Good Air, Bad Air

Sweet: Artwork by Ora Ito for Air’s 10,000 Hz Legend
I’ve been an Air fangirl since the day the Sexy Monkey landed on earth, traipsing around to the bouncy electro-rock theme “Sexy Boy.” Although Moon Safari was released six years ago, the music and artwork are still captivating. It has qualities similar to what made My Big Fat Greek Wedding so successful, except in indie music form: quaint, foreign-y, quirky, fun, sincere and catchy. Mike Mills’ playful illustrations remain some of my favorite album artwork and continue to inspire me.

But 10,000 Hz Legend is really where Air’s musical stylings and the album artwork really fuse. Its austere dissonance make it a less accessible sound than Air’s earlier work, and was a shock to some fans enamored with the lighter fare on Moon Safari and Premiers Symptoms. Sort of a Pink Floyd concept album for the 21st century. To really swallow 10,000 Hz Legend, you have to be in a certain state of consciousness for it to produce the profound effect it so rightly deserves. You must be ready to sit down and focus all of your brainpower on it, or you must be on some sort of psychoactive drug. If not, you must listen to it a grueling dozen or so times to comprehend its wholly original sound. Oh, and you can’t really do this anymore, but seeing the live show for 10,000 Hz Legend really helped me “get” it too. This is why so many people like other Air’s other albums – you don’t really have to do anything to enjoy them.

Ora Ito’s artwork should be appreciated in much the same way. He really wants you to think. At first glance, the cover looks like some ideas stolen from 2001: A Space Odyssey and replicated in Corel Draw. Or maybe a fashion feature in some über-hip $25 culture magazine: bored-looking, pale models wearing plain but expensive clothes shot in impossibly futuristic interiors, and then computer drafted. At the same time, you can’t help but put yourself in that sterile, plush, cool world devoid of teeming humanity. In that light, the artwork 10,000 Hz Legend becomes more than just album art, the imagery reads like an environmental design project. This sense of transporting yourself to another place is a major part of the music, but the artist has also made it an experience of his own. (There are many examples of this on Ora Ito’s website, “beluga” is an especially good example). Despite the separate sensory experiences of music and visual art, the artist’s personal interpretation of the music actually goes with the music and vice versa. Shouldn’t that be the aim of all album artwork?

Shameful: Richard Prince’s Artwork for Air’s Talkie Walkie
No, not Richard Prince the real artist. To be fair, I thoroughly googled the other Mr. Prince, his assistant, Mr. Klein and the cover photographer, M. Gassian. No dice. Even the the design company seems made up: Ultimate Image NYC. Sounds like a shady money-laundering business name that exists just for tax purposes. That, or a mall chain hair salon.

My search for the designer, Roger Gorman/Reiner Design, was a little more successful. Reiner Design did some album design in the early 90’s for artists ranging from Ween and Dokken to Jodeci and David Bowie. Gorman’s recent work includes album design for Mexico’s Jaguares, Colombian heartthrob/rocker Juanes, and neo-grungers Sevendust (whose Japanese version Home cover looks amazingly similar to Talkie Walkie). So there you have it – that’s the most I could find out about the art for Talkie Walkie.

What irks me the most about this album cover is that it’s so transparent, like looking at a billboard. You can read the art director’s mind, which would go something like this, “Hmmm, Air used to be mathematicians, and their music sounds scientific. Let’s use a lot of complicated calculus equations as art. And, you know, there hasn’t really been an album cover with just their photo. They’re cute Frenchy guys. Girls who’ve never heard of Air will buy this album just for the cover.” But if you factor in the record industry’s infamous ruthlessness when it comes to makin’ a quick and platinum-selling buck, it’s evident that the cover idea probably wasn’t conceived by a visual artist. It was likely “developed” by a marketing exec, someone who only cares about money and the biz, not about making art.

Talkie Walkie is a sad example of what happens when marketing people stick their pointy rhinoplastied-noses in the artmaking process for whatever product/service they happen to be selling that day. Not that I’m saying they have no artistic sense. The marketing reps of the company I work for are some of the most interestingly-dressed people I know. But they understand little about what goes into the creative process and what the end results really say to the target audience. You don’t want your artsy culture/media-savvy Air-loving consumers thinking, “Oh, I could’ve done that in Photoshop in, like, 2 seconds. And even then, I never would’ve done it because it’s a sucky idea.”

If the marketing sector would just let artists do their job, the world would be a much nicer-looking and fun place. Art and graphic design is really about using your mind to explore and figure out life’s puzzles. It establishes the navigation for our world. Creative visual thinking is required to find solutions to fashion those systems and hierarchies, and it must not only be set up, it must make people want to get involved. When designers are not attuned to the desires of their audience and needs of the chosen form of communication, our visions may too cryptic, even worse, purposefully esoteric – or they may just be blaringly, even insultingly, obvious.

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