Friday, August 8, 2014

Sex sells 78s: Pinup photos of 1940s and '50s "girl singers"

The provocative images of today's female pop singers, from Madonna to Miley Cyrus, might seem like something new, but female vocalists were promoted as sex objects even in the 1940s and 1950s in pinup-style promotional photos. Traditionally, the subjects of pinup photos were actresses, glamour models, and fashion models, but female vocalists and musicians occasionally became the subjects of pinup-style photography as well.

The roots of pinup photography can be found in American burlesque, Hollywood, and the pinup art that appeared in magazines and calendars. Examples of pinup art include Joaquin Alberto Vargas y Ch├ívez's Vargas girls, Gil Elvgren's paintings, and George Petty's Petty girls, which he painted for Esquire magazine from 1933-1956. 

Hollywood took the pinup to an entirely new level, though. A 1946 article in Popular Photography magazine said that MGM and Columbia Pictures received 10,000-15,000 requests a week for pinup photos of their actresses. Most of these requests came from GIs, and the studios fulfilled every request. 

"[I]t took a war . . . to really blow up the balloon of demand" for pinup photos, the article says. During World War 2, pinup photos were seen not only as promotional tools for the studios but also as morale builders that helped the war effort. 

But even in 1946, the pinup phenomenon was considered old news. The Popular Photography article continues:
Pinups, of course, are nothing new. Before the advent of pinups, there was leg art, calendar art, art pictures, girl pictures, glamour pictures, cheesecake, and lots of other names for the same thing. 
Women both supported and decried pinup photos, arguing on one side that pinup photos countered the bodily shame of the Victorian era and on the other side that they objectified and demeaned women.  

Female vocalists of the 78 RPM era were probably swept into the pinup craze because of Hollywood's influence. Record labels and managers copied Hollywood's promotional tactics, and many female vocalists occasionally appeared in—or aspired to appear in—motion pictures. Pinup photos helped sell movie tickets, so why wouldn't they also help sell records and concert tickets?

Today on Music Weird, we'll look at a small sample of promotional pinup-style photos that feature so-called "girl singers" of yore. It seems strange to me that serious vocalists like June Christy and Rosemary Clooney would pose for cheesecake photos, but contemporary jazz artists, like jazz pianist Diana Krall, continue to do it today. Even classical musicians, like violinist Lara St. John, have gotten into the act. If it was nothing new in 1946, then it's downright traditional today!

Teresa Brewer
Doris Day
Patti Page
April Stevens
Lena Horne

Rosemary Clooney
June Christy

Eartha Kitt
Amy Arnell 
(sang with Tommy Tucker's orchestra in the '30s and '40s)
Gisele MacKenzie
Dinah Shore

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