Album Cover Semiotics

While the wise aphorist would have you believe that you can’t judge a book by its cover, this wise-ass album junkie is here to tell you that you can judge a record without hearing it. Don’t believe me? Try this: next time you visit Megamusic Mart strike up a conversation with one of the depraved looking disk addicts fondling through the cut-out CD bin; don’t be deterred by an initial skittery recoil–we aren’t used to being spoken to. Once you’ve connected, pick up the most obscure looking disk you can find and query your pitiful jonesing new friend about the music it contains. The album junkie will quickly, confidently and accurately categorize the disk–even though he or she will admit, when pressed, to having never heard it.

How do album junkies do it? Even though we may look like pleasure predators truffle-hunting by scent, we are actually semi-consciously divining subject matter from visual cues–practicing “Album Cover Semiotics”, if you will. (Semiotics is the branch of structuralist philosophy that deals with communication through signs; Italian author Umberto Eco is its most famous proponent.) On a slightly less academic note, you could say that album junkies are tuned like organic crystal radios to the long-cycled transmission loops that link Marketing Moguls (cultivating symbology to maximize profit return on product investment) to Marketed Masses (absorbing symbology to maximize pleasure return on product investment).

Since all good album junkies favor the masses over the moguls, I have attempted to codify the correlations between music genres and album cover art in an egalitarian attempt to help everyone appreciate the joys of bin-snuffling. (Trust me, man… you won’t get addicted by doing it only once…) To escape the famously vague obscenity definition (“I just know it when I see it”), I limited optic variables by working within a simple two assumption framework.

First assumption. In the jewel-box era (where product size and shape are generally constant) there are three ways an album’s art can visually impact you: by its color; by the style and placement of its text; and by its use of pictorial icons.

Second assumption. When you are flipping through bins at a record store, a disk may have less than a second to “grab” you. Accordingly, flash first impressions are extremely important.

Next I turned to my own largish record, tape, and disk trove (with record store supplementation for genres not adequately represented in my collection)and treated each item as a Rorschach-style flash card, i.e. recorded immediate impressions on color, text, and iconography and logged results by genre. My trusty Dell 486 then grunched up the raw data and spat out genre-specific reports, which I analyzed for thematic similarities.

My findings follow. Genre titles should be taken in their most universally accepted literal senses; I have provided definitions only in cases where boundaries are particularly fuzzy. I have also knowingly combined certain genres that are generally treated as distinct entities. I have done so only when similarities in their cover art paradigms indicate they might be closer to oneness than conventional wisdom would dictate.

Alternative: (Moderate contemporary guitar-rock that’s too tough for Pop, but too smooth for Hardcore/Punk). The blue-to-violet end of the spectrum dominates; earth tones are rare. Handwritten text is prevalent, as is haphazard text placement that makes it difficult to distinguish artist name from album title. Oddly photographed body parts dominate the iconography, with heavy emphasis on female secondary sexual traits (hair, breasts, lips, etc.) Small man-made icons also feature strongly: tools, guns, appliances, toys.

AOR/Progressive: Black sleeves with front and center block or custom-curly text. Large man-made objects like tanks, cathedrals, factories, and airplanes show up regularly; more pomp-oriented practitioners go for large God-made objects like planets and galaxies. Sleeves pre-printed with gibberish like”Gold-pressed from half-speed original laminate!” also suggest this genre. I mean, don’t you just need that new pressing of “Dark Side of the Moon”?

Blues/Jazz: This is cool, smoky music that comes in cool, smoky packages shaded with black, silver, and charcoal. Both styles of music center around the symbiosis of artist and instrument (e.g. Miles and his trumpet, ‘trane and his sax, Etta and her voice), so album covers usually feature photos of the artist’s chosen musical tool. Semi-lucent objects like ice, mist,and smoked glass also crop up regularly.

Country: This is the one genre where all preconceived notions come true.Color? Earth tones. Text? Lady-like script for the girls and bold macho block for the boys. Icons? The cowboy hat wins hands down, thoroughly trouncing the guitar, the horse, the pickup truck and dirt. Surprised? Nahhhh…

Folk/World-beat: Colors and texts are all over the board, but the dead giveaway is all the happy people on the album covers; there must be an unwritten code that folk/world artists may look pensive, but never pissed. Clothing is distinctive; fuzzy sweaters and scarves for folkies, colorful indigenous garb for the world-beaters. If a group uses any odd instrumentation, it will show up on the album cover. So that’s what an oud looks like!

Funk/Soul/Gospel: Regal color schemes centered around purples, deep blues,reds and golds. Text favors script, and album cover iconography is far more active that in any other genre, e.g. mass choirs in full vocal flight, Pedro Bell’s distinctive equal opportunity nasty P-Funk covers, steamy flesh-on-flesh make-out fantasias. The action orientation also gives the art a hot flavor that’s furthered by frequent use of fire, sweat, and cookware. The sex vs.spirit dichotomy reigns here: Are these the fires of hell or the fires of passion? Do I care so long as I can get sweaty?

Gothic/Industrial: Black rules, with occasional grey, red, yellow and white flecking covers like spatterings of bodily fluid. Text information is minimal; at the gothic end of the spectrum it tends to be in (duhhh…) gothic fonts, at the industrial end either handwritten or typeset. Iconography is again body part oriented, but this time with more male emphasis; you’ll find more penises in this one category than in all others combined. Masks feature regularly, as does (interestingly) fruit; it seems to provide a convenient visual metaphor for mortality and incipient rot.

Hardcore/Punk: Just the facts, ma’am. Black, white, simple punchy block texts involving lots of initials, photos of bands doing their things in entertainingly grotty surroundings (junkyards, garages, Saratoga Winners).Oh… and the occasional rendition of sociopathic violence, horrific accidents, and medical procedures.

Metal: (This being where I put all the whaling guitar stuff that’s neither AOR/Progressive nor Hardcore/Punk). Blue Oyster Cult’s influence is still strongly felt, since “The Red and the Black” perfectly summarizes the prevalent color schemes. Band member average hair length directly influences band iconography: longer hair increases the likelihood of custom-curly text and still posed band photos, shorter hair points toward performance photos and block text. No surprise that you find more desecrated religious symbols here than in any other genre.

Pop: White is the color of my true love’s pop, script is the flavor of her text. Iconography is comfortable and homey; trees, bikes, dogs, children and hearts abound. (Of course, these are stylized hearts; anatomically correct ones go with hardcore/metal.)

Trance/Rave: A sick LCD green is the color winner here, beating out sick LED red and back-drop black. Text is usually presented in 70’s era computer font or in spindly thin typeset–although the more electronic of these albums oftentimes offer no textual information at all. Icons put a natural spin on Alternative’s small object fetish, with things like bees, feathers, and leaves softening the heartless technical nature of the music. Oddly shot body parts also show up regularly here, although with a more androgynous orientation than in Alternative or Gothic/Industrial.

Urban Contemporary/Rap: There’s a night/day split in cover art–about half come in monochromatic grey or sepia tones, the other half explode with polychromatic primary color schemes. Text comes in large, strong blocks. Iconography focuses on urban images and almost always includes a photo of the artist(s). Softcore romantic rap is indicated by indoor scenes, with artists surrounded by Uptown apartment-dweller niceties and silk, jewelry,or flowers. At the hardcore/gangsta end of the spectrum, you’ll usually see artists posed in outdoor settings, with wrought iron, weaponry, and brickwork as recurring motifs.

I want to note in closing that if I am cornered by an enraged pack of album junkies wondering why all the good pickings in town have disappeared, I will deny having ever told you any of this. Happy shopping otherwise.

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