Album cover art — much like other forms of art — is subjective. Here is a list of controversial album covers met with polemic.
It’s often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and this is especially true for album covers, which are ideological and aesthetic statements. Drake recently experienced this with the cover of his latest album, “Certified Lover Boy,” which sparked debate and was swiftly parodied on social media. Other artists have seen their controversial album covers censored or even banned. Here’s a look back at some of music’s controversial album covers.
“Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins” (1968) by John Lennon & Yoko Ono
Few album covers are as famous as this one by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The couple used a time-lapse camera to take this black and white shot, where they can be seen posing completely naked.
The image caused uproar when it was released in the fall of 1968 — so much so that some distributors decided to sell the album in plain brown packaging to effectively censor it. This precaution did not prevent “Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins” from being perceived as obscene, and therefore from suffering commercially. Only 5,000 copies of the album were pressed in the UK, where it failed to chart. In the US, the record made it to number 124 in the charts, with 25,000 copies sold.
For John Lennon, this flop was not so much about the explicit nature of the “Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins” cover photo, but more to do with the physical appearance of its two models. “The picture was to prove that we are not a couple of demented freaks, that we are not deformed in any way and that our minds are healthy,” the artist explains in “The Beatles Anthology.” “If we can make society accept these kinds of things without offence, without sniggering, then we shall be achieving our purpose.”
“Virgin Killer” (1976) by Scorpions
Rock music often courts controversy, as have some of the genre’s album covers. One such offering is the artwork for the Scorpions’s fourth album, “Virgin Killer.” This features a 10-year-old girl completely naked, posing in a suggestive way. According to the German hard rock band, it was supposedly a representation of the loss of innocence.
Many did not agree. The cover of “Virgin Killer” was censored and replaced by a picture of the six members of the band in some countries. The music press was also not particularly indulgent about the project, with Cracked magazine naming it the worst album cover of all time.
Over the years, members of Scorpions have spoken out several times about the controversial “Virgin Killer” artwork. “Looking at that picture today makes me cringe. It was done in the worst possible taste. Back then I was too immature to see that. Shame on me — I should have done everything in my power to stop it,” former band guitarist Uli Jon Roth told Classic Rock Revisited in 2006.
For his part, Rudolf Schenker, blamed the band’s former record company, RCA Records, for this aesthetic choice. “We didn’t actually have the idea. It was the record company. The record company guys were like, ‘Even if we have to go to jail, there’s no question that we’ll release that.’ On the song ‘Virgin Killer,’ time is the virgin killer. But then, when we had to do the interviews about it, we said ‘Look, listen to the lyrics and then you’ll know what we’re talking about. We’re using this only to get attention,'” he told Blasting Zone the following year.
“Nevermind” (1991) by Nirvana
Some album covers make an impression as soon as they hit stores. This was the case with the cover of Nirvana’s “Nevermind.” The album artwork features a picture of a naked baby, swimming towards a banknote hung on a fishing line.
At the time of the “Nevermind” release in 1991, the picture was seen as a criticism of capitalism. Some people were reluctant to show a baby’s genitals, to which Kurt Cobain replied that they could be covered with a sticker reading “If you’re offended by this you must be a closet pedophile.”
The image has since gained cult status and was recreated by the child who featured in the original cover shot, Spencer Elden, to celebrate the 10th, 17th, 20th and 25th anniversaries of the record. At the time, he said he was already torn between the fame that the picture gave him and the feeling of having been exploited as a child. He recently filed a lawsuit against the rock band and is now claiming at least US$150,000 (RM622,000) in damages.
“They were trying to create controversy because controversy sells,” one of his lawyers, Maggie Mabie, told The New York Times. “The point was not just to create a menacing image but to cross the line and they did so in a way that exposed Spencer so that they could profit off of it.”
“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (2010) by Kanye West
No one does provocation like Kanye West. The rapper has a habit of creating a media circus with each album release. “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” proved no exception. Its controversial album cover was designed by one of America’s stars of contemporary art, George Condo, at the request of the rapper. It features a red square in the center of which we see a black man, probably Kanye West himself, naked in a bed with a bottle in his hand, being straddled by a white woman with wings but without arms.
A month before the album’s release, Kanye West claimed that the illustration had been censored in the United States. “They don’t want me chilling on the couch with my Phoenix!,” the star wrote on Twitter, implying that Walmart had been offended by the visible nipple on the cover. “So Nirvana can have a naked human being on their cover, but I can’t have a PAINTING of a monster with no arms and a polka dot tail and wings,” he raged.
But the case was more complicated than it seemed, however. The retail giant, Walmart, denied that it had banned anything at all. “We’re excited about Kanye West’s new album and we look forward to carrying it in our stores on November 22nd,” the company said at the time. “We did not reject the cover artwork and it was not presented to us.”
Following the album’s release, the New Yorker revealed that Kanye West was hoping that the cover of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” would stir up controversy. “Condo was happy to play along with what was clearly a publicity gambit, by a rapper well known for his public provocations,” explains the US magazine.
The article is published via AFP Relaxnews.