Gene Sculatti explains how artists — from the Rolling Stones to hip hop icons like Drake — stopped smiling in order to "sell disdain"——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
Way back in 1966, garage-y Brit quartet the Downliners Sect cut a searing single, a tune composed by a pre-Velvet Underground Lou Reed and John Cale titled 'Why Don't You Smile Now'. Gleefully anti-romantic in the best Jagger-Richards tradition, this record raised a question that's gone unanswered for some 40 years—at least when it comes to the way popular music is visually represented.
Unsmiling faces, framed by lowered brows and downturned, don't-mess-with-me mouths, have long been a dominant design element of pop album covers, whether the music within is made by scrappy indie outfits, howling grind corpsmen or easily aggravated hip-hoppers.
Why so glum, chums? Sure, sleeves also feature objects, landscapes or illustrations, but when it comes to photographic captures, artists are often depicted as no-nonsense brooders whose gaze suggests they're conducting cold assessments of you the viewer.
Think about it, and please credit Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham. Before his boys' debut LP, 1964's England's Newest Hitmakers, whose caught-in-the-cops'-spotlight cover shot seems to issue an "Are you lookin' at me?" challenge a decade before DeNiro's mirror turn in Taxi Driver, artists were portrayed as pleasers. Not just the cheery Fabs of the 'Please Please Me' sleeve (though With the Beatles/Meet the Beatles opts for somberness, the effect is neutral, not hostile), but everyone in showbiz, from Sinatra (a wink and a finger-snap beckon you to 'Come Fly with Me') and Presley (a sexy grin for Elvis' Golden Records) to the Beach Boys, Seasons, Supremes and the rest, aimed for an agreeable hook-up. The artists' eagerness to Mach shau! for potential consumers was never in doubt.
One could say that the Stones were selling disdain, and that we've loved them for it. They were. And we do. But there's more to that look and its enduring appeal. Historically, the reproachful posture was a defense—against the naysayers who scorned pop—and it's a statement that all of us, fans and critics alike, spent considerable effort making back then: This is serious stuff, not dismissible like the fluff that came before. Show some respect.
Forty years on, the defensiveness is hardly called for; we won, everything that preceded rock has been dethroned, all previous reigning cultural standards tossed. But the conceit that science is being dropped, that Something Big Is Being Said Here, still hangs heavy on covers, a sort of aesthetic ghost limb that obliges most of them to be strict no-smile zones.
Through the years, this approach has spawned numerous sub-schools. From today's perspective, perhaps the silliest was the late '60s/early '70s phenomenon that Howard Kaylan of the Turtles once described as "the Knowing Acid Look": all those medallioned, kaftan-ed junior yogis staring out from LP sleeves with a near- contemptuous regard for the poor shmuck considering his purchase. He should be grateful to pony up five bucks for all this long-play wisdom!
Next came the singer-songwriters, whose earnest faces suggested their shoulders were buckling under intense cogitation on politics, the environment, drug policies and that long-haired girl who messed up their minds.
The shadows deepened further still with heavy-metallers, who are usually depicted as simply more disgruntled versions of the Glimmer Twins. But that riff is now beyond redundant. It may explain why a preponderance of metal covers opt for gory illustrations over band photos. (At least it's a fertile field: a recent L.A. Weekly article on the genre listed 25 sub-styles, among them Skater Thrash, Tech-Death and Pornogrind.)
Ironically, while their music was refreshingly dumb and funny and the farthest from "heavy," visual representations of the Ramones—and of most punks who followed—hewed to the sullen template forged by the Stones. The message is clear: Anything labelled "rock and roll" had better look like this. Gloomy portraiture likewise thrived when metal met punk in Seattle grunge. Though the band itself never appeared on the front of Nirvana's three albums, Cobain and company were typically caught in downcast poses. Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, consistently solemn in the Nineties, now works out on ukulele, perhaps the only instrument that one cannot play without smiling.
It's with the rappers, though, that grimness reaches its apogee. Not just in the old-school glares of N.W.A or Ice Cube's isometric brow flexes, but with successive waves of glowering solipsists, bare-chested or in bespoke suits. Even now, as the charts swell with the forced glee of One Direction and the drowning irony of Katy Perry, hip-hoppers keep it real by keeping it serious. On the cover of his international No. 1 album Take Care, Drake stares inconsolably into the table, as drained as the empty goblet he half-heartedly clutches. Can nothing relieve his anguish?
It's a mean old world, this pop universe. But can't we all just lighten up?
Read articles on artists from Aaliyah to ZZ Top at Rock's Backpages. 20,000+ articles by the best writers from the finest music publications of the last 50 years.