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Cover Girls and Typical Girls

2012 March 6

There were several predictable bones to pick with last week’s Guardian piece in which former editors of the New Musical Express selected their most noteworthy covers. The feature left out a lot of the former Accordion Weekly’s history, notably anything prior to the late 1970s, but what struck me most about the covers chosen was the disparity between the first one and the last. The NME‘s decline from a vital and thoughtful read to a list-heavy vehicle for mutual backscratching seemed to be reflected in the journey from Pennie Smith’s 1979 cover shot of the Slits, then a relatively obscure and resolutely uncommercial dub-punk girl-gang, dressed in mud and loincloths, to, thirty years on, a cover featuring the monarch of manufactured mediocrity in a headshot which, to quote a commenter, makes the paper look like the Radio Times.

Smith’s photographs of the Slits mudlarking in the grounds of their Surrey recording studio became a defining image of the band, notably through being used on the cover of their debut album Cut. This article looks briefly at the controversy generated by the images themselves, and how it relates to subsequent and current presentation of women in the UK music press.

Image copyright Pennie Smith/the NME, shared under Fair Use guidelines. A black and white image showing The Slits swinging from trees smeared with mud.

Under the Cover

The space provided by punk for female as well as well as male self-expression and emancipation can be overstated – see Helen Reddington’s research on the persistence of entrenched chauvinist and sexist attitudes – but the Slits were unarguably, in the words of Caroline Coon, ‘driving a coach and various guitars straight through… the concept of The Family and female domesticity’. One of the first prominent bands to spring from the art-squats of punk west London, the Slits’ early music and performance was a squall of untrained, instinctive energy, and their casually confrontational appearance and behavior drew negative reactions ranging from media disapproval to violent hostility. Although tending to recoil from any overtly political espousal of feminism, the band bluntly advocated female independence and empowerment, encouraging girls to form bands and to define themselves by their actions rather than their relationships.

‘We’re just not interested in questions about Women’s Liberation… You either think chauvinism’s shit or you don’t. We think it’s shit… Girls shouldn’t hang around with people who give them aggro about what they want to do. If they do they’re idiots.’
Slits guitarist Viv Albertine, June 1977

The image on the Cut cover fits into the Slits’ more general disruptions and subversions of accepted feminine tropes, including their punk-inspired adoption of fetish and bondage gear as deconstructed parts of an everyday wardrobe, and their plain-speaking on sex and sexuality. The band’s proto-Goth contemporary Siouxsie Sioux remarked that they ‘weren’t glamorous, they were very earthy’. The Slits’ aesthetic and behaviour onstage and off was repeatedly referenced in terms of wildness and ferocity, reinforcing their performance of an exoticised, ‘untamed’ sexuality, which on the album cover clashed with the band’s bucolic backdrop to create an arresting mash-up of English Rose and Amazon.

Covered in Controversy

Having in their earlier career declined several offers from labels intent on exploiting the novelty aspect of a girl band, and battled with industry men who expected female musicians to ‘kowtow or flutter your eyelids’, the band’s stated aim for the cover of their debut was to ‘show that women could be sexy without dressing in a prescribed way. Sexy, in a natural way, and naked, without being pornographic’. Their bassist Tessa Pollitt described the cover as ‘one of the most liberating things I have done’, claiming that the band were ‘celebrating the freedoms we were creating’. The cover divided opinion at the time of its release, dismissed by some as a cynically sexualized ploy, and ridiculed by others because of the group’s deviation from a conventionally desirable body shape (Smith’s photographs were taken at a point when the Slits had succumbed to the regular eating and sleeping hours of studio life, away from the chaotic amphetamine-fuelled living to which they’d grown accustomed, leaving them looking softer and more rounded than expected by those policing punk angularity – a particularly frustrating slant of attack given punk’s early attempts to transcend these kind of prescriptive aesthetics).

Music writer Vivien Goldman embraced the Cut cover as a defiant reclamation of the female body, and Pauline Black, who went on to form 2-Tone band the Selecter, saw it as ‘so joyous, innocent and natural that it just seemed like a celebration of womanhood rather than any cheap titillation’. It still has the power to spark disagreement: Roni Sarig in The Secret History Of Rock waxes lyrical that the cover ‘confounded notions of sexuality and civility and positioned the group as modern primitive feminist rebels – girls not afraid to be natural, sexual and formidable’, while the author of the Punk77 website makes the counter-claim that the image in fact undermines Sarig’s idea ‘that they were one of the first all female bands to avoid being ‘marketed as sex objects’… They had their tits out. For instance I was 16 when this album came out… I and many others didn’t see it as anything but three nudes on a cover!’

Bad Cover Versions

As for the women-in-the-music-press discussion, so far so same-old. Cazz Blase’s recent article on the UK music press maintained that it is marketed, sold and created primarily by and for men. The NME, which in 2009 appointed Krissi Murison as its first female editor, is actually not too bad as far as the balance of genders among its staff goes – although the relative positions women occupy, and how this translates to coverage and presentation of female musicians, are different debates. In 2010, Aoife Barry gave an overview of the underrepresentation of female musicians on the covers of music magazines, emphasizing the egregiousness of Q in particular:

Why not count how many women you can see on the covers of Q magazine this year (two solo covers: Cheryl Cole and Lady Gaga – and two group shots: Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen together in a group shot; and Lady Gaga again in a group shot). The reason I mention Q is that the response to ‘there aren’t enough women on the covers of music magazines’ is often ‘but that’s because it reflects the amount of women working in music’. This is not true – particularly in the case of Q, which covers mainstream rock, indie and pop music. In fact, the female musicians it covers are usually from the pop arena. And you cannot argue that the pop realm is oestrogen-free.

While, as Barry admits, ‘there may not be a great conspiracy to keep women off the covers of music magazines and give them minimal coverage on the inside pages’, it is frequently the case that when women are featured, so is a latent or overt sexualizing of them which does not affect their male counterparts to the same degree.

One has to factor in, of course, the degree to which coverage of bands will depend upon commercial trends in rock and indie; the musical greywash which occurred under late Britpop saw a sidelining of female artists which appeared to reach its dull conclusion in the post-Libertines profusion of almost invariably male ‘landfill indie’ groups. This connection is made explicit in Q’s concern with catering for a target demographic supposedly ‘inspired by the rock’n’roll swagger of Liam, Noel, Blur and the whole Britpop scene’, a remit which perhaps explains last October’s gobsmackingly retrograde Kasabian cover while doing little to excuse it.

Covering Up?

Smith’s shot of the Slits in all their unphotoshopped glory differs from Q‘s cover in several obvious respects – its subjects muddy rather than glossy, wearing unselfconscious grins rather than careful high-maintenance pouts, and, crucially, having shaped the image via their own concept and direction rather than following a top-down marketing or editorial strategy. It’s true that the NME has never been an impregnable bastion of women’s liberation – even on that Slits cover, there’s the dubious strapline referring to them as the paper’s ‘Page One girls’ – and I’m sure that just as many readers saw the cover as wank material as chin-strokingly believed it to be ‘confounding notions of sexuality and civility’. A happy few may even have done both. But the upfront disheveled self-confidence the Slits display is still striking and even looks quaint in an era where the last comparable Empowered and Liberated woman on an NME cover was, who, Beth Ditto? Whose appearance, and the ensuing debates on whether it constituted ’empowerment’ or ‘objectification’, proved that non-standard naked women were still controversial in 2007.

Cazz Blaze, citing the music press’ recession-induced drift towards conservatism, characterized by an increasing reliance on sponsorship and advertising, predicts little room for improvement in opportunities for women to express their emancipation rather than their objectification. Her characterization of online music publications like The Quietus as more conscientious about women as artists, readers, and writers, is an interesting point. It ties in with the idea of the internet as a space where female engagement with music can be expressed and explored without being dismissed as exclusively sex-centred or derided as juvenile inanity, and where female musicians themselves can harness the internet’s capacity for unregulated self-expression and audience interaction, frequently in ways which circumvent or combat industry and media-led imperatives on how women are meant to appear.

Despite the internet’s progressive potential for allowing female artists control over their own presentation, the reception of and reaction to that presentation remains beyond their control. After punk, and after riot grrl, the jury is still out on the political uses of the naked female form, and on their degree of effectiveness. Do images like those of Ditto and the Slits deconstruct and demystify the female body? How constructively do they inform debates on body image and female sexuality? In the eyes of observers male and female, are they validating alternative ways of being attractive, or are they merely putting forward an alternative cut of meat?

And, of course, should we be concerned at all with how a musician looks as opposed to how she – or he – sounds?

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