The most iconic musicians are equally recognisable for their signature images as much for their music: David Bowie, Cher, Dolly Parton, Prince, Debbie Harry (just to name a handful). Even most musicians today - given only a hairstyle, outfit, or feature - can be identified by name. Artists have transcended the purely sonic, putting heavy stock in their personal brand and visual identity, but why? Why has the image and identity of a recording artist become so important? And (moreover) why do we even care?
The music industry itself is - in essence - a capitalist project which makes creating a distinctive, trademarkable image a prerequisite for success. Artists must have a look that can be propelled by marketing - merched out, capitalized, licensed, and parodied for Hallowe'ens to come all in the name of brand recognition. To industry leaders, it’s all about the generating money, above or even veering into the realms of artistry, expression, authenticity, and originality.
"As much as people consistently extol that sound is the most important factor in evaluating music, we actually depend primarily on visual information."
Until mass photography and video merged with image and sound, the music industry used to be relatively blind. Incredibly prejudiced? Yes. But in an overarching sense, a recording artist’s success was built on vocal and musical talent over attractiveness or appearance. However in the late 1920s and 1930s, when silent films transitioned into talkies, the “attractive” and photogenic recording artists with even the smallest acting chops made it into the movies. Matching carefully curated faces to the music fed consumers’ aspirations, sending them to the cinemas and record stores to see and hear the likes of Irene Dunne, Bing Crosby, Mae West, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers. By no means were these actor/singers the most talented musicians of the time, however, their songs continued to top charts. This signalled that if an artist looked good, or audiences could recognise their face, their music would sell big.
Our long attachments to sonic/visual pairings have a bit of scientific reasoning. In a 2013 study by Chia-Jung Tsay with the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it was found that: “social judgements are made on the basis of both visual and auditory information, with consequential implications for our decisions.” Tsay's findings show that as much as people consistently extol that sound is the most important factor in evaluating music, we actually depend primarily on visual information. When asked to evaluate a music competition performance based on either visuals only, sound only, or both visual and sound:
83.3% of participants reported that the sound mattered most for their evaluation of music performances, these same participants were significantly more likely to identify the winners when they were presented with only the visual components.
This is the very concept that brought together shows like The Voice - where talent is judged blindly and looks “don’t matter” (of course, after the contestants go through several off camera filter rounds, it is clear that looks, in fact, matter a ton).
Recording artists also feel the pressures of contemporary celebrity culture - the insatiable coverage of celebrities’ personal lives on a worldwide scale turns fame into an increasingly important motor for selling records.
The impact of celebrity culture has become deafeningly amplified by social media, hence greater emphasis on an artist’s sense of style and presentation as well. In globalised capitalism, we understand individuals as stand-ins for the zeal of society as a whole. Rihanna is a prime example of this; while others have caved to the pressures of celebrity culture, Rihanna has reclaimed it. Through Fenty Beauty, Savage x Fenty, Fenty x Puma, perfume licensing deals, a sock collection, an upcoming furniture collection, several film roles, eight albums, and an official Barbados ambassadorship, she has amassed a reach which touches millions and drives influence. Simply put, people hold the appearance of musicians to such a high standard, because oftentimes they’re looking to be influenced, asking to be inspired, and with the immediacy of celebrity news, expect to be informed, entertained, and guided by people in the public eye.
"We're looking to be influenced, asking to be inspired."
It is refreshing to see artists like Bjork, Solange, Tyler. The Creator, FKA Twigs, and others reclaim the narrative established nearly a century ago, holding agency in their authentic, not-always-commercially-salient identities, refusing to be manufactured and polished, bucking industry dogma, and crafting original spaces in which their music can thrive. If you’re anything like me, these are the type musicians that seem most attracting (both aesthetically and sonically). It is one thing to live out our own authentic lives, but we also need to support authenticity when we see it in others; in a way, this reiterates the fact that image does matter. While these artists sit outside of the lines of typical celebrity, this transgression is as much a part of their brand identity as those who conform to it in more expected ways.
The entertainment industry is bound by a set of expectations that have become normalised and repeated throughout its evolution. From just seeing an artist's picture on a record sleeve, to seeing them in films, to knowing what they are doing at any given moment via Snapchat, image is now as much a part of the music industry as sound.
We don’t have to care about what musicians and artists look like, and honestly we shouldn’t. In an ideal world, it should just be about creative people making wonderful music. But in our image-focused, mass media, stan culture, it’s so easy to find ourselves watching them too.