Posted in Of Musicals

Of Music and Image

Unknowingly, I have performed the ultimate blind test. I feel it may even answer this endlessly debatable question – how much does image influence music?

When I was a teenager, I had borrowed a CD of 90‘s rock hits from somebody. It did not have a cover sleeve, so apart from a couple of artists, I didn’t know who most of the tracks were by. My favourite was one called “Come Undone”, a moody, interestingly arranged track which was somehow not depressing, despite the subject matter. Last year, I accidentally came across it on Youtube. This time, I was aware of the reputation of the artists behind it – Duran Duran, a band of pretty boys who made mammoth pop hits in the 80s, beloved by scores of young girls at the time and sometimes called as makers of “disposable pop”. I had somehow managed to like them despite no hormonal involvement between myself as a teenager and their music videos – i.e., I liked the music of a band with a glamour-on-steroids aesthetic, without even seeing them.

Duran Duran - 1982
Cheekbones Galore: Duran Duran

Music has always had an image. Whether you’re wearing raggedy clothes with a head full of lice and a guitar in your hands, or sharp, silk suits as part of an orchestra, what you see has always come with what you hear, if not preceded it. You might go to an Indian classical music performance, and be appalled to the point of not wanting to sit through if the musicians are wearing jeans and t-shirts. Similarly, you may be denied entrance to an opera for not being well-dressed, even if you’re just an audience member who is only there for the music. And if you wear a suit to a punk concert, you would be laughed at – in spite of the punk ethos that preaches individual expression, you’d be unwelcome for not conforming to its popular styles of spiked hair, bondage trousers etc.


Elvis in action

If anything, the radio had made it possible for the first time for music, to some extent, to be truly appreciated for what it is, sans image. Elvis Presley was thought to be an African-American artist when first heard on the radio. On the other hand, you had Milli Vanilli in the 90s, a duo for whom visuals were everything and who famously (and tragically) did not sing their own songs. There are too many examples to give for when the scales are balanced more towards one than the other or, as in the case of Elvis, grow in mass equally on each side. The answer lies simply in this statement – music has always had an image. The real question is, can you appreciate music without it, or can you accept, even celebrate the combination of the two?

Milli Vanilli

Nowadays, many people perform traditional material, whether classical or folk, Eastern or Western, in modern clothing. What is a 20-something sitar player trying to convey as he performs wearing a Bob Marley t-shirt? Is it an argument or an acceptance of imbibing both styles? I can’t quite tell, because that would be highly presumptuous. Not every sitar player has the same attitude towards the sitar, and neither is every Bob Marley fan the same. Our individual preferences in music, whether they be consumed in groups or in private, represent our individual dreams. I love John Lennon, I’m guessing you do too, but despite our being able to relate to one another on the common reasons for why he makes for such an enduring musical icon, there will still be individual reasons, for you and for me, for why he influences our lives.


I could have just written this essay as a mini-appraisal of Madonna, as that is the name, rather the image, that comes to mind whenever this question is asked. But, her music has hardly ever suffered because of the image that accompanies it. If anything, the symbiosis of the two make it even more interesting. Videos of “Material Girl” and “Like A Prayer” amplify the subject matter, but also add substantial ideas to them. You get the reverse in movie soundtracks when, for example, soundtracks of Martin Scorcese films enhance, contrast or even provoke our understanding of the visual content. Music travels in ether – it comprises of vibrations passing through columns of air in distinct patterns. But, it does not exist solely in ether. It exists in culture, representing or inspiring our dreams, our emotions, our loves and losses.

If you find the image distracting or jarring, it is the cultural aspect it represents that is discordant with the music. On the other hand, if it is the music that grates at your sensibility, then why should the image even matter? Surely, it is the music contained inside that makes you want to open the package. It is the dream of something pleasant, beautiful, desirable, that even makes you want to give it the time. And if it doesn’t, then surely there is plenty of other music that does. Just like love, half of the excitement is in the chase. What treasure is more satisfactory than one got after much trouble?

Does image matter when it comes to your musical preferences?


Writer, Blogger, Kate Bush Fanatic

17 thoughts on “Of Music and Image

  1. You have made a compelling point, that image does in fact influence taste. I wonder what that means for music as an art form, especially in comparison to visual art, not so much literature because even in words we see images.

    1. Isn’t there always some sort of overlap among the arts? They may cater to a specific sense, but don’t they unfailingly involve other senses too? For example, when I am looking at a painting which has no text in it, am I only applying my own sense of visual aesthetic to it? Am I not thinking about it too, in terms of words (literature), perhaps touching it and maybe using other senses too? As you so rightly point out, we see images in words too. In fact, the whole business of writing involves invoking the different senses. Just reading about chocolates makes me want to eat them!

  2. Great post! I think your point is correct, certainly for the artists you mention, but find myself pondering if that holds true for all the other bands and singers I like. I think there is an element when you enjoy the music of wanting to BE that performer, mimicking their style as best as you can. In that regard I have certainly copied everything from leather jackets to sneakers I have seen people wearing on stage or in videos. But as I have gotten older, it is indeed the music itself that governs my preferences, and I find myself caring less for image, if that makes sense?

    1. Yes it does! Though I do have to slightly disagree with what you said in the beginning, because my whole argument was that ALL music, even if it is by a no-name performer busking on the streets, has an image. Some artists, like the ultra-glamourous ones I mentioned, do have, let’s say, a visually-directed or a visually-heavy aspect to their musical artistry, but even someone who maybe considered the anti-thesis of that artist (as Hall and Oates considered themselves to video stars, especially Madonna) ‘still’ carry an image, whatever it is. I think it is unfair when the scales are tilted heavily on either side. A band like Duran Duran, for example, grate at the sensibilities of most male listeners, despite having a substantial catalogue of interesting music that can stand on its own, sans image. Even then, it is curious, even ridiculous to think that a band that has sold over 100 millions copies should have a sizeable number of “cult” albums. On the other hand, there are countless artists who have suffered due to lack of a “popular” image. And there are the few, like Madonna, who can do both well.

      1. Very true and fair enough on that point. I may not have articulated my point so well. For the record though I never would have admitted to liking Duran Duran growing up…I secretly liked many of their songs 😄

      2. Ah, props to you for making that confession! Stephen1001, a music blogger, made a graph on Duran Duran music and the attitude that male listeners have had towards it over the years! Having listened to many of their ‘cult’ albums and numbers on the hit ones, I sincerely believe there is much to chew on, even for those who don’t like the poppy stuff.

      3. The truth is I think that pop music clearly pushes boundaries the way experimental artists do. The over promotion of pop most of the time can leave you tired of hearing the song but the reason the song became a hit is real. Which is why years later when I hear Something that worked in a bit of hip hop, or dance grooves I can say hmm, that wasn’t so bad! These days I’m less discerning and I keep more of an open mind and enjoy hearing artists incorporating those sounds

      4. I guess you get to be more open to things, don’t you? I think I was much more opinionated and affected in my uni years. But, the further I get away from the need to analyse and categorise, the more receptive I become to whatever I like. I feel people do this at different times of their life. It’s not necessarily a “growing up” sort of a thing, but more like ‘stop giving a four-letter word’ sort of thing. I don’t know if this anti-snobbishness helps the cause of culture in anyway, but it is definitely liberating!

  3. Really interesting post! To coin The Buggles “Video Killed The Radio Star” post-MTV in the early 80s, image became far more important, and bands like Duran Duran fully exploited the potential.

    Narrowing down the conversation to females in pop, how many have took the lead of exposing themselves (a move started by Madonna) to draw attention? Britney, Christina, Rihanna, Beyoncé etc, all use sexuality as a marketing tool to sell their records. It’s sad that they have to reduce themselves to this in order to sell records.

    1. But, hasn’t sexuality always played a part in rock and roll? Perhaps, it may not have been meant for male listeners, but even the way Mick Jagger or Robert Plant presented themselves in the 60s and 70s was highly sexual. I love David Bowie’s music, but I can’t help finding him absolutely gorgeous! Sexuality can be a marketing tool, but it can also be played out interestingly, even artistically. Cher precedes Madonna in that way, when she used her sexuality to comical effect, as well as a shock tactic. Madonna made statements – political, sexual, feminist, with it. Debbie Harry too, is just effortlessly sexy, and would be so even if she wore a gunny sack! But, yes, you are right in that it has become, disturbingly, too common to use sexuality, almost mechanically, as a marketing tool in recent years. I guess it just remains to be seen if their music can last, despite whatever tools they use to sell it now.

      1. You’re so right about sexuality being an important marketing tool back in the rock and roll era. For many years TV schedulers wouldn’t show Elvis’ gyrating hips for fear of upsetting the masses, and The Beatles were undoubtedly helped by their looks. I just feel that it has become more focused and widespread throughout pop, particularly amongst female stars. As for their longevity…who knows? I think ultimately it comes down to the quality of the music in the long run.

      2. Exactly. That is why Duran Duran were my inspiration for writing this post. Madonna’s albums from the 80s and 90s will last because it is interesting music. Duran Duran have, on the other hand, suffered more for the “notoriety” of their fame, even if they have continued to make good music. There aren’t many male artists who suffer for their glamour or sexualised performances. Case in point – artists like David Bowie and Prince. I guess it will sound cynical when I say this, but many male and female pop artists from the 90s and 2000s who were huge in their time (as I witnessed first hand) are far from it now. Even if I come across them in “Where are they now?” features, their music just seems formulaic, cloning something that worked for somebody else. Ultimately, quality lasts, though getting attention does help the process.

  4. I think visual image can work both for you and against you. The physical beauty that was Duran Duran surely boosted sales. But it probably got in the way of respect. I don’t think it should, But it sure can.

    1. Thank you, Georgia! That is exactly the point I was trying to make, and you’ve put it so succinctly. You always hear about it when it comes to female artists, and there are countless assessments of Madonna, both academic and popular, that seek to analyse her physical appeal, usually in a derogatory manner. It is hard to find a male artist who is subjected to the same. Duran Duran, despite writing and playing their own, very interesting music, still got pigeon-holed due to their physical appeal. It was discovering a lot of their music, that should be talked about but isn’t, simply because the majority of music critics are male, that made me want to explore this subject.

  5. Ah, what an interesting topic. I try hard not to watch music videos. But I can remember a time when I was a teenager and I wanted to see videos, to see how the band interpreted a song. There are a still a few music videos I love, though I try to separate them from the song itself. I don’t necessarily think of the video for Losing My Religion every time I hear the song, but I do love the video.

    As for the presentation of the artist, I have to agree that Madonna was quite genius with that at times, especially in the examples you named. Her provocative appearance helped support provocative music. It worked. Sometimes it doesn’t. Though I do love when grungy, loud metal acts play ballads….sometimes the contrast is amazing.

  6. I don’t want music videos anymore either. That was my main source of discovering music back in the 90s and early 2000s, when MTV and the like still “played” music. Now, even if I’ve never seen the video, I’d still put it on, on Youtube and listen to it, instead of watching it. Many contemporary pop videos just scare me with how ‘hip’ they are! Though I like the odd one here and there, like Sia’s “Chandelier”.

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