“It’s just a game that I find exhausting. I think music is in a really dangerous place right now” – Katie O’Neill, Alien She

Alien She

We live in a strange time in human history. Sex is being redesigned and reprogrammed, our social lives are unfolding in a digital reality while we sit at home, space exploration is tentatively opening up new worlds, celebrity culture, politics, social change, environmental catastrophe, capitalism and technology are morphing into a gelatinous Cronenberg of humanity, and we are continually presented with images and advertisements at an alarming rate in our media driven lives.

Images are, and have been for tens of thousands of years, an important part of human living. The earliest recorded images of handprints are in a cave in the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, and are over 40,000 years old. Some of the earliest undisputed evidence of symbols scratched on ocher tools are over 100,000 years old. The first photograph, View from the Window at le Gras, was taken in France in 1826. Fourteen years later, the first postage stamp was circulated with an image of Queen Victoria’s profile. The oldest undisputed image of a human being was uncovered in 2008 from Hekle Fels Cave in Germany – the Venus figurines, no larger than a nail polish bottle, depict a woman’s body. Now, enter music, the music industries, and a marketised, fetishised image culture. The subject of my research is image in the commercial music industries, and predominately the images of artists that we see on the covers of music magazines. I want to know why images of artists exist the way they do, and I want to know more about the human experience behind the image.

View from the window
View from the Window at le Gras (Photo credit: luvi/Flickr)

In an effort to understand more about the role of an artist’s image in Ireland and in the global music industries, I sat down with Katie O’Neill one Friday afternoon. Katie O’Neill is a photographer, artist, and guitarist/vocalist with the band Alien She, who are signed to the independent Sligo record label, Art for Blind. We sit across from each other with a sheet of questions and a recorder on the table.

Katie grew up in a musical household and she knew in her early teenage years that she wanted to perform live music, and be in a band.

“…by the end of college I got really interested in recording music myself. I can specifically remember at the time, Laura Sheeran and Katie Kim were quite active online, and I was just like ‘this is amazing’… I was 21 or 22 [and] I started to teach myself to record songs on my laptop, and I ended up putting out a few demos online”

In 2012, Katie met bass player – and now, band member – Aoife, and the decision to form a band was finalised when drummer, and childhood friend Darragh joined the group.

There has been a lot of research published about role models, and how images of people that we see in media and society can affect perceptions of our own identity, and how we envisage ourselves in the future. The concept of the “possible future self” is part of this. For example, as a girl at a young age, I see lots of white women working as school teachers, and as race and gender become salient concepts to me, the idea that I could be a teacher, in my mind, becomes a realistic possibility.

Alien She
Alien She, photographed by Ciara Burke

It’s interesting to listen to Katie describe people in music whom she looked up to in those formative years. Katie Kim and Laura Sheeran were very important to her, to see women making their own music. “…it seemed really empowering to me that women were just making music on their own, like not being a pop star or anything but just being a solo musician… [it] made it seem possible that I could be a solo musician and make kind of serious music”, she says.

But images of artists are problematic, particularly images of women artists. It’s a problem that plays into constructed extremes of femininity, “a strong dichotomy between extremely sexy, or angry and almost scary”, says Katie. It’s a historical limitation, and we can see it on music magazine covers, in music videos, and on stage.

“It’s like you’re either really strong and desexualised and almost masculine, or like I’ve noticed a lot of female artists who I really admire, they look angry in their image, you know? And it’s like they’re returning the gaze and they’re kind of challenging the camera, and that’s really cool. But I’m like, is this the option?… it’s very difficult to actually be yourself, there’s a lot at stake. Because your image, it goes into a pool and it’s categorised and it’s lost in this kind of lexicon of female imagery”.

Katie describes her image are generally neutral, sometimes androgenyous. And she does think about her image in her career. She says, “I think about it a lot. I never want to be too sexy in an image because… I always think about a teenager looking at my photo and how they would feel about it. I want to be a good role model… Not that I don’t like to be sexy… Go for it, you know. But it’s hard to tell if it’s the artists who actually wanted to do that”.

She describes an all too common dynamic that we see play out in music media. There’s a conflict here between what is real and what is presented – real as in ‘true to life’, like bad skin, lounge pants, hair that isn’t freshly washed, double chins, and a natural tendency to slouch. Pit these everyday realities against the polished images of smiling, slim, smooth skinned women floating in a pool of water or gazing up at the camera from a boudoir pose, or men with their arms crossed in matching leather jackets, scowling with a purposely placed guitar around their shoulders – it’s a studio image, and it’s designed that way. If these magazines did not hold the lions share of power and visibility in our music media industry, perhaps it wouldn’t be as big of an issue. But the truth is there is an incredibly narrow space in popular music media for identities that challenge the narrative of these polished images. Having to face the reality presented by music magazine covers – the spaces reserved for successful, celebrated artists – and come to terms with the dominant image of success that is rewarded by those with power in the industry can have an effect on the well-being of artists who are working hard to get into that space. When promoting herself and her career, Katie finds herself thinking about her body.

“…it depends on where I am with my own confidence and mental health… if I’m feeling kind of down about myself or you know pressured or… just in a bad headspace, I think about that a lot more. But I try not to get obsessed about that stuff. Because it’s really unhealthy… because you’re feeling like, I want to look really nice, I want to look good, I want to look strong and powerful, and then you’re also thinking I want to turn all that on its head and I want to just be myself and show the world what a woman really looks like, you know?… But then I get exhausted because I’m always trying to you know, trouble something, like Jesus, maybe I just want to take a normal photo one day… I honestly try to take as much control as possible with our images, we usually have a good friend photograph us or [we] try to do it ourselves because it just feels more comfortable”.

The source of the pressure that Katie describes runs deep in popular music culture. Recent research into the careers of pop stars has illuminated a deeply embedded relationship between commercial success and identity branding. Kristin Lieb’s research into the career lifecycle of a female pop star demonstrates that it tends to be shorter than that of her male counterparts, and their expressions of identity, of femininity, masculinity, and sexuality are intensely regulated by gendered industry norms and profit making practices.

Men also face limitations in their careers as pop stars, and existing research demonstrates that the commercial music industries are also constructing ideas of appropriate masculinity, for example in hip-hop music and in music videos. My own research into the images of artists on the covers of Hot Press and Rolling Stone describes how all artist bodies in these spaces are subjected to narrow ideas of gender. Move the conversation towards non-binary artists, or trans artists, and the knowledge gap widens.

Lifecycle diagram
From Gender, Branding and the Modern Music Industry by Kristin Lieb

The role of an artist’s image is connected to calculated commercial goals, but researchers like myself are still unclear as to the exact details of the ‘what, how and why’.

“Your image is almost more important than your music these days. It shouldn’t be that way, but I think a lot of people judge a band by their image. I’ve done it…It’s almost like there’s a pressure to have a packaged look. You have to have an image… It’s like you have to have a whole marketing brand – you have to have your album, the style of your album has to match your photo shoots, you have to share that everywhere because otherwise people just don’t get you. They don’t. People are busy… It’s just the next thing, the next thing, you need to be brainwashing them with your image. It’s just a game that I find exhausting. I think music is in a really dangerous place right now”.

I ask Katie about her views on the research by Lieb and others, about the branding of an artists image and career and the sexualisation of women pop stars. It affects her, and she feels angered by these limiting processes of image management. Again, we are faced with a conflict in representation, of extremes and prosthetic realities, and the ultimate effect on an artist’s sense of self.

“It makes me feel limited as a woman… It makes me almost want to reject my femininity in an image or presentation of myself, which I’ve definitely done before. And that’s actually quite depressing because for me, I’m denying a part of myself that I enjoy and I like to present. But I feel there’s so much at stake if I present a photo of myself in a dress. I might feel that way that day, I might feel very feminine and very pretty or something. But I feel like that’s sending a message that is sadly not respected”.

This interview with Katie has been a process of gathering experiences and knowledge, like pieces of a puzzle, so as to get a more complete view of the bigger picture. The visible dichotomy and selective representations on the covers of many mainstream music magazines, the covers of which Katie describes as “poppy”, “commercial”, “tailored”, and “false” are in one instance a product of a tightening relationship between image culture, consumerism, commerce, and music culture. Where this research is leading us, is to the spaces that exist between the concept of an artist’s image, and commercial success – spaces where representations of gender, identity, and sexuality are constructed. It couldn’t be done without artists, such as Katie, sharing their experiences and granting curious researchers like myself access to them. While keeping a focus on these experiences, we do need to keep in mind the broader environment of the ‘music industry’.

The music industries have a history of destructive and transformative competition – the recording industry being one. From the reactive pricing strategies by major record companies to maintain retail prices and maximise profit (and also to combat what they called piracy) to the beginning of commercial recording and the hostile acquisition of Zonophone by Gramophone in 1903, a development in what was a tangled ball of patent rights disputes, alliances between American Graphophone, Columbia Phonograph, and Universal Talking Machine Company, and a face off of technological ingenuity between Thomas Edison and Emile Berliner. Today, at an individual level we find ourselves in a ubiquitous ‘promo culture’, the pressure of which Katie has first-hand experience of.

“Everyone’s fighting for space and everyone wants to look active and everyone wants to look like they’re extremely successful, and no one actually wants to show maybe, reality for them. No one wants to admit that maybe they have a shit day job, or you know, they booked and paid [for] their own tour… So it’s a bit of a spectacle… You become obsessive, I’ve done it myself. You become obsessed with needing to be a successful artist online. I think it’s kind of toxic for someone’s creative process, and actually their self-worth”.

Regardless of gender, bands are expected to have a look, to have an image. But in particular, image culture plays a significant role in the career of women.

“I think female artists specifically, and I know this from talking to female artists who were maybe just beginning their career, they’re encouraged to have this packaged look, like what’s your look? Are you punk, are you pop, are you indie, are you goth, are you moody? I just find it so gross, so boring, so false, but it exists. It’s like a selling point… it’s like a signifier for people… it’s a way for people to understand it easily”

The comment on signifiers is worth exploring further. We connect sound to image, partly because genre and image are close relatives. Categories are part of how we make sense of an artist’s music – and everything else in the world – and this tendency to box things off is reinforced by principles of marketing and advertising, which favour the categorisation of sound and the segmentation of audiences. Even Alien She has been heavily categorised for its feminist aspects. She says, “…people obsess about the feminist aspect of our band, or the fact that we have expressed interest in riot girl before… we’re said many times that we’re not a riot girl band. We don’t want to be pigeonholed”.

Alien She
Alien She, photographed by Ciara Burke.

Bring this relationship between sound and image back a hundred years, in the early 1900s, when sound was becoming much easier to reproduce and distribute en masse. A top of the wave of emerging consumable music recordings, consumer culture and advertising became increasingly interlinked with cultural production, and by the time we reached Thatcher, the free market, and glam metal, the way that Western consumers experienced music had utterly changed. Our tastes are easily boxed off, and the vehicles for music such as radio stations, music magazines, TV shows, and even the language of journalists, subscribe to the fixed rationale of a capitalist music culture. When we are presented with images on music magazine covers, it’s not people, but mediated and negotiated images of people, that have come to affect how we relate to music in that space – one of the most interesting aspects of this research is how close it draws your attention to the minute details of the changing relationship between our bodies, and capitalism.

Certainly, in the case of Alien She, there is no negotiated image or indeed any pressure from Art for Blind to create a packaged look. They’re an independent band and they feel in control. This is magnificently refreshing to hear, particularly as we have been delving into the darker crevices of music culture for most of our time together.

“… they could not ever put less pressure on us. They’re so supportive. They never got involved with that at all, we had complete control. They really have been an amazing support to us. They paid for vinyl pressing, it was a really fair deal… Because they are two people who have done this for years and you know they’re not like a big flashy company or anything, it’s just two people who are passionate about music and that’s the kind of people we like to work with… I think you can keep very tight control over your image… but I don’t feel you can control how people perceive you and how people read you… But I think there’s a lot more control now than there used to be…on my level anyway. I’m sure if you’re on a bigger label that might change”

After over an hour of discussion with Katie, I find myself with a better sense of how image impacts upon an artist, their well-being and it’s commercial role. I also have more questions,  which came to me as we journeyed through. Looking at the changing relationships between music culture and the global market, advertising, technological change, and how dominant representations of body, and image have taken shape is an important part of addressing inequalities, and precarious ethics in industry practice, but it’s not enough to provide accountability.

We need to pay attention to the experiences of artists, and the experiences of those they interact with when they’re negotiating their image – in the literal and metaphorical sense – within these commercial environments. Not just when we read an article about the topic, but on a regular basis. Any current or aspiring music industry professionals should cast a critical eye over the mainstay processes of publishing, managing, and marketing an artist, because a music industry that prioritises image and brand over the aesthetic value and creative value of music itself, risks cannibalising itself in a ruinous image culture. All the while, the exhausting circus of self-promotion and self-critique will continue to take its toll on an artist’s mental health and well-being. And we will have little else to bicker over, or enjoy in music, other than what is presented to us.

Thank you to Katie and to Alien She for lending their time to this project.

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