For the first time in a decade I’m genuinely excited about the idea of a new Manic Street Preachers album. I admit I’ve fallen hook line and sinker for the marketing ploy of Journal for Plague Lovers (that the band has finally chosen to use lyrics left to them by former member Richie Edwards just before he went missing in 1995) but I like Manics songs where James Dean Bradfield has to gallop to make the words fit; something sadly lacking since Richie’s disappearance.
All the pre-release talk is that the album revisits territory covered by 1994’s Holy Bible, their notoriously bleak masterpiece - all words designed to lure people like me back into the fold. My copy of the album hasn’t arrived yet so this isn’t a review, but there is one thing that I read at the weekend that made me want to scratch an itch.
As with The Holy Bible, the cover art of Journal for Plague Lovers is a painting by British artist Jenny Saville. As you can see below, it’s a headshot of a young boy, with an implication that it could be Edwards (it’s not). Regardless, it’s a great painting and a striking image for an album cover.
What then to make of the news that at least four British supermarkets have said that they are not prepared to display the album with its current artwork and have requested that it be covered with a plain slipcase? Their tenuous argument is that the picture might upset some people because the boy’s face appears to be flecked with blood.
Artistic interpretations aside (and the Manics have done the right thing by stepping in to protect Saville from to having to explain her work to a bunch of dickheads) there are two big issues here. Firstly that of the power of supermarkets to determine how we consume our art (and let’s be honest this entire project is art fodder for fans – this is not going to be a commercial album with song titles like She Bathed Herself in a Bath of Bleach and Virginia State Epileptic Colony.)
Secondly – and this is where I release my inner pensioner – what about the albums on supermarket shelves every year with semi-naked pop stars on the cover. They’re OK are they? I’ve always had a kind of prudish bee in my bonnet about the Pussycat Dolls (really? Pussy cats? Really? You’re so funny) and their playground pole dancing shtick but in the face of this kind of hypocrisy from British retail outlets they just feel even more wrong.
At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man (too late, I know), what kind of artists should we be encouraging as role models for young people? A group of young dancers dressed like prostitutes who sing ‘I wanna see the world, drive nice cars, I wanna have groupies.’ Or a woman who has made a career in the fine arts through challenging gender norms and body identity issues through her own confronting and powerful canvasses?
Pop music and titillation have been part of youth culture since Elvis and I’m not suggesting that should or even could change. The general public has a taste for it and they’ll be damned if a bunch of pinkie lefties are gonna change that. But honestly, we should cherish and support artists like Jenny Saville because for people who tire of being told that being a Pussycat Doll is something to aspire to (and there are plenty of kids who want more for themselves) we need artists like her – and the Manics themselves over the years – to show that there is another way.
At the end of the day this is not anything as noble as a stand on moral values; it is about money. It’s a commercial decision about not upsetting customers. It’s pathetic and but also sad, because there are some young kids who might never go to a gallery and the idea of such a brilliant work of art standing there on a supermarket shelf for anyone to see is part of what pop culture is about.
Jenny Saville Bio by the Saatchi Gallery
The Holy Bible glory days: Faster on Top of the Pops. Dance kiddies.