "Bang Bang" (that she later saw). This is par for the course. It is quite fun to imagine, for example, the conversation that preceded her making a friend or entourage member film this clip in April 2015, where Jessie burrows into her own jumper while riffing on taking a shower.
But when she shoots the videos herself, often in moments alone – in bed, at 5AM, spreading Christmas cheer in the back of a car in November 2014 – we slide into another level of closeness. As noted by Alise Tifentale of the City University of New York's Graduate Centre, in a report analysing a project on selfies shared around the world, "selfies have been called 'a symptom of social media-driven narcissism,' a 'way to control others' images of us,' a 'new way not only of representing ourselves to others, but of communicating with one another through images', 'the masturbation of self-image' and a 'virtual "mini-me,' something that might have been called a 'homunculus' in ancient biology – a tiny pre-formed person that would grow into the big self'." Sure. these ideas come close to describing Jessie's unreal Insta, but they aren't quite right either.
There's an underlying sense of loneliness to some of her posts that is hard to shake; a cry out for people to notice her. Elsewhere, there's the cheek and winking wit that endeared so many Brits to her in the first place, back when the industry was pushing her aggressively in 2010 and 2011. When you place the videos in the context of the sorts of quotes she shares – on self-preservation, self-belief, an "I work because I love this shit" – you come to see that Jessie, like so many in the public eye, just needs a little validation.
Thing is, Jessie knows she's extra. And by now, most people with the potential to be new Jessie J fans already know that she can sing her way round a maze. Her account would be like that of any other person's, if not for these videos. And they're what make her seem simultaneously more human and weirdly superhuman; they display the skill that sets her apart from her fans, but the way she shares that ability brings her crashing back down to earth with the rest of us. It's that relationship – between talent and the intimacy of feeling compelled to shout about it – that makes her Instagram account feel like the distillation of her entire purpose. None of us may know why we're here, but Jessie's damn well going to put her money on the meaning of life being a fluttering run. Without it, she'll shrivel.
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