Sex and Sensuality: Clever Marketing or Careless Ploy?Published: May. 22, 2007 at 2:27 PM
Last modified: May. 24, 2007 at 3:05 PM
Where is classical music going? The days of conservative, stodgy performances and drab marketing seem to be coming to an end. Classical music has long been the privilege of the elite, perpetuated by ultra formal and decadent social circles. It almost appears as though it was not meant to be terribly accessible. The general public has become increasingly disinterested in classical performance and increasingly consumed by pop culture. The preponderance of pop culture entertainment in the general media is indication enough of what consumers are demanding. It almost seems as though classical music and other fine arts are in danger of becoming dead arts. Interestingly enough, in 1958 contemporary composer Milton Babbitt wrote on this topic in support of perpetuating isolation as an indication of artistic refinement and specialization,
An article in The New York Times, written May 27, 2004 by Anne Midgette, breaches this issue. “[Lara] St. John, 32, is well aware of the power of image. For one thing she is a striking six-foot blonde…her first album for Sony Classical, the CD she will probably always be best known for is ‘Bach Works for Violin Solo’ from 1996. That is the one on which she appeared naked on the cover, holding her violin across her breasts” (The Curse of Beauty for Serious Musicians). This CD cover Midgette mentions drew a tirade of protest from the more conventional classical music lovers. The controversy that ensued, coupled with St. John’s impeccable technique and suasive musicianship, ensured her place in the spotlight for years to come. The album had record sales, totaling over 30,000, which in the classical music industry, is an astonishing success. As expected, this success was tempered by admonishment from the well established and well respected within the industry. Janos Starker wrote an article in the well-circulated string magazine, The Strad, to voice his position on the controversy. In the article he explains his desire for serious classical performers to entice audiences to concerts by “publicly speaking about their music in an intelligent manner and using their brains instead of their sexual powers”. He states emphatically his impatience with the marketing techniques of popular culture,
Though perhaps less recognized than the male artist she lists, St. John could have easily counted in pianist Tzimon Barto. An interesting and somewhat flattering review of a recent Barto performance made a point of informing the readers that the performer is additionally a bodybuilder and writer (Jay Nordlinger, May 8, 2007, New York Sun). Tzimon has also manipulated shirtless publicity stunts, but an exhaustive search of available reviews and articles could find only one mention of it. In fact, discounting quantifiers of talent and musicianship, in comparison to St. John’s successes his antics seem to have done little for his career. A New York Times article by Anne Midgette touches on this same subject noting that there is an unspoken “male template” which calls for the woman classical performer to “create her own identity” (for which she is often criticized) “…[as] there is no female equivalent of a man's standard concert uniform, the tuxedo”. The author is careful to mention that men do not always escape an evaluation of sex appeal, “but the violinists Joshua Bell and James Ehnes do not seem to be relegated to bimbo status because of their pinup images” (May 27, 2004).
I wrote to James, a personal friend, and asked him to respond to this article. Having previously read the article he found it rather funny having never thought of himself as being sold or marketed in one particular way or another. According to James, the marketing of Joshua Bell, after he moved to Sony Classical, took a turn that was “unique among male violinists”. Nevertheless, at the age of 39, Joshua Bell is one of the highest selling classical recording artists and, having been listed among People’s 50 Most Beautiful, is arguably the most recognizable of all the under-40 male classical violinists. Additionally, Bell has appeared on the film The Red Violin as a body double in a scene where fictional 19th century superstar violinist Frederic Pope is engaged in full on sex (full nudity implied) while playing the violin. Very little mention is made of this in reviews and articles other than a cursory note that Bell was in fact employed as a recording artist, violin coach, and body double. Ehnes again brings some insider light to this subject,
It is said a single review can make or break a career. Ideally, performers strive for perfection in an effort to appease an internal and insatiable drive to realize in performance a satisfying culmination of our efforts and talent, while quietly keeping in mind the importance of the critics review. The power of the critic may seem limitless, though history will show us that it does have its boundaries. In January 2001, before the announcement for a new artistic director of the New York Philharmonic, The New York Times chief critic, Anthony Tommasini ’70 along with other critics, petitioned for a “young dynamo”. Maazel has since gone on to renew his contract through the 2008-2009 concert season, at a reported annual salary of $2.6 Million (The Philharmonic to Add a Position at the Top, The New York Times, Daniel J. Wakin, April 25, 2007). Presumably, with such an important decision to be made the critics voices did not go unheeded, but still a decision contrary to their input was clearly solidified.
Conversely, as previously implied, we often see in popular media the dissolution of a career on account of how critics respond to musicians and actors personal behavior (case in point; Tom Cruise, Britney Spears, Bobby Brown) forcing the performers to either permanently step away from the spotlight, or re-invent their art/image. The reviews are in themselves a medium by which the critics, not unlike the older vocal generation of established performing artists, attempt to communicate an “authoritative gaze” by which they may sway public opinion and mold performance/presentation trends in a direction which they deem acceptable, worthy, and valuable. This influence, as such, is something that must be wielded responsibly and gracefully.
In a search of through thousands of reviews only one male performer was consistently reviewed on appearance as well as artistry. “Bailey is a publicist's dream client, with good looks that you expect more from a matinee idol than a classical musician. As more than one female concertgoer has noted, from some angles he resembles Antonio Banderas and from others, Johnny Depp. He is no mere pretty boy on the cello, however. Bailey is one of those rare talents whose technique seems utterly natural” (The Roanoke Times, October, 2005, ?Seth Williamson). This theme of seductive appeal did not end with his appearance. Consistently critics hailed his charisma and magnetism musically; some going so far as to invoke sensual imagines between Bailey and his cello “He dove into the work, wrapping his body around the beautiful Matteo Goffriller cello” (Napa Valley Register, March 2004, ?L. Pierce Carson). Granted, Bailey is a very fine cellist, but similar (but less numerous) reviews can also be found for Joshua Bell, who as mentioned earlier, has been extolled for talent and physical attractiveness. “Partly the fiddle…partly the repertoire, partly the emotional range and very much the artist behind the fiddle, this exquisite collection carries the seductive powers of the violin to new heights” (The Tucson Citizen, Daniel Buckley). The only obviously gendered/sexualized reviews of male performers both clearly portrayed the instrument as direct receptors of the described sexualization. Whereas the reviews of female performers repeatedly sexualized the performer outside of or removed from her expressed art. Intriguing coincidence? Perhaps; or a subtle crisis of masculinity? Maybe.
Of course there are those performers who have gone to the extreme. In 1998, Finnish violinist Linda Brava, who had already been pushing the limits of what could be considered tasteful advertising, agreed to pose for Playboy. The cover spread was predictably entitled “Sex & Music”. She has also posed for the male tease magazine Maxim. Though favourably viewed in Walter’s article, Vanessa-Mae has dodged the wicked sting of the critic’s pen for years. These critics, who have been admittedly ruthless, likening her image to that of a child prostitute, irritate Vanessa-Mae. "I thought that was shocking because it was a very rude thing to say, and also quite vulgar. No artist would have as many kid fans, as many teenage fans, and as many approving parents as I have if I really did look like a child prostitute" (Music's Unexploded Sex Bomb, The Daily Telegraph, August 1, 1997). Her classical/pop crossover, over the top image, and frequently questionable maintenance of her musical technical hygiene (especially when compared to her former status as a stunning child prodigy), have in the minds of many classical music lovers, made a mockery of a standardized and perhaps orthodox art which has proven its relevance to generation after generation. Regardless, Vanessa Mae is probably the most successful crossover violinist ever, with album sales reaching over eight million which have, according to the Sunday Times in 2006, helped make her the wealthiest young entertainer in the UK with an estimated worth of £32 million.