On Album Covers, Judgement and Objectification

Jenny Lewis’s new album has a striking cover picture of her wearing a cut out dress. The image was a glamorous twin of her cover for previous album ‘The Voyager’. On that album she had worn a rainbow suit inspired by Gram Parsons and the headless shot focused all our attention on that outfit. The ‘On The Line’ cover is almost an identical shot but this time Jenny is in a satin jumpsuit, her hair styled and her cleavage exposed. Those in the know connected the images together and understood that the new album cover was a metaphor for Jenny freeing herself from the past, glamming up in response to all the dark times she had gone through. Later she acknowledged the image was also in honour of her late mother, a Vegas lounge singer who wore similar stage outfits designed by Bob Mackie and who had a mole in the exact same spot on her chest.

Both images were taken by Autumn De Wilde, chosen by Jenny. She was neither forced to use her image to market her music or attempting to ‘sell out’ to commercial pressures. This wasn’t like some creepy Terry Richardson style photoshoot where faceless women were exploited or violated by the male gaze. It was a little bit of fun – note how Jenny has put the images on t-shirts, quipped about ‘breast new music’ and happily retweeted those who have put their head on her picture. It was just a flash of boobs anyway – who could possibly be offended?

Well it turns out quite a few people. When I tweeted my album review I had some angry responses to the image and I saw similar complaints when scrolling through social media. A lot of these came from conservatives, or men trying to police women’s bodies. Others were from feminists asking why a serious musician like Jenny was sexualising her image. One equated the cover to the ‘headless woman’ trend in the book industry, which was said to have marginalised books by women, trivialising the writing and gendering their work. And yes, I would have to admit that it is rare to see any albums by men that use sexualised imagery on the cover (unless they are pictures of women, of course). But in Jenny’s case this cover was not intended to offend or objectify – it was a considered, artistic choice celebrating the freedom of a single women in her forties.

Alongside those critics of her image were the equally troubling sexist responses to the picture by some men. Last weekend I was in a record shop and heard some men making some suggestive comments and I knew exactly what album they were looking at. At the time I just laughed and rolled my eyes. At the counter the sales clerk stared just a little too long at Jenny’s picture before scanning the album and asking me about her. I tried to make serious points about her music and encouraged him to listen. I don’t know if he did or if he just spent more time ogling her after I left.

In the end I concluded that the image itself was not the problem, objectification was. Looking good and showing your body off isn’t a crime against feminism. Men need to take women seriously whatever they are (or aren’t) wearing. And we all need to be less judgemental about how other people present themselves.

Recently I was shocked at the horrific personal comments made online about the image on the front of the Maren Morris album cover. To see people who I followed cruelly mocking a woman for wearing a bikini top was so depressing. What harm was done by her posing in a pretty pink bra? Why was this such an affront to some music fans? It didn’t change the songs contained within. I genuinely hope she didn’t read the abusive comments because they were so mean-spirited and hurtful you almost wonder if these trolls had forgotten Maren was an actual human being.

Avril Lavigne was also criticised by the Guardian for her last album cover, where she posed naked behind a guitar. Again the image wasn’t offensive – you couldn’t see much more skin than if she had been wearing a sundress. Avril had suffered a health scare so the image was supposed to represent her rebirth. Maybe that idea was a stretch but the photo certainly didn’t deserve such a damning op-ed. Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé have also been unfairly attacked for the provocative pictures they have used in the past.

Why are so many people upset about these images of women? It just doesn’t make sense to me. Of course I would be concerned if anyone was forced to use their image in a sexual way or if men were using these images to exploit women. But that just isn’t the case. The reaction to these covers seems symptomatic of a deeper problem with how the world views women.

In a patriarchal society women are expected to look and act in a certain way. If they don’t fit those expectations then they are cruelly judged for being fat, ugly, outspoken etc or for having work done to try and meet those expectations. If they do meet the standards then they are both objectified and judged for any action which draws attention to their attractiveness. Women can’t win in this scenario.

The only way women can fight back is by supporting each other and rejecting sexist policing of all women’s bodies. Let women do whatever they hell they want and wear whatever they want without fear of judgement or objectification. In the music industry women should be able to use their image as part of their marketing strategy if they so wish and it shouldn’t affect how anyone hears the music. Of course, it may not be possible to like every song or admire everyone’s image but we don’t need to make cruel comments. As Kacey Musgraves once sang, if you ain’t got nothing nice to say, don’t say nothing at all.

6 thoughts on “On Album Covers, Judgement and Objectification

Add yours

  1. Nice piece, Michelle (if I may comment as a man).

    Men struggle with the idea of women taking control of their sexuality as they think it is something they own and define.

    I went to see St Vincent’s last tour in which she wore a very revealing, tight latex dress. I found that rather than looking sexually attractive she looked intimidating. She is of course very beautiful. It was my female friends who found her sexy and strong. What made me and some of my male friends uncomfortable was her being in charge of her sexuality and playing with sexual stereotypes.

    Keep up the good work.

    Nice to see Kacey breaking out.

    I saw Sharon Van Etten on Saturday. Amazing. She does a cover of Sinead’s “Black Boys on Mopeds”.




    1. Of course you may comment- respectful discussion always welcome from everyone. I think we are all in the middle of a change in society – some people find it harder to let go of old narrow standards and stereotypes than others. The St Vincent album cover was another example I could have used as a provocative image that seemed to generate a lot of discussion. I really like how she uses her body as part of the performance art. Hopefully other women will feel they too can express themselves in any way they wish too.


  2. I’ve been thinking about this issue all day (and pondering upon a woman’s clevage isn’t something I typically spend much time on). I have to admit when I first saw the album cover I couldn’t quite grasp exactly what point Jenny was trying to make (though admittedly I was unaware of the connection to The Voyager and to her late mother). I could understand some of the objections, particularly those from feminists, though obviously I complete reject the abusive and nasty stuff. If the cover is about body confidence and liberation then fine, but why is the image centered on her breasts? The framing encourages the viewer to look directly at her chest. “Jenny Lewis” and “naive” aren’t words that I would put together; she must have known that the cover would elicit a reaction. Then I read your article again, and I read some other responses, and then I felt totally ashamed of myself.
    How can I, a homosexual (more or less) man, who has endured all the usual prejudice, discrimination and abuse (verbal and physical) that our lot have to put up with, have my own hang-ups and biases about a woman’s body and sexuality? What’s wrong with me? It’s not like I can blame hetero-masculine societal conditioning! If there is any justification for my instinctive discomfort could it be that for years in the UK our liberal narrative was “page 3 = bad, lads’ mags = bad”, so any time I see a photo with clevage prominently displayed I have a little liberal voice saying “this is anti-feminist”? I’m not conflating the album cover with page 3, merely suggesting that that’s where my liberal finger-wagging originates.
    But of course, you are right. The cover is a bit of fun; she is totally in control of the use of her body and her body image; there is no question of exploitation or titillation. This all should have been obvious to me and I’m shocked that it wasn’t. So thank you Jenny Lewis for using this cover, and thank you Michelle for your thoughtful article. Both have prompted me to confront my own ingrained sexism, for that’s exactly what it is.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your first sentence made me laugh 😂 A lot of the negative comments came from women which shows how complex an issue this is. In a patriarchal society we are all victims, even the straight white men in charge lol. Often negative comments by women about other women seem to come from a place of, as you say, protection or as an attempt to fight against patriarchy. But unfortunately they often only add to the problem. Being liberal should mean being tolerant of allowing all women to express themselves as they wish.

      Page 3 is an interesting issue. I don’t have a problem with a woman who wants to pose topless for art or for their own pleasure or whatever. But the problem is when that image is used to sell newspapers by men to men, who then objectify.

      I’m not sure I have figured all this out either. I was just thinking out loud as I wrote this post. Thanks as always for reading and responding so thoughtfully!


  3. Yes, the difference with page 3, Loaded, FHM etc is one of intent, isn’t it?
    I’ve always thought it interesting why the woman’s chest is considered “ruder” than the man’s. When did that happen? Historically, it wasn’t always thus. And even today we see tribes in Africa and South America where it’s the norm for women to be topless. Perhaps not advisable in a Scottish winter though.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: