|FOCUS: POP PICS|
David Gleeson on how pop recycles its own
She Bop was the title of a
recent, small exhibition in the gallery of the National Portrait Gallery’s
bookshop. Featuring women – mainly British – from the history of pop music,
She Bop had echoes of Icons of Pop, a larger show held at the NPG three
years previously. Both shows were wonderful nostalgia fests and, with
hindsight, provided some real howlers. Mick Rock’s early studies of David
Bowie capture him on the brink of world domination, but looking like a
teenager with attitude who’d failed a course in cross-dressing. Freddie
Mercury and his boring mates might have written some perfect pop songs, but
few came as close as Queen to epitomising the word ‘vulgar’. And then
there’s always Suzi Quatro. Marketed as a demon chick from Detroit, she wore
leather, pouted, played electric bass, and generally acted like she thought
drinking a pint of bitter made her ’ard.
The big stars don’t always get away with it. Mankowitz’s famous street-hard picture of the Rolling Stones – used on the cover of Out of Our Heads – oozes a force field of attitude. These arrogant young punks might as well have known that a glorious future of luxury, beautiful women, class A drugs, and Princess Margaret awaited them, but the first big casualty was their own multi-instrumentalist and early leader, Brian Jones.
Like most teenagers, as far as I was concerned the very fact that these people made records, were adored, and filthy rich merely proved their spectacularly glamorous talent. But such unquestioning devotion is a neon light to creative capitalism. And the way pop stars have been groomed over the past 50 years has been a cynical exercise in manipulating yet more money into the coffers of that most capitalist of industries.
Putting lots of pictures of pop stars together brings out the striking similarity between their supposedly ‘individual’ looks. Icons of Pop – covering the British pop scene from 1952-99 – inadvertently let slip how popsters have constructed an image bank which has been plundered and reappropriated by successive generations of musicians when creating their own iconography. An early image of Adam Faith is a case in point: taken in 1962, his sultry, direct gaze, all James Dean cheekbones and hair oil, resurfaced in the seventies as Bryan Ferry, and again in the eighties as ABC’s Martin Fry. Mankowitz’s archetypal menacing Stones portrait was later emulated by both the Clash and Oasis. Whilst this is an easy game to play (yes, Marilyn Manson is forever indebted to Alice Cooper, etc.), one of the most obvious and skilful image ‘lifts’ somehow never made it from Icons of Pop to She Bop. Catatonia’s Cerys Matthews, the final image in the Icons show, was a study in hard, direct gaze, pale skin, bright red lipstick, jewellery and a cigarette. Looking uncannily like Marianne Faithfull’s sweet Laura Ashley convent girl, her face also tells a tale of Faithfull’s lost years. The synthesis of the two demonstrates how well Matthews did her homework.
And there are other similar gems. The 1984 Madonna triptych shows her early stylistic debts to, of all people, Arri Upp of the Slits: all wild hair and jumble sale chic. Pennie Smith’s portrait of Siouxsie Sioux catches its subject in a rare moment without her Transylvanian Cleopatra make-up, and surprisingly reveals how similar she and Chrissie Hynde once were. Debbie Harry was always glibly compared to Monroe and Harlow, but the vital ingredient in her image is revealed as Dusty Springfield. The sublimely elegant Annie Lennox merely proves that, when it comes to ‘gender-bending’, female pop stars have never really even tried.
And there’s the rub. Whilst She Bop feels like a little afterthought of a show, a bunch of pictures thrown together as an advert for the book of the same name, it still proves how women have always had to be feminine to succeed. In order to draw even more money into their industry, men have been afforded the creative freedom to wear dresses (Bowie), look like women (Marilyn), and even become pantomime dames (Boy George). But drag kings have yet to invade the charts. Look around She Bop and what did you see? Talented women? Perhaps. Cash cows? Definitely.
She Bop was at the Bookshop Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, London, 8 July – 3 November 2002.
David Gleeson is a freelance writer and critic based in London