Time To Put Your Clothes On?

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Sean Riley links to this article:
CNN.com – Does sex still sell? – Jan. 21, 2004

The gist of the article is that selling artists through their blatant sex appeal only works in happy times. In periods, like the moment, when people are feeling threatened, politically or economically, they seek refuge in less obvious sexuality. It’s an interesting and well argued theory but, I think, wrong. Take a look at these covers:

In many ways, they’re remarkably similar. The same neutral background, a pretty equal amount of flesh on display and similar curved body poses. Yet Beyonce is considered to be one of the hot artists of the moment and Britney is seen as a fading pop princess. Both a marketing themselves visually in the same way. There must be another reason for their relative success levels, surely? Take a look at these two shots:
On the left we have [Christina Aguilera](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christina_Aguilera "Christina Aguilera"), pop princess turned strumpet singer, and on the right we have Jewel, folk singer turned semi-sexy songstress. Sean postulates that, based on the article, Jewel has made a mistake switching to a sexier image in the current climate. She certainly doesn’t look comfortable in that leather skirt. However, Christina returned from a relatively lengthy career absence with a new, raunchy image and has troubled the chart repeatedly with her presence. Clearly just gaining a more sexy image isn’t enough to destroy your sales. Has Jewel’s image change attracted more listeners? Probably. I’ll be honest, I’d never heard of her until I caught sight of the cover of her latest album. I’m male, so I looked, then listened, then bought.

So, let’s look at our four ladies:


p style=”text-align: left; line-height: 110%; margin-bottom: 4px; margin-top: 4px;” title=”TITLE”>Christina started clean-cut, went away and came back raunchy
Jewel started obscure, and became (somewhat) sexy
Beyonce has always been sexy, even in the early Destiny’s Child albums (in outfits designed by her mother….)
Britney started off relatively clean cut (for the pop industry) and has become progressively more raunchy as time goes on.

I’d suggest that Britney’s problems sales-wise were more to do with a paucity of good songs, a constant public presences and her increasingly bizarre personal life than any image change. You can survive many image changes but a run of weak songs will throttle your career. Aussie pop poppet Kylie has proved both of those points in her career.

The article’s second point is that the success of musicians like Norah Jones and Alicia Keys can be put down to the public growing disenchanted with clothes-lite attitude of the other pop stars. Well, no. I suspect it might have something to do with the steadily ageing population of CD buyers. As the traditional music buyers – kids and teenagers – pile more of their pocket money into games, DVDs and mobile phone, the music industry has suffered. Meanwhile, those of us in 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s have been used to buying music since we were kids and continue to do so, sometimes in our local supermarkets. More mature and skilled artists like Norah Jones and Alicia Keys appeal to the older customer, while still maintaining some credibility with the more serious-minded youngsters.

Artists have always marketed themselves on sex appeal. Who can deny that Elvis’s success was partially attributable to the female record-buying public? I don’t think that this oddly puritanical attempt to claim that sex appeal is over as a marketing tool really makes much sense when you look at all the figures. The financial figures that is. Get your mind out of the gutter. There are certainly risks in changing your image. Jewel may well have alienated some of her traditional fanbase, while Pink has certainly undermined her own appeal. But is it inherently a destructive move in uncertain times? No, I don’t think so.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.