FIRST of all, hello to the people who have arrived at this blog post by Googling the headline. It’s probably not the sort of content for which you were hoping, but you’d be welcome to stay.
The music writer Andrew Male asked a question on Twitter today. He wanted to know which great albums his followers believed had the worst cover art. And if you have a look at his feed, you’ll find there really are some shockers.
I wanted a piece of that sweet, sweet action. I didn’t even have to think about it. It was unquestionably the cover to Hotter Than July by Stevie Wonder. It’s one of my favourite albums, and one track on it – Happy Birthday – actually changed American civic life, as part of the campaign to have Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday named a public holiday.
It’s the classic album he still had in his bag after that run of Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness First Finale, and Songs In The Key Of Life. (We don’t talk about The Secret Life Of Plants, because that was a soundtrack anyway.)
The cover of Hotter Than July is a photo-realistic painting of Stevie Wonder’s head and shoulders. He’s a good looking black man wearing only braids in his hair and sunglasses. I suppose he could be wearing trousers, etc, out of frame, but he won’t be. He’s Stevie Wonder, dammit. And it has always made me laugh.
Stevie is, not to put too fine a point on it, sweating cobs. And he has an expression on his face that is, well, he looks as if he is engaged in the sort of activity that would have him and his companion thrown out of the frozen food section of Sainsbury’s.
So that makes me laugh. And also, it’s really on the nose. The album is called Hotter Than July, and the picture is of Stevie Wonder looking as if he is very warm, possibly because he is engaged in the sort of activity, etc, etc.
So I waded in and stopped my Stevie bomb into the conversation and didn’t think too much about it.
And then, a couple of hours later, I started to receive messages. “What’s wrong with this cover?” “Hater! This is iconic. Beautiful.”
Where were they coming from? Apparently the discussion had become a Twitter Moment, which meant that many more people than those who normally see my tweets were exposed to me. And they did not like it one bit.
Essentially black America had seen my tweet suggesting that an album cover featuring a picture of a black man’s face was in some way a bad album cover, and they were unimpressed. And I realised what I had done. So I spent the next two hours explaining how I wasn’t a racist, like Father Ted in that episode.
“No, no,” I said repeatedly. “I don’t object to Stevie Wonder, per se. It’s naked sweaty Stevie Wonder.”
But LiNCOLN PARK said:
Great Stevie cover for several reasons:
• Beads of Sweat indicate hotass July temps/ toil which produced a great musical result/ sweaty eye candy for women
• Beads on hair exemplify heritage/ black fashion trends at the time/ black man not emasculated by wearing long hair
— LiNCOLN PARK👩🏽💻 (@linc0lnpark) May 24, 2018
And it suddenly occurred to me that, oh, God, maybe I was being racist.
And Nait Jones said:
This is an iconic album cover. I don’t trust anyone who hates the cover of Hotter than July
— Nait Jones (@NaithanJones) May 24, 2018
And I thought, maybe it’s not racism as such. Maybe it’s blindness to what’s important in a culture that isn’t my own.
It’s the Vauxhall Nova, it’s the fanny pack, it’s Donald Trump.
- What are you talking about, Gary?
- Well, voice in my head, they launched the Vauxhall Nova in Spain, and didn’t understand why it wasn’t going down so well until somebody pointed out to them that “no va” in Spanish means “not going”.
- And the fanny pack?
Well, that’s more obvious. “Fanny” refers to very different, if anatomically adjacent, body parts in America and the UK. What the Americans call a “fanny pack”, we refer to as a “bum bag”, and I can’t begin to imagine what a fanny pack would be.
- And Donald Trump?
- How can the British possibly take Donald Trump seriously, even aside from everything he does and says, when “to trump” in the UK means “to fart”?
- So what are you saying?
- I’m saying that I didn’t get it. Look, can we get out of this affected bit of this blogpost…?
That’s better… The point is, to me, the cover of Hotter Than July looks like an entrant in Viz’s Up The Arse Corner. That’s why I found it funny.
But to an African American, it’s an expression of proud black manhood. I’m not saying it’s a sacred text, but it’s beloved. It raises all sorts of questions of representation in popular culture. And it was offensive of me to be rude about it, even if I wasn’t intentionally being offensive.
And when you offend somebody, even if it’s unintentional – especially if it’s unintentional – you apologise. And you make some sort of reparation. It stops being a matter of free speech and becomes a matter of good manners.
So I took down the tweet. And I’d like to apologise to anybody who was offended by it. I’ll be more thoughtful in future.
Even if the phrase “sweaty eye candy” makes me feel ill.