20 February, 2007

Visual Culture and the Politics of Music Promotion (AKA: I Can Come Up With a More Pretentious Title Than Tori Amos!)

This morning, I logged onto my LiveJournal friends page and came across this photo--it is a promotional photo for Tori Amos's new album, which is due out in May of this year:

I posted the photo to my own journal along with the following comments:

I looked at this photo this morning and was confused--I thought this was because I had just woken up.

Now that I'm looking at it for the second time, I am still just as confused. I don't know whether to love it or loathe it.

Even her posture and the position of her arms says, "Uhh...I 'unno..."

The album's title, however, is utterly weird. [American Doll Posse, WTH? If she's going to try to do a title that doesn't make any sense, she could at least pull a Zappa and name it March of the Glass-Eyed American Doll Posse With Chalk Spines, Bit-O-Honeys and Fishbowls or something.]

A friend pointed out that she has heard gripes similar to mine out of the mouths of fellow Tori fans nearly every time Tori has released new material since 1996 (!), and, in addition, asked, "When did it stop being about the music?" In other words: Why is everyone (and I include myself in this category, unfortunately) so obsessed with what an entertainer such as Tori Amos looks like, how they choose to dress, and/or how they choose to present themselves in a visual manner?

Of course, since this is the sort of thing that is currently my life's work, I have to expand this into a larger comment. I contend that in our culture, it can never be exclusively about the music, due to our reliance on and obsession with image. This may seem like an obvious statement, but for some people, it may not be so obvious. I think quoting the cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan is appropos here: "I don't know who discovered water, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't the fish!" Only by getting out of water and into some other substance can we actually begin to pick apart what it means, and what sort of effect it has on us.

I, personally, think it would be awesome (not to mention sort of weird) if all musicians one day started releasing albums with blank CD covers that show the artist, title of record and song names; but, obviously, no one is going to agree with me there, least of all the people who make their living from creating and peddling images for our increasingly visual culture.

I'd love to be able to ignore this sort of thing. I really, really would. However, as feminist philosopher Susan Bordo notes in her excellent Twilight Zones: The Hidden Life of Cultural Images From Plato to O.J., "That we live in an image saturated culture has come to seem normal, routine, to us...Massive and dramatic cultural and technological changes have taken place in an extraordinarily brief period of historical time--and so recently that we have barely been able to begin to chart their effects on our perception, cognition, and most basic experience of the relation between reality and appearance. The images are much more ubiquitous in our lives today than they were just a decade ago (2)." And, as Bordo notes later while recounting an anecdote in which she describe being yelled at by a therapist during a presentation on the effects of media image on the body image of young people--the therapist, hilariously, chides her to simply "turn off the TV"--turning "off" these impulses, perceptions and habits is not easy. We have been taught by the dominant culture to value these things--in this case, to pay more attention to how a musician looks, or what she chooses to look like, than to how she sounds, her skills as a musician and lyricist, or what issues she addresses in her music. (If you're not convinced of this yet, consider Courtney Love for just a moment. As has been noted by some, she's got some great lyrics, and a gift for melody. Do you hear about any of that from many of the major media outlets or music magazines?)

You can certainly blame the advent of MTV and its ilk for making "image" more important than the actual music and its effect on those who listen to it, but something about music has always been visual, whether you consider live performances, dance, album covers, fanart, promotional materials, and a host of other things. Increasingly sophisticated marketing tactics have only increased this system. Before records come out, there is a whole lot of work to be done--promo shots to send out to magazines, interviews to grant to these same magazines, websites to put up, payola to distribute to DJs across the nation (kidding, sort of!) street teams to weigh down with stickers and posters and send into the sunset. So, what is the solution to making it about the music as opposed to the image?

Note: Since I have NO theoretical background in economics, I am not going to go into the capitalism thing. Yes, money does make at least part of our world go 'round, but I am not the best person to explain that in relation to the modern music industry in this post.


Robin said...

Uh, this picture of Tory is downright scary, just plain wrong.

If you want to see something even more frightening, look up REAL DOLLS on Google. Saw a documentary while in London last week (you know those Brits) about men who just can't seem to find a live woman to love and love him in return, so they purchase to use (and abuse) anatomically correct dolls made out of silicone (so that they "respond"). Oooookay. That's real normal!!

There was "Everhard," a computer programmer who takes his doll on outings in his car, "Dave Cat," a scientist who had to send his doll back to the factory to get her limbs refastened ("...but it will be like a second honeymoon when she comes home..."), and some loser who lives in Kentucky and only leaves the house to go to work, then rushes home so he can be with "female companionship". Too bad Tory has evidently taken a page from the Real Dolls catalogue. (The name of the documentary is "Guys and Dolls".)

And seriously, don't visit that site unless you want to really be grossed out.

Ames said...

I just wanted to pop in to make the point that I dislike Courtney Love because, regardless of her musical skill, it's been documented that she was never all that into punk, but she jumped into it for the scene, and then went on to co-opt the obvious parts of riot grrrl culture for her image during the Live Through This era. And even though I actually really like that album, it's hard for me to fully separate the product from the persona from the person.

(This is a pretty specific example, I know.)

I do think an album cover as well as an artist's image can give you an idea of what music is contained within, so I don't think it's an inherent evil. The trouble is when that becomes more important to record companies THAN the contained music.

All of that said, I don't understand the big deal everyone's making out of the new Tori album/cover. I don't think many of the titles make a lot of sense out of context, and this isn't the weirdest in my opinion by far. And, seriously, once I've seen the woman nurse a pig I don't quite think anything could surprise me.

Gail said...

It's impossible to separate a musician from this sort of thing because most of them are not only musicians, but performers.