Printer-friendly version
Preston Hawes

Sex and Sensuality: Clever Marketing or Careless Ploy?

May 22, 2007 at 2:27 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,
Towards this condition of musical and societal ‘isolation’, a variety of attitudes has been expressed, usually with the purpose of assigning blame, often to the music itself, occasionally to critics or performers, and very occasionally to the public. But to assign blame is to imply that this isolation is unnecessary and undesirable. It is my contention that, on the contrary, this condition is not only inevitable, but potentially advantageous for the composer and his music. From my point of view the composer would do well to consider means of realizing, consolidating and extending the advantages” (Milton Babbitt, Who Cares If You Listen?” High Fidelity, VIII, No. 2, pg. 38).
However, in recent years there has been an observable trend in marketing classical music and performance as not only accessible and desirable to the general public, but weighty, influential and compelling. Marketers of classical music seem to be taking their cues from general pop culture, Hollywood, and even athletic circles. But even more specific, and perhaps more important, is the use of sex and sensuality. After all, sex sells.

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,
I believe this sort of behaviour belongs to pop artists, and I don’t give a damn what they do…You could be the most amazing violinist in the world, but to appear semi-nude on stage is wrong—because you don’t need to. It takes away the basis of music appreciation, which is to listen. This behaviour is only really undertaken by people who are not certain that they are as good as they would like to be”.
In response, St. John addressed the fact that the performers of classical music, music that is “steeped in tradition”, face the challenge of “speak[ing] to the 98 per cent of the population who seem unaware of classical music without alienating the 2 per cent who know and love it”. As previously mentioned, St. John has been something of a pioneer, with the release of the controversial 1996 album cover, in attempting to engage this challenge. She goes on to identify another inherent facet to this issue.
“…there is, and will be for years to come, a double standard when considering women in classical music. Some are shocked when violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter wears a strapless gown on an album cover, yet the baritone Dimitri Hvorostovksy can go topless and no one blinks an eye. What are the female musicians of this world expected to do—wear potato sacks? There is no reason why the Leilas [Josefowicz], Anne-Sophies and Eroica Trios of the world should have to hide the fact that, along with being superb musicians, they happen to be good-looking…The traditionalists of the music world who have a problem with such marketing efforts should probably just point that gun downwards and shoot themselves in the foot now. As all musicians know—there is no point in being creative if no one hears it”.
(No Sex, Please—We’re Classical, The Strad, March, 2006).

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,
“...for women, it's a different story...The problem for them is, I think, that this doesn't really lead to sustained careers, as there will always be someone a little bit younger and a little bit 'hotter'...I think it's much [more difficult] for unattractive females than for unattractive males” (James Ehnes, email to author, May 11, 2007).
The sympathy that Ehnes adopts is for good reason. A quick search through the classical market reveals an explosion of young, attractive musicians, particularly women. Besides St. John, groups such as Bond, the Eroica and Ahn trios, soloists like Janine Jensen, Nicola Benedetti, Naida Cole, the ex-model Nina Kotova, and Leila Josefowicz, the one time face of Chanel’s “Allure” perfume, are just a few examples of legitimate performers who have struggled with critics regarding their use of sex and sensuality in marketing. And the critics aren’t ones to remain tactfully silent.

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.
This is not always the case, however. A clear and undeniable disparity is observed between the reviews that male performers get as opposed to female performers. Almost invariably, if personal appearance is mentioned (interestingly enough, by either a male or female critic), it is most often in reference to a female performer. Though perhaps not entirely fueled by appearance (it may also have something to do with the phenomenon of a successful and talented performer with a back story), ex-model and one-time Yale student, Nina Kotova, in glamorous descriptions of her beauty and a her apparel, has been touted by critics as the “Belle of the ball” (Hull Daily Mail, May 19, 2006), and referenced as being “as comfortable with her Chanel as with her cello” (Classic fM). Undoubtedly most startling was the entertainment ad found on, “You might think the classical realm would be immune to the charms of the flesh, but you’d be wrong: give an audience a former Ford Agency model sawing at a good piece of wood between her legs, and they’ll come in droves” (January, 2003). Dutch violinist Janine Jensen’s recording of Vivaldi concerti was reported by The Independent (UK) in April 2006 to hold the top spot for iTunes instrumentalist downloads.
“People find the whole package appeals to them - a fresh version of the work, from a fresh talent, presented in a new way…The Vivaldi sales clearly depend on a number of hooks, only one of which is the quality of Jansen's playing: those images on iTunes play a big part. In one, she's pictured leaning seductively back in an armchair and tossing her violin over her shoulder…in another, she poses provocatively on a carpet, her violin again an afterthought.”

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.
In his letter James Ehnes suggest that it is in fact very unfair that talented violinists will endure criticism on their appearance, but what he stresses is that they are getting attention, and that attention is, in fact, getting them “more work than if they were old, ugly, male, or any combination of the 3. So sometimes they get undeserved great reviews from some dirty old man, and sometimes they get undeserved nasty reviews from some jerk with an axe to grind. Big deal. They're getting the work, and that's what's important”. Clearly, as with any capitalist enterprise where demand is the driving force to supply, inherent to their work is the drawing of crowds, and ideally the performer’s own drive for satisfaction in performance should be enough to smother the fickle voice of the critic.
But where does this all fit into broadening the accessibility of classical music without simply accessorizing it? Bob Babb, the conductor of the Granite State Symphony Orchestra has said that one of the reasons people do not come to classical concerts is because they are unfamiliar with it and the conventions surrounding such an event. Concerns like not knowing what to wear to the concert, or not knowing when to clap in a multi movement work; worries that would hardly concern an avid classical music fan. Elizabeth Walters of the Concord Monitor writes,
“Those anxieties illustrate classical’s [sic] overly stuffy image - one that many musicians are trying to amend. Joshua Bell, one of the world's top violinists, sometimes performs in a T-shirt and jeans. Vanessa-Mae, like Bell a child prodigy, inspired innumerable teenage girls when, in the '90s, she donned combat boots and flashy gowns for her performances; now 28, she's been named one of People magazine's most beautiful people. The artists are also reaching larger audiences simply by being themselves and exploring their wider musical interests - and therefore expanding the definition of classical. Vanessa-Mae often plays an electric violin and works with pop-classical fusion. The cellist Yo-Yo Ma recorded an album with the a cappella jazz singer Bobby McFerrin”
(May 10, 2007).

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.
Clearly, classical music is going somewhere, diverging from a well-worn path into somewhat new and controversial territory. This hearkens back to what Milton Babbitt had to say and exposes a great disparity between what young and emerging musicians typically seem to be suggesting as an acceptable direction for classical music as opposed to what is being demanded by an older and more established voice. This is not an issue that will be solved quickly or painlessly as is well evidenced. The question at hand, most simply, is whether we should heed the deep-seated voice of the veteran performers and moderate classical traditionalists, or whether we should be accepting of the unorthodox, debonair, even bawdy new face of classical music. Perhaps the only way to bring this matter to an eventual close is to realize that each and every one of us is a critic. We’re not all in a position of influence but collectively we will decide the path of classical music. James wrote, “It sure is a funny thing though, - music is heard with the ears, yet it's the eyes that often decide whether listeners like something or not.” Just as a critic must wield their responsibility gracefully and intelligently, we too have a mutual obligation to the well-being and health of the classical music industry and must determine whether it will be our ears or our eyes that establish its ultimate course.

From Jay Azneer
Posted on May 24, 2007 at 4:24 PM
The more I read about this tempest in a teapot of adding sex into the equation of classical music--the more amused I become. After all, music is part of the larger society there are not two separate societies of people out in the world( there are actually but not for the purposes of this discussion) there is simply the world. Unless, of course, you want to assume the effete, affected air of such a one as Babbitt who doesn't give a fig whether you listen to his music or not. But today's musical society is not quite as much a caste system as it was back back in the days when Babbitt wrote his little piece. In those days classical musicians and aficianados seemed to enjoy their relative isolation from the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd, today like it or not everyone hears everything. Hip-hop, rock, classical even opera come at us from the background music in commercials to odd bedfellows on concerts which honor musicians of every stripe all at the same time. The world has changed a bit over the past 125 years and Strauss' view of Musik ist eine heilige Kunst is all very well an good save for the fact that some of the people listenng to it might just as well like opera and hip-hop and don't care if they aren't equally rarified. For those who are offended that 'marketing' has or will corrupt their precious art--no one was ever influenced or had their lives made better by music they never heard. For art to have its impact it has to have an audience. (The height of rarified silliness is an operatic performance sung for people in a language they do not understand--or perhaps, it's simply 'chutzpah'--unmitigated gall--for the uninitiated. but that's another topic.) People have to come to the performances to hear the music. Who cares if you're wearing a tank top and jeans or a ball gown the object is to have people in the seats, otherwise we're back to the argument of'if a tree falls in the forest'.

This entry has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Los Angeles Philharmonic

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Anne Cole Violin Maker
Anne Cole Violin Maker Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine