Rock and roll would be nothing without its distinct iconography. Hell, that’s actually true of popular music in general. If you look at some of the most significant and iconic bands of all time they have all been defined by having a distinct look, a look that fits into their narrative and that on at least a few occasions allowed them to shape culture as a whole. There’s a lot to be learned here for independent musicians, not just about the power of a look, but also having a distinctive iconography that is wholly your own. I know this is a topic we’ve touched on before, but it certainly bears repeating, especially in an increasingly bland and overcrowded music industry.
Just take perhaps the single most iconic figure in rock and roll history – Lemmy Kilmeister. This is a man who started wearing Nazi memorabilia because he thought it looked cool and caught minimal flak for it. Lemmy Kilmeister managed to be so cool that even literally actually Hitler couldn’t take away from the brand that he wanted to create for himself. I mean yeah, some of that came from biker culture, but even the bikers had to put up with a lot more accusations of neo-nazi leanings that Lemmy ever did. (And unlike Lemmy they didn’t exactly deny them) I’m not saying that your band should be trying to reclaim the swastika or anything silly like that, merely that having a distinct iconography is an incredibly powerful thing. It can take something affiliated with some of the most demented ideologies ever and turn it into something that defines your group.
Here’s the challenging thing about setting up your own iconography – it has to be dangerous enough that people think it’s cool but it also has to make sense as part of a larger whole. That’s part of why Judas Priest have been able to cultivate a leather clad image with extreme success. The look comes from 70s gay BDSM culture which at the time was extremely forbidden (Homosexuality was entirely illegal in England until midway through the 80s). At the same time though – given the latent homoeroticism of their music, it fits into something that could only be described as ‘cool’. Judas Priest is another example of a band who took something that objectively most people would think were too far gone and were able to appropriate it into something greater.
Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to go and find something from Pol Pot’s regime that you think looks kind of cool and try to use that for your work. In fact I would strongly advise against that. You don’t need to offend people to be badass, in fact, most of the most badass people never tried to offend. Instead though you can look at a band like XII Boar who have been able to do something truly special by taking the imange of a boar’s head and infusing it into almost every aspect of their visual aesthetic. This has made them an easily (Or even instantly) recognizable act on the UK rock scene. They have managed to take something that they thought looked kind of cool and make it the centerpiece for their entire band. It even defines some of their lyrics! At the end of the day – this is really what every single one of us should be thinking about and trying to do.
The more you think about it, the more you realize that every distinctive artist for the last hundred and fifty years has been able to cultivate a distinct iconography that matters almost as much as the artist themselves. From Liszt and his piano theatrics to Beyonce’s ties to black power. We are reaching a point in our cultural history where the marketing matters perhaps even more than the art itself. People have gone from being sick of marketing to having fallen in love with it – a sort of Stockholm Syndrome for the modern human condition. These are the things that we need to embrace if we want any sort of real success in the twenty first century.
What resonates though about every single aesthetic I’ve discussed in this piece is that you can see none of them were meant to be a gimmick. Even KISS, arguably the most gimmicky band of all time were sure to play it to the hilt lending their bubblegum rock sound some authenticity. In other words – the iconography you use needs to be an extension on who you are as an artist. It needs to reflect your influences and your interests. You might go through a few before you figure out what fits, but when you find the core idea that you are going to want to base your career off of your gut will know, and it will tell you.
We are a visual species, we need stuff to be able to latch on to with our eyes before anything else because that is our primary way of interacting with the universe. If you’re not immediately identifying yourself for potential fans with a distinct imagery then you are quite literally kissing dollar bills goodbye. If you want to be the kind of rock and roller who people talk about in bars for years to come you need to be the kind of person who draws public attention and who gets people talking about your image alone. You need to get with it or fade into obscurity.