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.
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.
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?
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?