Music and Image

After the recent airing of the AMAs. Robert Cairns discusses the deification of image in music.


Coldplay baffled the audience by performing with a troop of dancing primates. Meghan Trainor devoured Charlie Puth’s face in an extremely awkward showcase of cannibalistic affection. Justin Bieber received a soaking baptism in the tears of his preadolescent super fans. The American Music Awards (AMAs) once again showcased the overbearing narcissism of the world’s most popular artists under the guise of rewarding talent. An artist’s image, in numerous genres, is undoubtedly as important as their music, but as young fans are becoming increasingly invested in their idols’ Instagram inventory instead of the mounting piles of monotonous discographies, is image now the key defining factor in a mainstream artist’s sustained success?

The AMA’s kicked off with the timeless Jennifer Lopez performing a rendition of her 1999 hit ‘Waiting for Tonight’. But, proclaiming “tonight is not about me, tonight is about the music”, she then burst into a dance routine along to the soundtrack of some of this years’ best selling songs. Whilst J-Lo’s abundant and seemingly endless energy was admirable, focus has and will be placed on how she still looks half her age, the vibrancy of her dress choices and the sultry nature of her dance moves, but not on the quality of her vocal performance. Of course, J-Lo is rightfully a fashion icon, but our generation are more concerned with the superficial elements of her performance than its musical quality.

The same story occurred throughout the show’s star studded guest list. After Bieber closed the show with a mad medley, the inexplicable catchiness of ‘What Do You Mean?’ was overshadowed by the fact Bieber had the dare to rock up to the gala wearing a vintage Nirvana t-shirt, at which the internet promptly lost its shit. Why should we care about what an artist chooses to wear at an event that is meant to reward music? Whether a deliberate middle finger to his critics or a genuine ode to a band that disbanded around the time he was born, Bieber’s wardrobe selection has shown that his critics are as easily duped by the illusion of image as his pious Beliebers. Even his recent album Purpose has been used as a blatant and genius rebranding of his bad boy image into a misguided pop star with a heart of gold. Induced by his ‘new’ innocent persona, it seems the world has forgotten about his all too recent drunk driving charges and Brazilian brothel visits – oh Justin you scallywag, when will you learn?

For years artists have used image to promote their music. The Rat Pack wooed audiences with their suave suit and ties, whilst Elvis’ iconic jumpsuits and hypnotic pelvic thrusting blew them away. Bands like The Rolling Stones, The Sex Pistols and Nirvana all used their rebellious style to fuel their anti-establishment war path and turn countless heads in the process. When Radiohead recorded OK Computer they changed their sound not their image, propelling them to new heights of fame. But all these had the music to accompany and legitimise their characters. In the current era of mainstream mediocrity, competition is so forced and fierce that only the feeble skeletons of regurgitated pop songs can find success, so much so that it is the mere facade of image that separates each industrially constructed artist from the next. No wonder artists are now using music to promote their public representation.

The other performers took their moment in their spotlight to reassert their importance, but it was Meghan Trainor and Charlie Puth’s actions that stole the show. After crucifying this year’s most hated song, ‘Marvin Gaye’, the two love birds proceeded to bite each other’s faces off in what can only be described as a touching tribute to The Walking Dead. The audience didn’t know what was more uncomfortable, having to sit through the kiss or having to listen to their thankfully abridged duet with grimacing smiles of forced enjoyment. With cameras continuously prowling, the audience had to maintain their countenance as the producers would gleefully ignore broadcasting the various on stage performances for snippets of celebrities looking expressly bored. With all this increased consciousness of image, artists can take a leaf out of Coldplay’s book. Coldplay care little about their aesthetic features – people hate them because of their music, not because of their image.

By the time the mostly subdued event came to a close, the shows’ producers were probably grateful they didn’t invite Miley Cyrus to the party, as days earlier she opened her latest tour wearing nothing but prosthetic breasts and an impressively sized strap-on dildo. It’s difficult to censure an artist’s image in the modern age, so its up to the music stars themselves and labels to make sure they provide a decent model for their young fans to aspire towards. But too many modern artists are evading these responsibilities and manipulating their image to spearhead their musical careers. And the annoying thing is we fall for it again and again; we can’t criticise the deification of image without talking about image, and unintentionally confirming its importance.


Robert Cairns

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