Mediated communication through art and visuals:
But what do these polarising African American figures, 1987 (left) and 2005 (right) represent?
Curtis Jackson. Michael Jackson. Two different worlds: 1987 and 2005.
But what are their ideas of race and masculinity?
he image parallel couldn’t be more extreme in terms of masculinity. To bring these two artists together in one place at the same time must cause a slight onset of confusion for some. But, for others, it may simply come down to be a result of one’s own interpretation – what we see at first sight may provide a whole other underlaying for the second time you see it. Here are, presented, two figure-heads of both the “pop” and the “rap/hip-hop” music sectors of the industry. On a conventional level, what is unique and, frankly, odd about this pairing, is that they don’t necessarily borrow or reference similar ideas, considering the time period of each of their respective releases, “The Massacre” (2005) and “Bad” (1987), but they do indeed share familiar ethnic roots.
50 Cent (aka Curtis Jackson), and Michael Jackson, believe it or not, both posessed an African American heritage. Despite perhaps what some may see (as in Michael Jackson’s case) the ‘abondonment’ of his identtity as a result of his radical changing appearance he underwent, audiences witnessed a transition of the singer’s brand identity from the “Thriller” (1982) album to “Bad” (1987), including the changing colour of his skin, and, questionably, various surgical procedures on his nose.
That said, his African American influence as a black artist were still very much present on the album, reflecting a whole alphabet of genres – gospel., anthem music, choir and funk, through hits that included
“Man In The Mirror” and “Liberian Girl”, revealing his wider interests globally, and culturally.
Perhaps an implication of this, is that, depsite the world media view that perceived who Jackson was as a person, and what he was changing (depending on how you look at this idea in terms of his persona and appearance), was it clear for everyone to see (and yet arguably during the release of “Bad’s” 1987 release, people didn’t) that he was an artist who transcended both cultural and ethnic boundaries, which other artists were forever encapsulated in for a mutlitude of reasons?
Take, for example, the notion of African Americans before Michael Jackson. The common notion or thread which springs to mind include the soulful sound of Motown and classic rhythmic blues, with artists including Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and Lionel Richie. What Jackson did, is take that musical vision and take it to the next level where it is beyond recognisable, or definable for that matter – it’s his own genre and style with a fusion of existing and new themes. The ideas of his masculinity as an African American were probably challenged further when he released ‘rock-pop’ tracks, including ‘Beat It’ (1982) and ‘Dirty Diana’ (1987). This is where we saw the shift in his identity, and most importantly, how his audience recieved him in a much different light to his earlier years, of one being an artist of many ‘facets’, both physically (the changes made to his face during his career), and artistically.
To put this point in a nutshell, was Michael Jackson ‘colour-less’? It certainly is a possibility. However, although I cannot claim to knowledge without certifiable proof, I will leave it as something for you, as the reader, to take away and make your own interpretation upon.
50 Cent, on the other hand, utilises his stereotyped “gangster” image, or ‘brand’, if you will, to not only sell or ‘plug’ the image and content of his music to his subsequent audiences, but to reinforce his identity of WHO he is, and most importantly, WHAT he stands for. Examples of his work within the context of the album used iin this piece, “The Massacre”, showcases his desires and ambitions, including “Piggy Bank” suggesting aspirations of success and amassing wealth (as he had done at this point in his career since the huge success of his previous material, “Get Rich Or Die Tryin'”, 2003), and most notably, “Candy Shop”, a highly promiscous song (and video, for that matter!), suggestive of 50 Cent’s explicit sexually engaged lifestyle, involving a simplistic contemporary approach,with cars, women and several innuendo’s out there to deliver impact and shock value.
This, a far cry from Michael Jackson, whose innocent, naive public persona prior to the release of the “Bad” album left audiences on the whole confused, and, in some ways, unconvinced as to how and what Michael Jackson was trying to re-affirm, all at the same time of appearing in many people’s eyes a lot more feminine and above all, eccentric. This being through his use of extensive makeup, eyeliner, extended curled hair and various other physical changes which left him being categorised in somewhat of an androgynous zone by various critics.
Before undertaking all these debates further, take a moment to watch the two artists to gain a wider visual perspective, both culturally, and historically, as featured in the artist’s music video’s released during the album’s periods, “50 Cent’ Candy Shop”, and Michael Jackson’s “Bad”. In “Bad”, we see the ‘Crips vs. Bloods’ theme of territorial divide played out, based largely around the ideas of personal and moral values such as respect and ownership to be granted by the other, which is played out alongside Wesley Snipes, whose acting debut on the music video challenged Michael Jackson’s attempts at remaining a focus of the quintessential black male during that period of the late 1980’s. A short segment of an improvised ‘breakdown’ towards the end of the full eighteen minute music video sees Jackson almost preaching to Snipes and his fellow gang members. It is those last
‘thirty seconds’ of the short film, that, according to American music journalist Danyel Smith, if there was any place that confirmed Jackson’s African American status, it was in those last remaining short sequences in“Bad”. The segment utlimately “re-affirmed himself and where his roots were….the soulfulness that he has and frankly, the blackness that he was” (Bad 25, Spike Lee, 2012).
Skip to 9:33 for this relevant sequence!:
(Credits go to user AppleHeadLoverXxX)
In 50 Cent’s case, whilst his image reinforces the male dominance on the more simplistic, non-grounded, and daring to say, trivial aspects of masculinity – women, money and status – the material wealth. As viewing these clips myself, what is important to note are the strikingly different opening lines from each of the songs. In my own personal view, the conflicted messages presented in both examples demonstrate the complex threads of how and what influenced them to reinforce their enforced stereotypes of masculinity.
Interestingly, Wesley Snipes character in the “Bad” short film exemplifies an early adoption of a black masculinity 50 Cent would later inherit. The profile and toughness presented in Snipes character is almost borrowed by 50 Cent’s, who, equipped with his modern gang image, as able to take a contemporary approach in utilising different areas of masculinity, including sources of material wealth. This is a complete juxtaposition of Snipes character, who, in contrast, adopts much more modest values of respect and ‘being down’ , despite both figures sharing the common persona of a ‘fierce’ gang rivalry attitude.
On a funnier note, recognise how both 50 Cent and Jackson reference to parts of their body to work in syncopation with the dance (as in Michael Jackson’s case, grabbing his crotch), and 50, who in an overtly manner, points down to that region also, almost to instate himself as an alpha-orientated male of attraction towards the opposite sex.
Watch and observe:
“Candy Shop” – ‘I’ll take you to the candy shop, I’ll let you lick the lollipop’
(Credits go to user WOWfanaddict1)
“Bad” – ‘Your butt is mine, gonna take you right”
(Credits go to user TheAbdeka1)
On a trivial note, “Bad” was originally offered as a duet with the singer instrumentalist, Prince, replacing Wesley Snipes acting role. However for reasons discussed lightly in this short VH1 interview with comedian Chris Rock, the ideas of masculinity and rivalry between the two pop mogul’s of the industry at the time was played down by Prince, perhaps in attempt to avoid Jackson’s set up for dominance, cultural impact and black status to be utilised in every aspect of the song and video’s context:
(Credits go to user Gi2lesAwesome)
Within this comparitive context, the subjects both denoted share a common thread – their affirmed messages embedded in appearance and complete image construction could, arguably, conjour up the sense of their African American roots amongst all audiences. But are they the perfect representation of African American artists? Could it quite possibly be their images are used to some extent as a facade, or a smoke screen?
Or are their images subverting or challenging their traditional notions of what is to be an African American person, and music artists, for that matter? Does the time, period and era of, the late 1980’s (Michael Jackson) and early mid 2000’s (50 Cent) play a part in how and as to why they deliver and are received by audiences alike? And finally, are ideas of their masculinity infused with the acceptance of race, and and brotherhood, as a way of feeling accepted by their counterparts, and to project to the mainstream primary targeted black demographic audience, that they ‘are down’? Down as in “Bad” (which, in the context of Jackson, acts as a pun to mean ‘good’, given his high pitched voice and observed eccentricites made by the tabloid media during the post period of “Thriller”), and
“The Massacre“, whose title cultivates an array of negative and violent connotations involved with American gang culture and the hardships to endure attaining status in black society.
Let’s begin the literal deconstructive visual analysis, to now dig a much deeper perspective.
The first connotator, pose, denotes Michael Jackson and 50 Cent standing up, implying a “hard” masculine pose.This is done through Jackson clenching his right fist and 50 Cent broadening his upper body to exert his defined and toned features.
Their vacant facial expressions connote anger as they directly look at the audience to fulfil interaction. The subjects are placed in similar medium shots that do not show their lower body. This connotes the idea that their representations should solely focus on their upper body actions, in order to reinforce their “tough” characters.
However, both artists strike different arm/face poses. Jackson connotes a more feminine image by holding his left hip and deepening his eyes using dark mascara. On the other hand though, Jackson displays his defined arched eyebrows, “perm” 1980’s style hair and clenches his right fist to attempt reinforcing audiences he is still “Bad”.
Are you “Bad?”: Questioning the imagery posed upon audiences in Jackson’s context
In another interesting topic over his appearance, psychologist Nick Banks believes “while the rest of him would signify someone who is very young, genderless and immature, the cleft – what is that about? – that’s an attempt to present a ‘macho’ male aspect of his character”.
Additionally, the unauthorised biographer of Jackson, J. Randy Taraborelli (author of
‘Michael Jackson: The Magic And The Madness), stated that “Michael did have the support of black America…but when the Bad promo came out, that was a bit of a surprise to a lot of people – because he was suddenely lighter than he’d ever been before”.
Credits go to user alejandro1979:
Skip to 6:26 for the relevant footage!
In contrast, on “The Massacre”, 50 Cent spreads his arms out more and signifies a powerful and superiority figure. This has been executed by his “hunched” en-larged body which fills the space of the album cover, connoting his status and super masculinity. Further, this could be seen as him trying to present himself as a super hero through a mode of aestheticism. This has been cleverly executed by intertextualising comic art graphics, which darken/surround his artificial silhouette.
50 Cent even adds to his own stature by creating a vertical angle. As he looks down, this reinforces the more “tough” image to audiences who “look up”, whose tilted face reinforces dare/intimidation, as seen in these image examples, stills from the “Candy Shop” music video:
Like taking “candy” from a baby: The many meanings one can take from 50 Cent’s direction in “Candy Shop” (2005)
The second connotator, objects, shows that gangster wear fashionable during the albums releases were used to reinforce current images to familiar audiences. These objects include Jackson’s silver belt buckles and zip compartments, signifying the street suburban gangster.
Similarly, 50 Cent has been able to categorise his American gangster image through his choice of clothing. He is stereotyped under generic and specific depictions which include low un-tucked jeans, a long chain hanging on his neck downwards, gloves, and the clever use of product placement which “plugs” his brand “G-Unit” (his rap group). Clearly these objects, are inducers of ideas that stem from a culture, escpecially when recognising typical African American gangsters during the album’s time periods. Moreover, the record disclaimer “parental advisory explicit content” helps emphasise he is strong viewed verbally as he is visually.
This, in contrast, is not possible for Jackson to execute, as the use of clothing and hair could be seen as subversive to audiences established with his previous “clean” pop image.
However, it is evident that Jackson uses more clothing and apparel to reinforce his gangster image, which connotes higher sophistication and style. In contrast, 50 Cent has reinforced a more physical image of a gangster by not wearing a t-shirt (to present his sex appeal). In applying the male gaze theory, devised by Laura Mulvey, this demonstrates 50 Cent’s subversion of the masculine look by showing the desire to present his body more, thus encouraging female audiences to view him as a sexual object of desire and seduction. Quite the contrary however, this theory can be challenged when typography is considered, as the album title, “The Massacre”, delivers a much different meaning of 50 Cent, connoting severe violence and pain.
The third connotator, setting, shows Jackson and 50 Cent both filling the canvas settings.
They are both the central images of the texts, which are imposed on coloured backdrops. Jackson is imposed on a plain non-artificial white background, which connotes messages of purity and cleanliness, and challenges established gangster conventions. In contrast, 50 Cent is digitally imposed on a graphic canvas background, which reinforces an artificial gangster. Digital graphics executed on his body parts enhance his image. The dark graffiti art appearing off parts of his upper body reinforces a masculine superficial appearance.
In terms of colour on Jackson and 50 Cent’s albums, bold colours used define and individualise their gangster image appeal. These comprise of black, white and red on “Bad”, and yellow, navy blue and black on “The Massacre”. The ideational functions of both album covers make use of dark clothing, which reinforces the iconic colours of a masculine gangster. However an interpersonal function shows the use of vibrant colours to brand themselves and create memorability. This is done through Jackson using bold red/black, and 50 Cent using bright yellow and outer navy blue.
For colour dimensions, the hue between both covers use striking colours creating a “hot/cold” effect. This includes Jackson who wears black clothing and is contrasted with a bright white background. Similarly, 50 Cent, whose black skin tone dominates the album cover, has been placed on a reduced faded background to increase the focus on him. The luminosity used shows 50 Cent digitally manipulated in the photo as he appears bright around his face and upper parts of his body to show his perfected physique and appearance.
However on Jackson, luminosity is not used at all which connotes his natural appearance through non-artificial elements used (for example makeup, wardrobe). The difference in modulation presents Jackson’s “Bad” cover using only a few specific set colours (black, red and white), that connotes a simple visual stimulant. However, 50 Cent’s cover uses a variety of palette colours. These create high detail and visually complex elements, to reinforce an intellectual gangster. 50 Cent has adopted this in order to maximise his image appeal.
From such a critical discourse of analysis, we can uncover the artists and producers motivations behind the record covers from which they have cleverly constructed their ‘male African american’ identity, or gangster representation in the eyes of others, depending on how you look at it.
These image constructions are widely based upon their own social practices and values, which have been aimed to convey and meet a preferred audience response. The analysis conducted has provided the result of these social values/influences as producing a stereotypical strong willed African American gangster, who is able to represent ideas of style and uniqueness through their pop/rap music genre.
Both album titles use bold statements which include “Bad” and “The Massacre”. These help reinforce a preferred meaning of crime and gangster activities/issues, and are intended to create shock value.
The ability to convey new messages and ideas through image re-invention has been cleverly demonstrated. “Bad” connotes a rebellious pop image persona of Michael Jackson, which attempts to challenge his previous “clean” image. This shows the sophisticated power of the music industry at the time (1987), where Michael Jackson and his record producers created an iconic image that represented a post-modern artist. However, the representation of 50 Cent would appear more convincing as a typical African American gangster. This is because audiences familiar with his social practices and values will have recognised his involvement in gang related activities before becoming a music artist. In “The Massacre”, a hybridisation between a comic and graffiti style theme has been constructed, that challenges his established “hard” image used in previous album covers, such as “Get Rich Or Die Tryin'” (2003). “The Massacre” connotes a discomforting message, which is associated with severe violence and murder. The use of disjointed letters and messy drawn on writing boasts 50 Cent and the producer’s creativity/artistic values within the rap genre. This has allowed them to be able to challenge and surprise audiences through the use of subverted type-faces audiences would not expect 50 Cent to use. Thus this reinforces an image of 50 Cent as an innovative, current and unique rap artist in his own right.
In terms of typography, the letter and words on the album covers can allow to bring out the emotion and feeling that is in sync with the meaning of the grammar. The weight of the artist name’s both use heavy fonts to emphasise. Also, the albums names use a graffiti/paint style which connotes their rebellious nature and anti-establishment on societies order. This has allowed the artists to experiment with their own artistic values, as opposed to relying upon the iconographical value in order to maximise their appeal.The typographical positioning on “Michael Jackson” is vertically placed on the far right side of the cover to separate itself from the main figure, but to also connote the brand of himself, adding credibility to his name.
Furthermore, considering the album had followed “Thriller” (the biggest selling album of all time) the producers would have wanted to re-instate this level of success by representing a signature image.
However the letters of “Michael Jackson” use disjointed large letters, which connotes the “edgy” image conveyed. By contrast, “50 Cent” uses horizontal orientation, allowing for a level of audacity. This reinforces the status 50 Cent had achieved in his career up until this point (several records/awards held), and thus connotes a highly confident figure, anchored by the solidified narrow text.
To conclude this in-depth analysis, although both album covers share many comparisons between their representations, it is important to not ignore that both records were made eighteen years apart (“Bad”, 1987, “The Massacre”, 2005). Therefore, it is for this reason both the producers in collaboration with Michael Jackson and 50 Cent respectively, would have had very different views and visions of their roles, or expectations as to how they express their African American male identities, because of the time and space factors to consider, as well as their contemporary musical nature. The choice of visual and textual elements critiqued here are influenced by several factors during the production process, which of course includes their social backgrounds, morals, values, beliefs, status, wealth and EVEN brand identity amongst the media consumers targeted for the product.
The distinct music genres used (pop/rap) clearly demonstrate the power and control of representation as a valuable tool used by media institutions alike. This allowed them, as had many artists in the past and present, to manipulate images and re-invent an
“iconic stature” solely through visual language and communication.
As illustrated by Michael Jackson, whose typical audiences viewed his representation before the “Bad” album as a young/naive pop star, whose humble beginnings as a solo artist during the late 1970’s would never have foreseen him transform his image on the measures he did so, with the introduction of a complete subversion of the typical African American male, appearing more robust, feminine and incorporating a large amount of risqué clothing, which at the time, was considered by other African Americans as much out of their depth or comfort zone (other than Prince, perhaps), supporting the argument as stated earlier that Jackson was leaving his former cultural roots as an African American behind.
However in the case of 50 Cent, his “gangster” image has always remained consistent,but instead
re-invented within the rap genre in terms of the latest fashion, style, rap beat rhythms and other related brands 50 Cent is able to utilise in his artistic visionary.
Ultimately, the view one may adopt or overlook when understanding images such as these in contemporary and past music as communicative modes of language and discourse are now unavoidable and ever present amongst the ever thriving digital, and technologically potential age we live in, as high consumers of media driven content.
Regardless of how conscious or sub-conscious you are, a greater, more insightful and richer mode observation will help one find the more often overlooked solutions AND meanings to initial questions we may pose upon such medium forms, in our ever complex and at times, sub-conscious, passive world as media users.
Curtis Jackson. Michael Jackson. Two different worlds: 1987 and 2005. But what are their ideas of masculinity?