What is wrong with these pictures?
Look at the publicity photo of the band From Zero: Five guys, all scowling or staring into middle distance, seemingly braced for bad medical news or looking for a pedestrian to beat senseless. From Zero is clearly peeved. But what is it peeved about?
The band has no idea. "Life is great. We're having fun. We're living our dream," says lead singer Jet Zero, 27, from Indianapolis. "We couldn't ask for anything more in life."
What about the fearsome five shown in the publicity still for Skrape? Did somebody just grab the guys' wallets? Or maybe they just learned that tattoos are radioactive. Tragedy is in the air. What happened?
"I've been cruising on a tour bus, which is a very beautiful thing," says Billy Keeton, the band's "lead screamer," who calls from Spartanburg, S.C. "We love what we do. There's never a dull moment. It's awesome. We lived our whole lives for this opportunity and now we've got it."
As jobs go, rock star appears to be a gig with plenty of upsides. The hours aren't bad. There's lots of travel, some wiggle room for creativity. If it works out, you eat at fine restaurants. Very little arithmetic is involved. And once you've hired roadies, goodbye heavy lifting.
Yet every week, record labels send out dozens of publicity stills for dozens of bands, and in nearly every one, the musicians seem in a snit. Others look as blank as sheet metal. It's pure shtick, which points up a curious orthodoxy in a business that seems, on the surface, dead set against orthodoxies.
It's fine to bite the head off a bat (Ozzy), or rub a hanky on your tushie and toss it into a crowd (Marilyn), or carve words on your chest with the jagged edge of a beer bottle (Sid), behavior that wouldn't cut it in any other multimillion-dollar commercial enterprise. There are, however, lines in the music world that can't be crossed--and in rock, punk, rap, soul and even country, this line is the clearest: no smiling for the publicity shot.
Or on album sleeves or, for that matter, the cover of Rolling Stone. For years, stars at the very pinnacle of fame have posed for rock's most coveted square foot of glory, and for years these stars have feigned glumness, unease and outright annoyance. Most of the bands on the magazine's cover--the Fugees, Live, Foo Fighters, Soundgarden, Counting Crows, Pearl Jam, U2, to name a few--merely look unimpressed. Others, such as Dr. Dre, Guns N' Roses, Black Crowes and John Mellencamp, have aimed for something between hunky and furious.
Variations of the half-smirk and the non-smile are standard for acts ranging from the heavy (Pantera) to calorie-free (boy band LFO), from rap (the St. Lunatics) to country (Garth Brooks). It's difficult to think of another idea that has taken root so thoroughly in every genre of popular music.
There are exceptions. Women can smile--four of five Go-Go's are grinning in their latest publicity still. Ladies chasing the pre-puberty crowd will giggle on camera, including the Spice Girls, Destiny's Child, Britney Spears on a cheery day. Older artists and foreigners, including those Buena Vista Social Club hombres, can get away with cheer. Top 40 country artists can sometimes smile. There were some big-hair bands in the '80s, including Bon Jovi and Van Halen, who'd smile ear-to-ear on occasion, broadcasting a simple message: We've got groupies!
But even the richest of the big-hat Nashville singers, like Tim McGraw, wince on album covers and grimace on publicity stills. In other genres, smiles are downright unthinkable: speed metal, heavy metal, death metal, grunge, as well as punk, retro rock, art rock, alt-country, rap and the list goes on.
"There's a veil of mystery there," explains Steve Summers, lead singer of San Diego's Sprung Monkey. "If you've got an unreadable thing, the person looks a little harder and maybe will listen to your record."
The glowers vary by category. Rockers curl their lips with disappointment and come-hither sneers, as well as the psychic wounds inflicted by a mom and dad who just don't get the nipple ring. The expression bespeaks gravity and alienation. The rap non-smile is the promise of a butt-kicking, a growl with gold teeth, a final warning. Even the high-livers, like Jay-Z, who rap about the steel rims on their Bentleys and the traffic jam of women in their Jacuzzis will pout for album covers and publicity shots.
Jazz non-smiles come with the burden of history. "When you're thinking about your music and trying to connect to the greats in jazz, like Mingus and Parker, that's not funny," says Karl Denson, a saxophonist from San Francisco, who just released an album called "Dance Lesson 2" and looks in his publicity shot as if he's just spotted the guy who robbed his house. "It's like being a gladiator. You have to fight these guys, in a way. You're trying to connect to this tradition and you need to fight to be a part of it. You wake up every day and say, 'I'm trying to fight a battle."'
For a band, the publicity shot is supposed to capture a group's soul in 8-by-10 glossy inches, usually in black and white. It's invariably the result of a lengthy photo session, which requires plenty of thought and a few costume changes. But few bands will accept responsibility for the outcome.
"We have a whole bunch of pictures where we're smiling," says Summers of Sprung Monkey. "The two worst shots are the ones that the label sent out. We've already told our label that we hate the pictures. Our music is very different. It's very positive and very uplifting. It makes you feel good about being alive."
Some photographers will admit to encouraging their subjects to sulk, but there's always a smile shot in the mix, too, they say, and it's up to the label, in consultation with the group, to choose what is sent around the world. When Roy Zipstein shot a still for the debut album of Sinomatic, he took the group to six different locations in Pittsburgh, and was sure to get smiles throughout the day.
"I pretty much direct them," says Zipstein. "'You and you and you stand in front. Now smile. Now don't smile.' There's a lot of jokes and laughing, but once the camera is on, you need hip and sexy. For men in their 20s, smiling is not what it's all about."
Decrying enemies, especially older ones, is a rock perennial. The Who did it in 1965 on "My Generation," claiming that "people try to put us down/ just because we get around." Since then, the troubles of popular musicians have seemed increasingly flimsy, and today they are total inventions. Rappers, for instance, are forever decrying "the haters" out there, although determining the identity of these haters is nearly impossible. For Eminem, it's the critics ("Half you critics can't even stomach me, let alone stand me," he mopes on "The Real Slim Shady"), even though Eminem is easily the most critically acclaimed rapper on Earth.
Kiss' lyrics always implied that both the band and its fans were being persecuted in some mysterious way, apparently by an unnamed elite. During last year's endless "farewell" tour, guitarist Paul Stanley spent much of the night hollering that the band's mere presence was an odds-beating wonder, as though someone had been trying to keep the leaders of the Kiss army away from its legions of followers.
The non-smile is the sole unchanging fact of contemporary music, regardless of whether acid jazz or alt-country rules the charts next year. Even 'N Sync, last year's best-selling act and the Earth's reigning boy band, is getting dour. The group's latest single, "Pop," swipes at critics for failing to realize just how hard this "pop life" can be.
These guys are getting right into the spirit: Having exceeded triple platinum, they're mad as hell and they're not going to take it anymore.