If you think music—particularly pop and rock, but classical as well to a lesser extent—is just about sound and image doesn’t come into play, I have news for you. Everything involves image, and when performers try to look as plain as possible, well, that’s image too. I’m always amused by purists who claim that for them, “It’s all about the music, man.” It so rarely is. Just look at Paul McCartney, the subject of this week’s program Chaos and Creation at Abbey Road. For his entire career, Macca, as he’s known to fans and detractors alike, has had a reputation for making mild music. The rocker and rabblerouser of the Beatles was John Lennon; McCartney wrote the pretty songs your mother would enjoy. But this is partly mythical (it was Lennon who wrote “Imagine” and McCartney who was behind “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” for instance) and a lot has to do with Macca’s image, that of a man contentedly married for years—and not to a “wacky” Japanese performance artist, either.Because pop and rock flourished in parallel with the massification of media in the mid- to late 20th century, both visuals and performers’ personal behavior came to play an increasing large part in the way we consider their art. McCartney, who came on the scene in the very early ’60s and is still active, embodies this evolution as well as anybody: Who could argue that his puppy face of the early ’60s and his tousled mid-’70s Wings period aren’t as embedded in the consciousness of anybody over 40 as his songs? (And let’s not forget that Paul’s late wife, Linda Eastman, was a photographer herself.) It’s hard to argue that no matter what he’d do, McCartney could not shake his reputation as a middle-of-the-road bloke; and that’s a reputation you don’t want in rock & roll.
Coincidentally, this week’s program also looks at the way iconography plays out in pop and rock through a segment devoted to lenser Lynn Goldsmith, whose exhibit at the Jenkins Johnson Gallery runs until November 25. Along with the likes of Bob Gruen or Mick Rock, Goldsmith has created some of the most iconic images in our contemporary culture.
But we are at a turning point. Many of these images were created for album covers, which are quickly turning into an artifact of the past in our download-happy times. Oh sure, you can look at covers in iTunes, and artists still come up with them, but something is being lost—I, for one, think it’s a great thing that music and style are so intricately linked. Would I have loved the B-52s as much if they looked as boring as early U2? Would the Ramones have been as influential if they had not carefully created an anti-image of ripped jeans and Converse sneakers?
I wouldn’t be surprised if one day in the near future musicians release only digital versions of their music, and sell limited quantities of the physical versions at high prices, like so many art objects. And we’ll look back in wonder at the days when people could play the covers game with their favorite albums.