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The Implications of Pink Floyd’s Back Catalogue

English rock band Pink Floyd’s discography has stood the test of time and proven itself to rise above changing trends in not only music, but lifestyle and morals of society, as well. With six number one albums and the longest cumulative run on the Billboard 200 chart by any album in history, an astonishing 958 weeks for a total of over 18 years, Pink Floyd is one of the most successful musical acts of all time. These ultimate achievements in numbers can be attributed to an even more impressive manifestation of qualitative support: millions of dedicated fans that have lingered for over 50 years. By incorporating visual and auditory stimulation into the expression of the band, Pink Floyd is able to withstand the passage of time and attract fans of not only rock music, but of art and imagery, as well. The culture, music, and art that surrounds Pink Floyd speaks for not only the band and its followers, but rock music in general, and specifically attitudes towards women in these industries. 

Pink Floyd was among the first pioneers of psychedelic rock and the concept album; inspiring others to appreciate music in a more artistic way and opening the listening experience to more than just individual songs, but a cumulation of songs to create something greater with deeper meaning. For example, the album Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd has served as an inspiration for many following works and has allowed for shattered expectations to create new frontiers in music. In addition to this, Pink Floyd is known for its abstract cover and promotional art that extends their creativity to a visual platform to accompany the music (Mason, 2017). For example, one of Pink Floyd’s most popular feats was its musical drama film, The Wall, that gave the album by the same title a new life and allowed not only fans of music, but fans of art and film to appreciate it, as well (Ogden, et al., 2011). 

A specific promotional image released by the band, referred to as the “Pink Floyd Back Catalogue,” is hugely popular, continuing to lengths as far as college kids in the United States some 60 years later (I even had a poster of this image hanging on my dorm room wall). The great expanse of attention this image has received inspires the idea that music can be felt and seen farther than an auditory space. Released in 1997, the image presents six women sitting naked by a swimming pool, each with different Pink Floyd album covers painted on their backs. The band cleverly plays on the term “back catalog,” which in the context of music is known as all of the previous releases of a musical act, by literally painting the album covers of their back catalog on naked women’s backs. The image is a promotional photograph taken by photographer Tony May in 1996 in Putney, London at a private indoor pool, while the backs were painted by artist Phyllis Cohen. The original idea for the photograph was conceived by visual artist Finlay Cowen and executed by Pink Floyd’s long-time graphic designer Storm Thorgerson, who designed many of the band’s album covers and other art. As for the models, they can be identified with some research but are overall hard to find, adding to the complexity and intrigue the image encompasses. Since the image was created it has even grown with the times, with many fans appreciating it enough to recreate the image. Among recreations that have gained notoriety, a group of plus-sized women that recreated the image stands out, adding a more inclusive take. In addition, a multitude of online forums and social media posts can be found discussing the photo for its beauty and its controversy. Because the image is still recognized and continues to evolve, it is likely to persist in popularity in the future. 

Thorgerson’s work on Pink Floyd’s album covers represents the band in each stage of their career, with the Back Catalogue being a culmination of years of artistry: a reflection of the band and himself as an artist. Being that the image can be representative of the band as a whole, their entire back catalog of music, and their fans, the image inherently represents the climate of rock music at the time. With all of these factors lying beneath the surface, the choice to make the naked women the focus of the image speaks volumes. A quintessential rock music photograph having its hallmark in naked women’s backs shows just how integral sexuality is in the world of rock music. In his book titled Mind Over Matter: The Images of Pink Floyd, Thorgerson discusses his thought process behind using women in the photo as opposed to men, stating, “We had to choose one or the other, and we chose girls – probably because we’re boys. It is a questionable thing on a PC level, and the photo has received some critical observations – most particularly by my partner. But most women I’ve shown it to don’t mind it.” (Thorgerson, 1998). This nonchalant attitude towards the sexualization of women in rock music media shows the acceptance that most consumers and creators alike feel towards it and is exactly what is perpetuating it. Storgerson’s choice to use naked female models in the Back Catalogue is just one example of the sexualization women are subject to in the world of rock music, specifically its media.

In addition to the images of rock music, the actual content present in rock music tends to cater towards male listeners and display women in a sexually explicit manner. Rock music lyrics and themes are known to portray women in a sexual light (Harris, 1993). Analyzing lyrics of popular classic rock songs, including those of Pink Floyd’s discography, can unveil harmful gender norms that highlight the submissive nature of expectations of women’s roles in heterosexual relationships (Pointer, 2019). For example, a popular song by Pink Floyd, “Young Lust,” includes lyrics about needing a “dirty woman” for the speaker’s own sexual pleasure to make him a “real man.” Lyrics like this reinforce negative gender roles by presenting men as the dominant figures in heterosexual relationships, while presenting women as their submissive counterparts and suggesting that the woman’s role in the equation is to fulfill the man’s needs. 

This sexual presentation of women in classic rock music was furthered by the introduction of music videos as an accompaniment. In a study conducted by Vandenbosch, et al., music videos, and rock music videos, specifically, were analyzed for the sexualization of women and were found to contain material that sexually objectified women drastically more frequently than it did men or even both men and women simultaneously. Most of these instances of sexual portrayal emphasize body parts sexually and sexual movement, with a majority of them portraying women as sexual objects for the pleasure of others (Vandenbosch, et al., 2013). Acknowledging the role that women have played in rock music videos can be translated into the misogynistic nature of rock music itself and related images and cover art, such as Pink Floyd’s Back Catalogue. 

Considering the visually sexual presentation of women in conjuction with rock music brings about a greater discussion of the male gaze. As the content of rock music and its expressions of art are catered towards the heterosexual male consumer, women are presented as objects to be enjoyed by the male viewer. These patriarchal roles identify the man as the controlling bearer of the look and the woman as the passive spectacle, which represents a general imbalance of power (Mulvey, 1975). When women are presented as objects for the pleasure of men in rock music media, it is promoting a sexually objectifying lifestyle and suggests women are at the deserving end of this. It is made clear by the Back Catalogue image that women who are conventionally sexually attractive are deserving of recognition in a general sense. The models’ faces being hidden in the photograph is another example of how the sexually expressive parts of them are highlighted, as opposed to their other nonsexual attributes.  

The implications of objectification in rock music and its media can be harmful towards the women who consume this media. Exposure to the sexual objectification of women in music and its media is likely to lead viewers to objectify themselves and others, especially after recognizing the success that these objectified women and their male rock star-objectifiers are afforded in the wake of this misogynistic music, artistic expression, and behavior. By presenting the woman as a sexual object for the pleasure of the male, she is shown as something that the male posesses. When viewers consume this media, they indirectly possess her, too, because she is also serving as a sexual object for the pleasure of the viewer. In this way, she functions as an object of the male rock stars alongside her and of the consumers of the media (Mulvey, 1975). At the very least, witnessing this objectification in rock music and its media leads to viewers internalizing that the sexual objectification of women is condoned by society, not to mention prefered. 

Though Pink Floyd’s Back Catalogue image blossomed into a majorly popular and beloved expression of the band, it is important to understand how it contributes to the perpetuation of the objectification of women in rock music media and the implications this can have on the women who consume this media. However, it is unlikely that every listener of rock music and viewer of Pink Floyd’s Back Catalogue is intentionally contributing to the sexualization of women and therefore the Back Catalogue can certainly not be portrayed as the root of misogyny in rock music. It is also unfair to assume that misogyny within rock music and its media can alone be representative of the climate of misogyny of a greater scope at any given time. As a female fan of classic rock music and of Pink Floyd, I personally find myself under the belief that the listener’s own listening and viewing intentions ultimately create their perceived meaning with the music that is to some degree unique to each listener. It would be virtually impossible to make a generalization about the exact feelings and beliefs of rock music listeners regarding the sexual objectification of women based solely on their music-listening habits.

That being said, as with any other form of media, no single expression can perfectly represent the layers of complexities present in a band, its fanbase, and the scope of rock music or misogyny in general. It would be unfair to assume that every consumer of rock music and its media has the same intentions and takes away the same conclusions and because of this, fans of Pink Floyd nor its Back Catalogue can be generalized, especially not based on their opinions of and contributions to the sexual objectification of women. 

Junior at NCSU majoring in Communication Media Lover of strawberry ice cream and classic rock VP of Her Campus NCSU
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