In this internet age with all its photo sharing glory, it can be easy to hyperbolise that image has never been so powerful, but long before social media people have been capitalising on the power of image as a means of representation and propaganda. In music, image is a decisive tool that can define a star and spawn a tribe of imitators that come to define a music genre through fashion. Image has been paramount to the success of many artists such as The Beatles in their matching suits, Ziggy Stardust and his lightning bolt, Elvis Presley’s white jumpsuit, Daft Punk’s helmet’s and Grace Jones’ buzz cut; through these tokens of style they have crafted an instantly recognisable image, and become an icon of themselves.
Image is a mode of communication that silently signals to the world who we are - or who we want to be. Everything from our clothes, hair-cut and make-up; to where we hang out and who with, assimilate into an image to be consumed by others. Our image is the founding stone of our visual identity. Images have power because they are a ‘universal language’, they don’t require an interpreter. Our mind gorges on images to enrich our communicative experience and elicit an emotional response. The combination of seeing a favourite musician and their auditory poetries is a sensory experience that can take our brain and body soaring to another planet.
Ziggy Stardust is a prime example of complete construction of image, Ziggy fell to earth in 1972 and inhabited the body of David Bowie who subsequently changed his hair, his make-up and his clothes because it wasn’t enough to act like Ziggy - he had to be Ziggy. We had to believe in the reality of the image and ultimately we made him an icon. The image is a way to create a character that musicians can inhabit night after night on stage, or in front of the media. It can be a way of protecting their right to privacy such as with Daft Punk’s helmets, which have the added benefit of sensationalising their image. There’s no better way to capture the publics attention than to leave them wanting more, always guessing who? The icon is created in that seminal moment when the audience worship the image not the man and a star in born.
A star is rarely known for just one thing, they give the public the complete character package. Style and music have a symbiotic relationship, they share an artistic language of story-telling. Together, music and image complete and elevate each others sensory experience. Music gives style atmosphere and style gives music image identity. They sustain each other in the fight to be heard amongst the mass media of communication, with the common goal of selling an artist to the public.
Fashion often is the final gloss in the making of a star and the key in articulating the individuals identity or harmonising the group. Suited and booted with identical bowl haircuts The Beatles were undeniable a unit, a quartet of rock n’ roll demigods, that sent girls sexual desire into overdrive. Beatlemania describes the frenzied fandom of (largely female) teens, a worldwide phenomenon of wailing mobs craving to grab any piece of the Beatles that they could. This phenomenon can be attributed to the times, there was great revolution in the 1960’s and the Beatles came to stand for this new-order. Girls rebelling against their sexual repression by obsessing over a group of boys, with the added bonus that parents disliked them. Teens for the first time had money to burn and with the arrival of television in most homes never before was image so inescapable, it was the perfect combination of talent and timing to produce an icon.
Timing is everything and when pop music connects to wider cultural events, an artists’ image transcends pure entertainment, and comes to stand for something bigger. Take David Bowie’s ‘Major Tom’ or Grace Jone’s ‘I Need a Man’, they both indulged their social era. Jones particularly represents the cohesion of fashion and music, as model and muse her tall, lithe figure demanded to be noticed but being beautiful is not enough to make an icon. Jones represented an androgynous and powerful image in a time when black and queer rights where being challenged. Her image subverted gender stereotypes, she celebrated being black and influential, sexy yet masculine everyone queer, straight, male or female wanted to be as bold as Grace Jones.
The image becomes icon through repetition, through collectivism, when a significant proportion of the group decide that this is it! and the image becomes greater than the man. Night after night the musicians perform, a new audience but they must stay the same. People come to expect a certain image, eventually Ziggy became to big for Bowie and had to be killed off. Think of Elvis Presley and you see a young man, writhing on stage, guitar in hand but he knew the struggle and famously said, “an image is one thing and a human being another. It’s very hard to live up to an image, put it that way”. A musician lives in the present but his icon exists in a mythical recent past already gone but still relevant to now, the artists is subject to the change of the future but the cult keeps his past image alive.
Occasionally, an artist can create a cult culture so strong it ripples fashion’s waters. Kurt Cobain rejected traditional ideas of costume or stage presence, performing in the same flannel shirts and baggy, torn jeans he wore daily; but such was his status that this in itself made him the poster boy for 90’s grunge and inspired a generation to adopt a new aesthetic. Fashion is such a powerful medium because it allows a tribe of followers to connect to their icon by imitating their image. Fashion and music are often two sides of the same the collectivist coin and when the image they create coincides with that sweet spot on the time continuum, something magical happens and we are left with a lasting cultural icon.