Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Portrait Rock City
It is a truism that many people buy rock magazines just to look at the pictures. Looking at demographics, rock does not just appeal to teens and up; children and pre-adolescents are often fans as well. If the writing in rock magazines doesn’t always work, the pictures usually do. Many major rock stars are very adept at creating memorable self-images; and these images become signs to be read by their audience. Rock stars traditionally signify beauty and physical vitality; but rock star beauty has quirks which differentiates it from the TV/movie star version of beauty. For male rock stars, extreme thinness is generally desirable; the frailty of James Dean, rather than the vigor of Steve McQueen. Once the Dean-derivation is established, rock stars have a choice whether to settle in to one style or to keep self-transforming. Changes in musical style are often accompanied by changes in appearance; the rock star physical form becomes an empty site, a canvas.
No one has taken more advantages of these possibilities than David Bowie. In the 70s, Bowie created a series of personas meant to accompany specific self-images. Ziggy Stardust is the most famous. Though the eponymous album fails to cohere as a narrative, the Ziggy image has always been ripe for semiotic analysis. Ziggy, on one level, signifies the conjunction of glamour and alienation, attractiveness and extreme Otherness; in these dichotomies, rock audiences saw a memorable metaphor for deviant sexuality. The words to a song like “Moonage Daydream” combined come-ons and science-fiction imagery; Bowie wanted to have the cake his image created, and eat it, too. What’s important in this case is that the portraits of Bowie in his Ziggy regalia conveyed more than his music or interviews could alone. When Bono thought, in the early 90s, to pull off the same trick, he had a more difficult problem to grapple with than Bowie did. U2 had established their reputation in the 80s as conservative-if-passionate, Christian-if-rockist performers. Expressions of deviance and lust were to be found nowhere in their songs. Looking for a new direction, U2 decided to go post-modern with 91’s Achtung, Baby. They embraced carnality, irony, deviance, and intoxication. The Achtung, Baby songs were meant to signify transformation and rebirth for them. Bono needed to create a new visual signature— he donned black leather, and the kind of spaceman sunglasses that Keith Richards and Brian Jones wore in the late 60s. U2’s vast audience deemed the transformation successful; Bono’s persona, “The Fly,” dominated 92’s Zoo TV tour.
On the other hand, many key rock images have not been interrogated. When John Lennon died, the signifying image left behind was startling— a naked Lennon lying on a carpet, clinging to a clothed Yoko Ono, who didn’t look at him but into the distance. The subtext was plain; Lennon, with his usual candor, was exposing his vulnerable (even infantile) dependency on Yoko Ono. This was the image that adorned Rolling Stone’s cover immediately following Lennon’s death— but no one took the trouble to parse it. Rolling Stone was invested in making Lennon appear like an invulnerably gifted genius. What Bowie, Lennon, and Bono have in common is the recognition that image manipulation can be an art-form, in keeping with the post-modern “surfacy” ethos of visual artist Andy Warhol. Bowie and Lennon were very skillful (even if no one had the guts to decode Lennon’s message); Bono’s moves seemed contrived to many. The general level of rock image manipulation is middling. In the 90s, the images that adorned Nirvana’s album covers were intriguing and memorable, even if Kurt Cobain proved to be an anti-clothes horse. What 90s images often conveyed was lost or threatened innocence; and, to the extent that there was no Bowie in the Alternative crew, image was supposed to be subsumed beneath musical substance. If kids continued to buy Rolling Stone and Spin just to stare at the pictures, it was because the music business hadn’t changed that much. On some levels, it still hasn’t. There will always be an avid appetite for youth and beauty, put into vivid motion by the machinery of fame.