It bothers me that only a minority of socially impactful academic research is communicated effectively to the public. Coming from that side of things, I understand the massive time constraints that researchers are under, which ultimately results in a lop-sided research output leaning heavily towards journals and academic audiences. It’s a system that makes it difficult to flip a paper into an article, and a theory driven thesis into a wholly accessible narrative. As researchers, it’s about time we put our good intentions into practice. Which is what I intend to do here.
The research that I work on is concerned with the images of artists in music media. My research investigates the branding of artists, the processes of image management, and representations of bodies on music magazine covers. In 2017, I began with the covers of Hot Press and Rolling Stone. In 2018, I published the findings on my website and later that year I presented the same research at a Dublin media conference. Without a doubt I was late to the party in understanding the complete significance of these findings – I’m sure my supervisors saw it before I did. The data that I collected represents something new which hasn’t been discussed in this context before. Forgetting all the academic waffle, the data driven narrative outlined below will guide us through the evolution of gender on the covers of Hot Press and Rolling Stone – an evolution which sits firmly within a heavily commercialised music culture.
In 1951, the first music magazine in Ireland was advertised in the Irish Press – Music World. The music magazine industry in Ireland and across the Western world grew in size and its success spawned iconic titles such as NME, Melody Maker, and Creem. However, the libersalisation and privatisation of the media market in the 1970s and 1980s was the beginning of their demise. Significantly over the past two decades, the commercial music magazine industry has lapsed into a deepening cycle of continuous decline. The folding of the widely popular UK pop music magazine, Smash Hits, in 2006 and the announcement of the final print issue of NME in 2018 has been accompanied by music magazines worldwide reporting year-on-year declines in sales and readership. Out of the titles above, just two exist in digital formats: Journal of Music, and NME.
In 2011, Eric Hatton and Mary Nell Trautner investigated the representation of gender on the cover of Rolling Stone. They analysed over 1,000 covers and found that while sexualised and non-sexualised images of women have decreased since the start of the publication, hypersexualised images of women have increased. In the 1960s, hypersexualised images of women accounted for 11% of all images of women. In the 1990s and 2000s, they accounted for 61% of women’s images. While sexualised images of men have increased since the beginning of the publication, images of men remain largely non-sexualised across time.
Inspired by their research, I wanted to know what happened when you compared gender representation on music magazine covers. Interestingly, this is the first piece of circulated feminist media research that has done so.
Through blind selection, I collated samples of covers which contained images of women and men associated with the music industry – 479 images of artists in total. Looking at each cover individually, I then applied 19 categories of appearance to every image of a person and tracked the results. The categories were largely to do with bodily representation.
The data shows that increasingly over time, women on the covers of Hot Press and Rolling Stone are represented with certain parts of their bodies exposed and uncovered by clothing. In the 1980s and 1990s we can see steep increases in the the exposure of women’s arms and chests. The images of women’s bodies share a common evolution across Hot Press and Rolling Stone, and the ways their bodies are represented are closely linked between both publications.
Moreover, while the experiences of women’s bodies in both publications are shared across time and across continents, body parts within each magazine are also closely tied and follow shared trends of exposure. Women’s arm and chest exposure within Hot Press follow extremely similar evolutions, and the same can be said for Rolling Stone.
When it comes to midriff and leg exposure, there are commonalities between publications and within them. What the analysis of the data points to is a deliberate, non-random narrowing process which shapes the representation of artists within these cover spaces. This research confirms what Eric Hatton and Mary Nell Trautner stated about the hypersexualisation of women on the cover of Rolling Stone. What we can also add to this important critique is that the images of women on the cover of Hot Press have also reached hypersexualisation status.
I wanted to know what was happening to the images of men. Parallel to the intensifying exposure of women’s bodies, men’s representation is heavily centred around norms of coverage.
A steady increase in the coverage of men’s bodies is a defining feature of the historical evolution of representation on these magazine covers. Almost at an even pace since the 1960s and 1970s, the images of men in these spaces have been aligned to a certain kind of representation, and it is one that favours the coverage of arms, chests, midriffs, and legs. A controlled image of masculine identity, and controlled agency on the covers of Hot Press and Rolling Stone.
Another point of difference between the images of women and of men on these magazine covers is mouth orientation.
Men are more commonly shown in both magazines with their mouths closed: 80.7% in Hot Press and 75% in Rolling Stone. The preference for open mouths when it comes to the images of women is extremely prevalent on the cover of Rolling Stone, with 73.2% of women portrayed this way. The figure remains much lower on the cover of Hot Press – though still almost half of all women studied – at 41.5%.
I comparison, just 18.5% of men and 17% of men on the covers of Hot Press and Rolling Stone respectively are portrayed with open mouths.
An overall trend which was identified across both magazines in this research was the intensifying preference for a certain kind of bodily representation for the images of women and of men, one which over the past 40 or more years has defined how gendered bodies are portrayed within these cover spaces.
What is happening, and has been happening, on the covers of Hot Press and Rolling Stone is the symbolic subjugation of bodies in space to the strategies of image management and brand management, which have permeated a revenue driven industry.
This research in some ways is stating the obvious – that the images of artists are carefully curated visual identities. But what is happening within these magazine spaces is detrimental to the industry itself. It is not people, but mediated images of people, communicated as brands whose symbolic value is based on limited narratives of gender, expressions of gender, and sexuality. As music magazines continue to suffer under the thumb of ruinous competition and deeply embedded advertising pressures, we have to step back and ask the question, “to what end are we willing to trade cultural value for commercial success? And who is benefiting?”
If there is value to be found in the calculated crafting of an image of gender in cultural production, then it is neither we, nor the editors of these magazines who are reaping the rewards.
If you would like to read more about my current research project, and how you may take part, please follow this link.