Chris Robinson @crmusicwriter

mostly music, sometimes books


On Diana Krall’s Latest Album Cover

The above, for those who don’t already know, is the cover of the forthcoming album by Diana Krall, entitled Glad Rag Doll.  It’s already gotten a fair amount of attention out there in the jazz blog/twitter-spheres (it was included on the August 17 edition of NPR’s A Blog Supreme‘s weekly rundown of jazz on the internet – check it here to get  started down the rabbit hole).

Since I’ve written previously in a couple graduate seminar papers that nobody outside my mom or S.O. would want to read I figure I’d add my two cents to the discussion.

I. Stray thoughts:

-Somebody out there likened the cover to that famous Whipped Cream record.  The difference here is that the woman on that cover was not the artist.  Not sure if I can articulate the significance of that yet.

-Whether the cover was meant to generate publicity, it certainly has done that.  I wasn’t aware this album was about to drop, as I’m not on that Verve’s mailing list.  But now I’m sure everybody plugged into the jazz world and their dog will be aware of this album pretty shortly, if they aren’t already.

-Krall’s website says that the cover is inspired by images of the Zigfield Follies of the 1920s.  It makes clear that Krall is the agent in the design and concept for the cover – so I would downplay any arguments suggesting that she is just a pawn of her label, publicist or the jazz business.  Although those who might suggest that she is a victim of the larger ideologies of patriarchy in society might have a point.

– There was a comment somewhere by someone who just thought Americans are prudes and that in France this could be an image for a toothpaste commercial.  They might have a point, and in another culture this cover might not even deserve a second look, let alone thousands and thousands of words.  But in the United States her cover – and many of her previous album covers and promotional material, for that fact – has obviously struck a nerve.  What is it about American culture that leads to this kind of discussion?

– If I was teaching an upper division course on gender and American popular music this would be a perfect teaching moment and opportunity to break down gender roles and norms, the power of sexuality and the marketplace, sexual agency, exploitation, femininity, and the like.

II. From My Previous Work:

It’s not like this is the first time Krall has worn clothes pointing back to prior eras.  For her 1997 album Love Scenes Krall included several alluring photographs in the liner notes.  I agree with writer Wayne Enstice who says that “it’s hard to deny, it seems to me, the seductiveness of the cover and liner photos” (Enstice, Jazz Women, 2004, pg 189).

Cover from Krall’s Love Scenes

Those photos, along with many others she has taken, have led people to question her artistic integrity.  In an interview with Enstice, Krall says that

“lately, I’ve had a problem . . . because you’re not supposed to be attractive.  ‘You’re only successful ‘cause you’re a while, blond, girl-next-door type.’  ‘Girl next door meets sex kitten,’ was one quote in the paper.  A put-down.  I’m frustrated because my photographs in some instances are too glamorous for certain publications.  I can’t be a serious artist because of my looks; or I’m only successful because of my looks. . . . I gave the most athletic wind-blown pictures, like in the pouring rain, for some magazine, and it was still too pretty for people.  I thought, ‘Okay, let me get a cigarette and I won’t shave my armpits, and then I’ll have more credibility as an artist.’  Screw ‘em.  I’m not coming to concerts with boobs hanging out or with over makeup.”  Krall says she chose to take those photos for Love Scene’s cover and liner notes “because I like those old movie-glam photos.” (Enstice, 188-189)

In a feature article for JazzTimes in 2004, Christopher Loudon wrote while comparing her to singer Peggy Lee, “Krall, too, whom “the New York Times once politely dismissed as ‘cautious’ and lacking ‘a deep end,’ has for years been dogged by the jazz cranks who say she’s too attractive to be taken seriously as a jazz singer or – that most ghastly of sins – being too commercially popular.” (JazzTimes, May 2004, pg 68)  While extolling Krall’s artistry, musicianship and her latest album The Girl in the Other Room, which he calls “boldly brilliant,” Loudon emphasizes Krall’s attractiveness.  Before attesting to her “prodigious talent,” “intense professional integrity” and a “near-perfectionist work ethic,” Loudon acknowledges Krall’s “natural beauty.”  These comments, which not only make Krall’s beauty an area of emphasis as they are made prior to any discussion of her musicianship, help to make a woman’s appearance something that needs mentioning.  I read Loudon’s comments as really saying: “trust me fellas, she is just as smoking hot as you thought she is.”  In the article’s subtitle, Loudon claims that “despite the fame and glamour, the real Diana Krall is the normal girl in the other room.”  Here Loudon continues the tradition of referring to women as “girls,” even though Krall was 39 at the time this article was written.  His emphasis on her looks and how she fits into the “girl next door” (I’m assuming he modified “girl next door” to “girl in the other room” to reference to her album’s title) mold is not that far from  the “Girl next door meets sex kitten” newspaper headline that Krall complained about.  In his article, Loudon gave Krall’s new album and change in artistic direction a very favorable review, but by assuring his readers that Krall really is beautiful and by using the identifier “girl,” he contributes to the discourse that Krall complained about.  It was relevant for Loudon to discuss her appearance in terms of what it has meant to the way she is perceived and the problems it has caused, but describing her appearance went a step too far.

cover from Krall’s Look of Love album

Even though it was her choice to take those photos for Love Scenes, their appearance allowed people to create their own meanings of Krall and to assign her an identity that obviously does not match who she is or how she wants to be perceived.  Krall is not the first artist to be unhappy to a certain extent about what is said about her and how she is represented in the media and this example shows how her choice to take some “old movie-glam photos” combined with the framing of her image by Loudon and others led people to question her jazz credibility.  Artistic credibility should only be judged in terms of one’s artistic output, not on any preconceptions of how a female artist should present herself.  Rarely men have the same problem as Krall and are usually judged on their music, not on any extra-musical societal expectations.  It are these expectations and socially produced scripts for how a man and woman should live their lives is one of the main reasons for gender bias in music.

III. Implications/Questions/Final Thoughts

Wynton always looks good.

From Krall’s comments it’s clear that she enjoys old glam movie costumes and those from the Zigfield Follies and enjoys wearing them.  But she is also aware of the double standard that applies to women who want to put on nice clothes or clothes they feel attractive in and states that she has been a victim of this double standard.  Men who wear a ridiculously expensive tailored suit during their performances or for their album covers do not have their artistry questioned.  Far from it – an expensive suit is a marker of respectability; the man who wears one on the bandstand or is photographed in one is not only showing respect for himself, but he shows that he respects the audience and the music as well.  A man’s artistry is never under scrutiny when he looks good.

Ok – at this point you’re probably saying that the cover of Krall’s latest album is far from the equivalent of Miles Davis wearing a hip-as-all-hell Italian suit in the early 60s.  Krall’s latest cover photo is risque, inappropriate, it shows off way too much.  So what about this photo?

Nobody who is familiar with this classic image of Miles questions his artistry, and I’d argue he is showing off a whole lot more of his body in this photo than Krall does in hers.  But what’s the difference?  This image of Miles exudes masculinity, confidence, etc., etc., etc.  We would never accuse Miles of showing off his physique for promotional or financial reasons.  So why is it that when a woman shows off herself, we immediately jump to: “she’s just doing this for the publicity,” or “she’s just playing to the dirty old man market,” or “she can’t really be a serious artist if she looks like that.”

So ok, we get it – there’s clearly a double standard at work, hopefully I’ve made this clear.  But the big questions that stems from the above are:

-What are the mechanisms at work that allow this double standard to work?

-What is the best way to get rid of this double standard?

-What role do writers have in creating this discourse?  How best can writers address this problem?

-Does Krall, by exercising her personal agency to wear what she wants, affirm female sexuality in a positive way?  This is an argument that women in feminist burlesque shows might make.

-Does Krall actually enforce the double standard?  This one is tricky, because if you say yes, then I could argue that to say a woman is participating in her own subjugation is especially problematic, given that this double standard is a product of patriarchy, standard gender norms and roles, expectations for how women should act and look, etc.  If you say no, she is not, it’s hard to ignore that she knows what kind of response is going to come – and has already come.

-All this considered, would it be best for Krall to not be who she wants to be, to not act how she wants, in order to prevent the manifestations of the double standard I’ve outlined?  Or would that act, in and of itself, be an act of conceding defeat to the powers of patriarchy?  Or is it best – and I’m thinking of “best” in terms of the feminist agenda’s larger goals, which has now become so encompassing so as to include advocating for the rights of all marginalized peoples – for Krall to keep doing what she’s doing, exercising her agency, blow-back be damned?

-These are not easy questions to answer – if they are at all possible to answer, but they are worth discussing.

IV. The Big Take Home

We may never be able to figure out these questions, solve the double standard in our culture, etc.  We may never come to consensus as to the relative merits – or lack thereof – of Krall’s CD cover.  But…I think what we can all agree on, is that if Krall’s cover has done only one thing – it’s that it has led to what I think is becoming a healthy discussion about the importance dominant gender ideologies play in jazz and American culture.  And that’s a good thing.

One response to “On Diana Krall’s Latest Album Cover”

  1. “It has led to what I think is becoming a healthy discussion about the importance dominant gender ideologies play in jazz and American culture.”

    Yes. This 1000 times. There are no quick and dirty answers, but the discussion itself is relevant, valid, and needs to keep going.

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