The Visual Culture of Album Covers
Analysis of One Direction's Four
The importance of the visual image to the success of a boy band might be overlooked by the general population, but is certainly not underestimated by record labels and PR experts. It is easy to argue that the images produced are just as crucial (if not more) as the music to the overall success of the group. Boy bands like Backstreet Boys and N'Sync were successful in a time when the image of the group could be carefully controlled by marketing experts and PR representatives. Photo shoots and some paparazzi pictures were the main source of image proliferation. In 2010, the producers of X-Factor brought together five boys to create the group One Direction. The success of this group has been major, even during a time when the internet has made fans producers as much as they are consumers. Fan art and fan fiction has created a legacy for this group far out of the reach of their management's marketing experts. The visual images produced by the fans through things such as artwork and cell phone photos have been more influential among fans than any well-crafted photo shoot in a teen magazine. Four is One Direction's fourth studio album. Compared to the previous albums, the image appears less planned, or "constructed." Through affect, genre, and tension, the artists involved in the latest One Direction album cover attempted to recreate the fan created image in order to catch the attention, and cash, of the internet generation.
In an era of free downloadable music, an eye-catching album cover is that much more important. It is the kind advertisement that seeks to pull at the consumer's immediate impulses, so that they purchase in the moment, rather than waiting until they leave the mall to download from home. This is where affect comes in. According to Helmers, affect is "feeling or emotion," but "is not purely immediate" and "involves a history of response." (50) One Direction fans, and potential fans, spend much of their time on social media sites such as Tumblr, blogging and re-blogging fan uploaded visual material. They respond to one another, create slang only they understand, and support each other in their love of One Direction. It is a legitimate community. Fan photos with the band are one of the most shared and appreciated visual artifacts. It is in these spaces that the history of the band's image, and feeling about their image is crafted. The photos fans take while they meet the band are taken in the moment, and far from any kind of placement or construction. The cover of this album clearly resembles this. The facial expressions of the band members suggest that they are aware that a camera is present (unlike paparazzi photos), but have been caught in the middle of something. The picture comes across as raw and uncalculated, as if they were mid-conversation when someone with a cell phone came along and took a photo. There are no forced smiles and positions. It speaks to a viewer already immersed in a specific internet fan culture. The artists and photographers behind this seem to be trying to act as if there is no message and no authority behind the image. They want to appear as if they are part of the same community.
Although the image is not as controlled as other album covers or other photos of boy bands in the past, it does not stray too far from the boy band genre. The boy band photography of the past is obviously staged, sometimes even using props and matching outfits. The photography is often ridiculed on sites such as Buzzfeed, where photos are compiled for humor. At first glance, the One Direction album cover appears to be nothing like the boy band photography of the 90s. Upon closer look, the photo follows a formula that reminds the viewer that this is in fact a boy band, and the music is familiar. Boy band album covers always have all band members on the front. Unlike a rock band, which may have artwork instead of band members, the cover image relies on the attractiveness of the group. All group members are facing forward, and usually in direct eye-contact with anyone looking back. Even though not all members are looking right at the camera on the One Direction album cover, they are faced towards the viewer. The clothing they are wearing does not clash in color or style. Their fashion is in harmony. They may not be wearing distinct matching outfits like the ones boy bands wore in the 90s, but the clothing is no accident. Boy band covers are meant to invite the viewer into a feeling of being one with the group, and this album cover is making that kind of effort. The one thing that makes this photo different from other boy band pictures is the move from serious facial expressions to casual facial expressions. This is once again an attempt to seem "real" and in touch with a fan base who are familiar with photography has not been staged.
The tension and movement in this photograph rests on the body language of the band members. Through their facial expressions they give off the impression that they are comfortable with each other, in a relaxed atmosphere, and are enjoying the moment. The facial expressions and body language tell the story of what actually happens in between the staged photo shoot. There are no big fake smiles, or absurd serious faces. The wood wall backdrop and high flash aesthetic, combined with the boys standing casually with their arms around each other, makes it look more like a Facebook cover photo than a professional album cover. There are two photos, similar in total, but different in small details like faces and position. The two photos stacked on top of each other resemble photo both strips. The boys are not centered perfectly in the photo, they lean more to one side. Some are looking right at the camera, and others are looking in other directions, suggesting that there are more people in the room than just the five of them. The eyes say that there is far more going on here than just a photo shoot. The viewer’s eye is pulled towards the group, but then as it moves along the faces, the eye is waiting for them to make a move or finally make eye-contact with the viewer. There is no stability.
In conclusion, One Direction is the boy band of the social media age. Long gone are the days of the portrait, as it has been taken over by cell phone photography. Every moment is candid, spontaneous, and exciting. The internet has leveled the consumer/producer playing field, and if a modern boy band wants success, it has to be one with its fan base. The Four album cover axes all that is artificial and places its hopes for financial success on its connection with a fan base that spends countless hours updating their Tumblr blogs.
Helmers, Marguerite. The Elements of Visual Analysis. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006.