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Visual Identity as Communication Medium

Originally written for my midsemester essay. I kinda like how it turns out so I post it here. Feel free to agree/disagree!

How important is being good-looking compared to musical skill in order to be sucessful in music business? This has been an object of debate. Some might cynically say that being good-looking is all you need to sell in music industry, while some others might give a rebuttal that career based on look alone wouldn’t last because “look” will fade one way or another whether it’s due to age or the shifting perception of beauty. Each arguments have their strong and weak points, so how significant it actually is to one’s career?

The common misconception about musician’s visual aspects is that you have to be good-looking to appeal to your audience. While it is partially true, good looking by itself is never enough to make people stay. Having a good appearance could help to make people to look, but it wouldn’t create an ongoing stare if one doesn’t have something interesting enough beyond their look. In the late 90’s, we have a vast array of boyband selections, all filled with three to five guys with ridiculously good look ready to swoon their audience. But do they succeed to last? Some does, some doesn’t. What makes the difference?

Before we continue, we need to stop and review the aspects that make a good product in music business. First we have the music, then we have the look followed by live stage performance (both fall in the “visual” category), artist’s story complete with the lifestyle surrounding them. Back in the early days of popular music, there were only radio and print media as promotional kit to sell the product. So the music has to be exceptionally good or the live have to be fenomenal to captivate the audience’s attention. But as time goes on we have even more media from television to internet, each with its own characteristics, that create more way to sell the products accompanied with different challenges.

Elvis Presley is arguably one of the first musician that was sold in the package more than just music. With the rise of television (black and white, nonetheless), Elvis’ look was easily highlighted because now the audience at home not only listening to his music but also have time to gaze upon the persona. The keyword here is “persona”, because Elvis was seen more than a musician, he also known for the look, the stage dance and performance, and the lifestyle he oftenly related to. He got all the package that turned him into an icon.

Comparing Elvis Presley to some boyband of the 90’s, the difference is pretty clear. Elvis got a bigger message as the “voice of generation” who are fed up with the war and just want to have fun. His music, his look, performance and personality in general is just a medium to convey the idea. This is what missing from the majority of boyband of the 90’s. Though they are good looking only small amount of them have something to say with their look whether it’s subtle or blatant.

This is what makes Justin Timberlake is a bigger star one and a half decade later than all of N*sync and Backstreet Boys combined. Justin evolves in the matter of look and the message he carry along while the others still trying to find a way to stick on the dated persona.

As aforementioned there are several aspects in one product in music business that we can classify to three branches of medium: audio (music), visual (look, outfit), story (anything press-related). Each of these three support each other and as we all can see, visual is a third of the whole package. It is significant enough that one cannot go without, but not that significant to be the sole aspect one hold on to and as explained before, visual aspects is more than good look. So we can safely say that having a good look per se is not that significant. What important is creating a visual imagery that suits the message one wants to convey as well as having an unique iconic look.

The best example of this maybe Lady Gaga. While she herself is a good-looking person with a great musical talent, she play along with her outfits, live performance, putting semiotics and symbolism in each of her video. This creates a good balance when it’s being compared to her lyricism and songwriting that are rather in-your-face. If she didn’t put as much effort to her outfit, she might be passed along as another generic pop musician.

Lady Gaga is having a visual identity, she brings the artistic aspect of dressing up. Each outfit has its own identity along with the message and she communicate with her audience through her look. For her, the clothes she’s wearing were not a mean to an end, unlike parading a good look for the sole reason of looking good.

Having visual identity isn’t always have to be over the top like Lady Gaga. Justin Timberlake, the artist that was mentioned before, is one of those who are able to put his look and persona in line with his music and target audience. When he released his solo album, he fill the void of white male Pop/R&B singer and letting go of his pretty boy N*Sync persona. His new approach of dressing up matched his music and although he might not be as handsome as some other male singer, his complete personality grown really strong the American market strive to seek for his replacement after he decide to go on hiatus. After several years break and back with Suit & Tie single, he changes his appearance again to suit (pun intended) his now-grown-up market as well as his new, much more mature and suave, music material. The result is uncanny.

So, how important is being good-looking? Not as important as one might think it is. What’s more important is finding a way to use your overall look as a medium for the message you want to convey to your audience and turning it to a unique personality trait.

Because good look might make people to stop and stare, but the personality is the one that make them crave for more.

– January 2015

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