What is the meaning of jacket and sleeve art?
April 17, 2006 5:16 AM   Subscribe

There's a lot of threads here about the meaning of art, and also a lot of great stuff about the beauty of CD cover art. What I want to know, is what it all means. Why do so many CDs featuring a white line art border, sort of like Victorian wall paper? Is there a way to tell what sort of music is inside by the picture outside? Is there a secret language of icons or symbology? Or is it just packaging? And if it is, is there some kind of marketing ploy to attract particular audiences? Does a sepia cover with a guitar and boots always mean country music? How am I being manipulated by album art? And where can I learn more about what it means, not just what it looks like? Thanks
posted by b33j to Media & Arts (13 answers total)
 
I think broadly this would fall under the study of semiotics. It's the same as with any other advertising medium. Ideally, the cover art will reflect something about the artist or music, although this isn't always the case. I wouldn't say there's exactly a "secret language" any more than there's a secret language of, for example, the packaging of cereal boxes or soda cans. But I do think that those things are very calculated and tested to produce the desired effect on the consumer, and in music markets where lots of money and big corporations are involved, you might find similar practices.
posted by ludwig_van at 5:22 AM on April 17, 2006


Is there a way to tell what sort of music is inside by the picture outside? Is there a secret language of icons or symbology?

This sounds like a conspiracy theory to me. Cover art is done by tons of different designers, artists and companies. They aren't all banding together or having secret meetings where they agree on a code language.

Design just tends to follow trends (similar to the way fashion does). Look at all the web sites with "Web 2.0" style. It's not a code. People just copy what they like, or what's popular.
posted by grumblebee at 5:48 AM on April 17, 2006


No grumblebee, not conspiracy theory but that's a fine idea.

Something Roger Dean said in one of his (mostly picture) books on album art: There are always signs, codes and symbols which appear within the framework of album cover design, providing the musicians with an identity and an image. The complexity and sophistication of these symbols in recent record sleeves is such that often the "aware" audience is able to identify at a glance the 'type' of music and a more general musical and visual ambience that the performers wish to project at a glance. Which is what lead me to the question - because I want to know what symbols these are.

Thanks Ludwig. I'm on the trail of the Journal of Popular Culture now, thanks to using the search criteria of semiotics. If I discover anything interesting, I'll be sure to post here.
posted by b33j at 5:53 AM on April 17, 2006 [1 favorite]


There are always signs, codes and symbols which appear within the framework of album cover design, providing the musicians with an identity and an image.

I'm still skeptical. How does this happen? RCA hires and artist to design a cover. He does so, and they tell him, "It's good, but you need to add some secret signs." There's a non-published book with all of the signs in it, and all the CD publishers have a copy of it and agree to use it.
posted by grumblebee at 6:04 AM on April 17, 2006


"Just packaging" is hardly ever just packaging.

When Roger Dean is talking about "signs and symbols", he's not talking about some secret language that's known amongst the designers of cover art, or even among record label art directors. He's talking about art as an exercise in symbol-manipulation and symbol-making. He's talking about culture. And he's talking about Roger Dean.

By the last I mean that he's speaking from his own context, regarding the situations he's been involved in. But for every Roger Dean cover, there are probably ten that are done by the recording artist or his/her buddy. Those, too, have "signs and symbols" in them that are significant to the artist(s). There's a good chance you'll never figure those out, because you don't know those people.

Or not. It could just be a piece of really cool art.

The way to find out what these signs and symbols "mean" is not to look for some kind of grimoire that unlocks the whole thing for you. Understand the artists, understand the musical form, and maybe it will be clear. Maybe not. It's art. It's not really supposed to be easy. Not usually, at least.

That said, if it's got Frank Frazetta inspired fantasy art on the cover, it's probably metal. Unless it's southern rock.
posted by lodurr at 6:12 AM on April 17, 2006


Look at all the web sites with "Web 2.0" style. It's not a code. People just copy what they like, or what's popular.

I think y'all might be speaking past one another. At one, overt level, you're clearly right: Web 2.0 is not a "code" in a Dan Brownian, Masonic Handshake sense. But it is just as clearly a "code" in a leather-jacket, spiked-haircut sense. People see the aesthetic cues and respond to them: "Oh! That looks like Daring Fireball! That looks like Roger Dean! That looks like Phil Hartman!"
posted by lodurr at 6:19 AM on April 17, 2006


Wow, I just had a really long comment typed out and it somehow got eaten.

I think that lodurr is right, and grumblebee seems to be missing the point.

It's not that there's a conspiracy or that there's some master codebook you could refer to that would explain the meaning of every instance of album art. But people who create album art are trying to get you to buy the album, and they're trying to communicate something about the artist, and even though they're separate people in separate places, they tend to draw inspiration from roughly the same pool of culture.

Examples, from my experience:

Images of instruments or people holding instruments creates an implication of simplicity and humility. A sense of "it's all about the music," and also "this is the sound of a real person playing a real instrument, not the sound of a modern digitally produced recording."

Images of bands in a live performance or practice situation emphasize "authenticity." As in "these guys aren't going to pose for a big fakey photo; here's a shot of them doing what they do best." It also elevates the concept of the live sound above the more calculated studio sound.

Photographs of people that aren't associated with the band (Belle and Sebastian and The Smiths are two bands that have done this consistently) help give the band a sort of arch, mysterious air. It makes one ask "Who are these people? Why did the band put them on the cover?" And it also drives home that the band isn't shouting "look at me!"

Images of people in some kind of everyday situation might have a connection with the sort of person the album is trying to appeal to; album art may portray people who look the way the music's target audience wishes they looked.

Sexualized images function much the same as in other media.

Weird, surreal, or "artistic" images emphasize that the band has something to say, that they aren't just making disposable music but rather some kind of artistis statement.

An image featuring or emphasizing only one band member obviously implies that he/she has a more important role in the process than the others.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:42 AM on April 17, 2006


Er, artistic.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:43 AM on April 17, 2006


I'm with lugwig_van that you'll want to consider semiotics, the "science of signs" and its closely-related counterpart, structuralism. You might also want to consider iconography in the visual arts. You'll find a lot more about famous paintings than album covers, but it may well give you a framework that you can use to approach your subject.

I'm with lodurr that understanding these sorts of things requires some immersion in the subject matter. Some art is relatively easy to interpret (a gospel album cover with clean cut, formally dressed singer surrounded by clouds is easy). Others are difficult or abstract. Some are deeply ironic or even nonsensical. Others are one-off jokes.
posted by wheat at 6:54 AM on April 17, 2006


It's not that there's a conspiracy or that there's some master codebook you could refer to that would explain the meaning of every instance of album art. But people who create album art are trying to get you to buy the album, and they're trying to communicate something about the artist, and even though they're separate people in separate places, they tend to draw inspiration from roughly the same pool of culture.

From the original question: Is there a secret language of icons or symbology?

THAT'S what I was responding to. It's true (but banal) that artists & designers are influenced by their culture. It's also true that marketers survey people in an attempt to figure out what influences them. Such surveys aren't very profound, because they needn't search for the "whys". It's only important to know that for some reason the color red makes people want to buy cars. That will tell compel you to use red lettering on your car ad. You don't (if you're a marketer) care WHY the color read inspires people. Nor do you care what the color red "means."

So we see similar things popping up on different album covers because (a) artists are influenced by the same cultural references; (b) artists are influenced by each other; (c) marketers attempt to use survey data to sell records.

None of this gives you insight as to what "symbols" "mean." As-far-as I can tell, if you're interested in that, you need to turn to pseudo-science (Jung, etc.) It's similar to asking what dreams mean.

Also, the marketer are shooting in the dark. They really don't know WHAT makes people buy a car or album. They take surveys and TRY to mine meaningful data from them -- but was it really the red lettering, the sexy girl, or the price of the car? Or a combination?

When something is popular, it's usually for complex reasons. But people what an easy way to capitalize on the popularity without investing in the complexity. So they obsess about one aspect of the original and copy it. Which usually doesn't work. We see this in Hollywood all the time. "Oh, people like movies about aliens! Let's make a movie about aliens. It's sure to be successful!"
posted by grumblebee at 8:14 AM on April 17, 2006


None of this gives you insight as to what "symbols" "mean." As-far-as I can tell, if you're interested in that, you need to turn to pseudo-science (Jung, etc.) It's similar to asking what dreams mean.

Or you can draw observations based on experience with lots of examples, like my post above. It's not as though the people making album art are unconsciously using imagery in order to evoke certain associations. They're doing it on purpose to create a certain image for the artist. I don't think it's as vague and mysterious as you're making it sound.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:31 AM on April 17, 2006


Which is what lead me to the question - because I want to know what symbols these are.

This might be easier if you think of the "symbols" as "referents"; the various components of an album cover refer to certain things musically or culturally (they may refer to "nothing," but that's still a kind of referent). The idea of "decoding" simply means that you have to know enough about the context of the album and the culture in which it was released to "get" the album cover.

For example:

The Cash Money Millionaires' albums all feature this heavily-photoshopped, diamond-and-jewel encrusted display of wealth. To "get" the cover, you need to understand certain things about a) mainstream hip-hop culture b) American youth culture and maybe even c) the Cash Money Millionaires themselves.


For the Fugees' album The Score, there are two essential "symbols." One is the font (a take-off of the one used for The Godfather) and the other is the photograph, which refers to the famous Beatles album cover for With the Beatles:


Some covers may claim to have no ostensible "message," or nothing to "get," but an understanding of the cultural context can still allow you to "understand" the album cover a bit better. That being said, sometimes it's just there because it looks pretty or is a good photograph of the artist--not for any overweening significance.
posted by maxreax at 9:32 AM on April 17, 2006


Max, I think the Fugees album is more a reference to just one "symbol",The Godfather poster and the Beatles thing is more of a coincidence.




Having perhaps sparked this idea with my post here, I feel compelled to jump in and say that the designers co-op whatever they can to make the design they feel is appropriate to the mood of the album.

Some bands use similar themes throughout all of their records, and some have art that is so distinct you would never know it was the same group of people. I think, at it's simplest, supposed to be evocative. Sometimes artists don't use this very well (I think of a quirky Flesh Eaters album I bought on the basis of packaging alone...very good...but strange & not what I expected.
posted by Brainy at 1:45 PM on April 17, 2006


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