Six nude women sit by a pool, each with an album cover painted across her back, each facing away from the camera: anonymous, obscured. Commissioned by EMI in 1996 to advertise Pink Floyd’s back catalogue, the image soon became ubiquitous in record stores and dorm rooms alongside photographs of Kurt Cobain wearing sunglasses and Jim Morrison striking a Christ pose. Pink Floyd’s Back Catalogue poster crystallized the trope of using naked women to sell records even as it flipped it: Instead of slapping naked women on an album cover, photographer Storm Thorgerson printed album covers on naked women.
By 1984, the image of a naked, anonymous, sexualized woman on an album cover had become hackneyed to the point of being memorably satirized in Christopher Guest’s mock-rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap. In the film, a washed-up band wants their next album cover to be a photo of a naked woman on all fours being forced to smell a glove. The record company objects; such brazen misogyny has long gone out of fashion, and the band has to put out an album with a completely black cover instead.
It’s not hard to figure out what Guest is making fun of. From Roxy Music to Blind Faith to the Rolling Stones, all-male rock bands produced enough sexualized album covers to render the provocative marketing strategy a cliché. If the genre persists, it’s generally taken to be a direct homage to simpler times (as in the Darkness’ Permission to Land) or in obliviously bad taste (Sugar Ray’s Lemonade and Brownies, She Wants Revenge’s self-titled debut). The original cover to the Strokes’ 2001 debut Is This It, depicting a black glove palming a nude woman’s ass, can almost be read as a nod to that forbidden Spinal Tap cover — an homage to a parody of a dead trend.
The promotional cycles around new albums from art rock acts Torres and St. Vincent engage with the same cliché, but from a vastly different perspective than Guest or the Strokes. In Torres’s recent “Skim” video, the singer and guitarist born Mackenzie Scott wanders a house decked out in a palette of ’70s ochres while anonymous arms and legs straddle her from behind. They are women’s limbs; she is draped in barely clothed women while she herself wears a suit and plays an electric guitar. At one point, she plays a woman’s leg as though it were a guitar. The video looks like the cover of Robert Palmer’s 1975 album Pressure Drop come to life, with Scott cast as Palmer rather than the faceless nude woman framed as the object of his (and the viewer’s) attention.
Though less explicitly sexual, St. Vincent’s video and single artwork for “New York” are also decorated with women’s body parts. Legs pour out of holes in walls on the cover, and in the video, a woman’s ass is seen through a hole in a giant black cube. The colors and styling of the video recall the sculptures of Jeff Koons who, in his iconic 1988 series Banality, presented violently cropped images of nude or nearly nude women. The cover of St. Vincent’s forthcoming album Masseduction also depicts a woman bent over, wearing a thong bodysuit and seen from behind, her head completely obscured by her ass in an image reminiscent of John Kacere’s lurid, sensual paintings. A promotional photo accompanying the release of the album makes it apparent that the woman bent over is not Annie Clark, though she poses next to Clark. She is an anonymous accomplice, or a sexual object, or a partner, or a friend — it’s unclear.
The custom of men placing anonymous women on their album covers and in their promotional material easily reads as gauche, in 1984 and in 2017, because the flow of power in the gesture is so obvious. The woman is disempowered, objectified, reduced to her parts like a junked car. She is there to sell albums, to titillate straight young men flipping through LPs in a record store or to fix their eye on MTV while they channel-surf. The beneficiary of the woman’s presence is the man or men whose music is being advertised; she lends them her sexuality and receives nothing comparable in exchange, not even the benefit of recognition. No one knows these women’s names.
St. Vincent’s and Torres’s recent work confuses that well-trod gender dynamic. Both are women objectifying women, which is different from a woman objectifying herself — an exercise that Madonna, Courtney Love, FKA Twigs, and many other female artists have already undertaken. Neither Clark nor Scott indulges in what might be called drag, either. Scott wears a suit in her video but nothing underneath it, exposing her body while also shrouding it in a symbol of power. Clark presents as femme in the “New York” video and in her promotional photo, where, like the headless woman next to her, she wears bright pink. Both artists simulate masculine power while also embracing a communality with the women who decorate them.
More than the implication of lesbian sex, it is the paradoxical subjectivity of the artist in both album campaigns that queers their position as rock singers. Scott and Clark never break eye contact with the camera in their videos. They fix the viewer in their gaze, as if daring you to look away or to interrogate your own discomfort with what you’re seeing. “Skim” and “New York” are uncomfortable videos to watch, especially if you live in a body that tends to get nonconsensually sexualized by men. They exploit a certain sleaziness that feels anachronistic and yet still viscerally present, like sexism itself, which by all accounts is both wildly out of fashion and the dominant ideology governing all gender relations in American culture.
When Torres and St. Vincent stare at the camera, they stare with the gaze of women who have been objectified, mocked, and belittled for daring to be women playing guitar on a stage. The presence of women in rock is still so alien that it inspires sweeping, breathless trend pieces; it is still so threatening to male consumers that they chime in about how they’d love to fuck the singer satirizing their desire in the YouTube comments of these videos. The uncanny nature of both artists’ gaze derives from the impossible weight they are expected to carry. Both prove that they, as women, can make rock music as well as men, and both prompt reminders that men will inevitably see them as women first, musicians second.
Their gaze defiant in their videos, Clark and Scott assume the role of objectifier and objectified at the same time. They confound the power that borders the history of the genre in which they work, not as an act of empowerment but as a gesture of sublime confusion. By seizing the sordid, garish trash of rock music’s visual heritage, they more deeply articulate their place in that lineage: artists in readily objectifiable bodies, claiming their stake all the same.