You Lookin' at Me? 

The history of rock, measured in gazes

Those who can't, teach. Those who can't be musicians, write about it. And those who want to be somewhere in the middle take photos. intro text small:Your Linda Eastmans and Annie Leibovitzes document the times, but the real barometers of culture are the pictures bands use to promote themselves. How they are posed or not posed in these photos flashes an interesting light on rock's shifting zeitgeist.

In the '50s, groups wore matching outfits, either plain old black and white suits or sparkly dinner jackets -- pastel and shiny like birthday cakes. That's the great thing about the photos from those days, although they were all black and white, something about them just crooned baby blue and powder pink. Group members were either lined up at some kind of an angle, smiling purty in front of a washed-out white background, or bunched together into the frame, one face atop another. The colored doo-wop bands were trying their damnedest to look like polite black folk, the kind who didn't mind coming into the club by a separate entrance, and thanked you very much for asking them to leave town by midnight. Of course, everyone looked right into the camera lens, all smiles.

Then came the '60s, a deliberate reaction to the conservatism of the prior decade. Recording artists played around with the old form by dressing like freaky slobs, sitting around outside or on couches, and ulp -- not even looking at thecamera. The staid rules of '50s photography were gone. Convention was not groovy, man; it went against the chi. A good example of this switch was Levon and the Hawks, aka the Band. In the early '60s, they looked like the Temptations. A few years and drug trips later, and they all looked like something out of a Wild-West mug shot.

Seventies bands returned to the more overtly posed style of the '50s -- especially since band imagery was more of a product than ever before -- but they tried to dress it up with muted bravado. This era could be called the "Spirits Having Flown" period, named of course for the Bee Gees, who perfected the soft-focus, wind-blown shtick. Most of the big '70s bands -- the Doobie Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Eagles -- all had slightly blurred, backlit group shots, with white light deifying them. This was the zenith of rock and roll ego shots, and everyone looked at the camera. Not surprisingly, those also were the glory days of The Bulge -- that dual airbag on the inseam of life that so many bands, especially the British ones, proudly thrust to the forefront.

Punk bands blew up the whole idea of the professional rock photograph, deliberately taking shots on grimy urban corners. They often looked as if they were walking to buy some smokes, but had consented to stop for a brief photograph. The Ramones were great at this. They let you know that they knew they were being photographed, but still they didn't seem to give up their power or independence to the viewer.

What is this power of which we speak? Art historians deconstruct it in what they call "the gaze." This gaze is what the person in the painting or the photograph is looking at. It can be the viewer, or it can be something else. When the subject is looking at the viewer, it's called "returning the gaze." Feminists especially like to talk about this construction, because there's a power exchange involved. Take cheesecake photos, such as the old Betty Page shots. The pinup girl is always looking at the camera because she knows the guy who will be viewing the picture will see her as a sex object and manipulate his genitalia thusly. She's an object and she's down with that. When women are objectified but don't want to admit it, they don't look at the camera -- like so many chick singer-songwriters. They may dress alluringly and have a sultry grin, but they will be looking down or have their eyes closed as they run their fingers through their hair. By not returning the gaze, they are able to remain aloof and in control. To admit that someone was looking at them would be to surrender their treasured independence.

And that's why most indie rock band photos suck shit. No way are they gonna return the gaze -- that would be too corporate. How many times have you seen a picture where the band is pretending that they don't know they are being photographed? One guy is looking down, one guy is looking left, and one guy looks up at the sky with his eyes closed and his hands together like he is praying. It's all about not appearing to be part of the mainstream rock machine, and, although they know they are being "objectified" as stars, they aren't going to admit it on camera. It's phony and stupid, and -- hello! -- it calls way more attention to the fact that the band is being photographed.

REM perfected this look, especially early Mike Mills, who usually had his jacket over his shoulder and his other hand shielding his eye while he gazed out to sea like the dude in the JC Penney catalog. Michael Stipe only recently began returning the gaze, and frankly, no thank you, Harold and Your Purple Crayon. As his singing became less self-conscious and moved more into the realm of the extended vowel sound, so too did his presence in photos. He became a rock star and started looking at the camera.

Here's the funny thing though. Now indie bands are looking at the camera again, in a sort of "ha! we are being ironic" way. This change happened slowly, with only a few members of the band looking directly at the camera while the other members still stood around acting disinterested. Actually, to this day, that is still the most popular shot -- one or two people actually looking at the camera, others not. There are still some bands that won't look at you no matter what, but instead of being obvious about it, they take pictures where they are engaged in something, so at least they have an excuse not to look at you.

For example, the latest still from Calexico has the two members in an old barbershop getting their hair cut. Not even the barbers so much as glance at the lens. But for the most part, the gaze has returned for the indie rocker, which apparently means it's okay to be a rock star as long as you are ironic about it. Modest Mouse's promotional shot even has a bit of American Gothic in it, very posed with the main dude in the foreground wearing an Amish hat and his other bandmates behind him. But everyone is looking at the camera.

Does the return of the gaze mean that indie rockers have abandoned the idea that they and only they have some sort of claim on honesty and sincerity? Let's hope so. That whole Fugazi-era spiel was as phony as Milli Vanilli -- who, by the way, always looked back at us.


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