By Tom Watling
I read an article just over a week ago discussing the sexualisation of women in the music industry – a fantastic piece – and it posited the idea that “in such a digitalised world, image quite possibly overtakes voice,” a notion which seems overtly evident but has never quite occurred to me fully, and ever since I read this it has arrested my thoughts:
Image isn’t what makes music but rather what facilitates it. Whether it be an album cover, a Facebook profile or just what one imagines when they listen to certain music, it is an inescapable fact that music, or sound to be less specific, is intrinsically linked to image. So, to say that image has become more important now than ever is only true if the presumption is accurately made that music has always been about image.
The increasingly-shite talent shows, such as the X-Factor and The Voice, serve as a perfect example of this, where, at its most simplistic merely a reality tv show, the public is not only encouraged but forced to vote for an artist because of who they are not what they sound like.
If we look at Elvis Presley, probably the first major and global musical star, and before any means of social media, his image was as iconic as his voice. In fact, to some degree his image was the only true aspect of him, for few people know that he never actually wrote a single lyric or musical note of his own -he was merely a fashionable front for popular music. Sadly (although not really ‘cos Presley was a horrible bloke), the most iconic aspect of Presley isn’t ‘Jailhouse Rock’ or his (very average) talent on a guitar, but his infinitely-replicated hairstyle and dancing feet. And so, to say that the recent digital world has induced an era where image has overtaken voice is inaccurate if it doesn’t accept that image has always had the ability to overtake voice in its importance and influence. That is not to say that it always does – that would be a stupid thing to suggest, easily rebutted by referencing an infinite number of different artists – but rather it isn’t just social media that is responsible for the preponderance of image over voice.
He who only ever appears behind a mask has said that “It don’t matter what I look like, you know, it don’t matter what the artists look like, its more what the artists sound like”
No less important is the inescapable relationship between image and music. For example, the 60s and 70s issued a new era of rock music of all sorts, seemingly all about the new musical movement as oppose to the image-savvy pop icons that existed before, after and alongside them. However, even before the movement grasped its hold on popular culture, the Rockstar image – the long-haired, rowdy, drug-induced lunatic – was of great importance. And by the time it became a popular form of musical expression, the likes of Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones embodied what it was to be a Rockstar, which was not just a musician. There are of course exceptions to that rule, and examples such as the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin spring to mind, but regardless of the seeming lack of importance attributed to the image of these two examples, there is still a corresponding image to the sound.
Now, what must be said of the effect of the digital world on music is that the image of an artist has become far more accessible than ever before, and because of this, the likelihood of a musician succeeding in this current climate is based a lot more on image than ever before. In fact, the selection process for musicians will now inevitably be compounded by whether the appropriate look. The increasingly-shite talent shows, such as the X-Factor and The Voice, serve as a perfect example of this, where, at its most simplistic merely a reality tv show, the public is not only encouraged but forced to vote for an artist because of who they are not what they sound like. Although this may sound harsh, the most obvious example of this is Susan Boyle, who captured the hearts of the world because she was a timid, stereotypically unattractive woman with an exceptional voice. You may say that she exemplifies exactly the opposite of image overtaking voice, but it must first be said that her voice was only ever considered amidst the apparent unappealing image of her, a cruel truth sadly, and that from the minute she became known it was always in lieu of her appearance. The very fact that people didn’t just look at her, for better or worse, and admire her voice as opposed to qualify it with observations on her appearance, is testament not only to the fact that image has certainly become of great importance now more than ever but also so much so that the public was quite astounded by the idea that someone unattractive could sing that well, as if the two were mutually exclusive. And social media and the digital world has now compounded the importance of image over voice, for if a certain artist cannot be categorised into a certain fashion circle or image, it is a lot harder to maintain success or achieve relatability. A fan is a hell of a lot more likely to resonate with an artist because of what they read in whatever politicised newspaper they read, as opposed to what they are writing in their music.
I’d like to finish with an example of what I deem to be one of the greatest rappers to date, the metal-masked MF DOOM. He who only ever appears behind a mask has said that “It don’t matter what I look like, you know, it don’t matter what the artists look like, its more what the artists sound like, so the mask really represents the whole, like, thing to rebel against trying to sell the product as a human being, it’s more of a sound.” And Stones Throw Records, littered with phenomenal artists – Madlib, Peanut Butter Wolf and the late great J Dilla to name a few – embody this message of the importance of music over image. And what I’m about to say I find troubling and upsetting but nevertheless true: the mask of DOOM, a symbol of the disinterest in image, has become one of the most iconic things about him, despite the fact that his lyrics and beats are unbelievable. HipHopDX alluded to this in his YouTube video entitled ‘The Hypocrisy of DOOM fans,’ him being one of them, when he said, whilst discussing the greatly distasted tendency of DOOM to send out masked imposters in place of him, “As DOOM fans isn’t it DOOM who we truly love anyway. Would any of us pay anything to see Zev Love X (DOOM’s alias before the mask) rap if he never put the mask on?” And the fact that I, who deeply resents the need for image in music along with many others, and intimately obsesses over the intricate word-play and beats of the man himself, wear the ring-version of that mask, is testament to that. I guess the simple truth is that image will always be integral to music, as shit as that is, and although social media has made that fact more overt, it has merely exaggerated a fact that has always been true. So, the DOOM mask will remain on my middle finger as an ironic ‘fuck you,’ I guess, ‘cos what more is there to do?
Photographs: Mr Bootle and Paul Goetz via Flickr Creative Commons