Following on from another thread, I got to wondering to what extent musicians today depend upon image for their success. Now, this may seem rather a worn question to raise, but it got me thinking.
Now, I could pick any number of photos of Vanessa-Mae, but this one will do. (And note that Vanessa-Mae is not a 100% crossover artist like Bond.) Compare the great Ida Haendel here and here, aged, I think in her late 20s or early 30s. Haendel achieved great acclaim simply by being a great violinist, not, as far as I am aware, on the basis of her image.
And just to show that it's not just female artists I'm thinking of, note how women contributing to the thread cited above discuss male artists, in part, and even in whole, in terms of physical appearance rather than musicianship. Joshua Bell certainly seems to be not unaware of his own good looks, e.g. here and here, and for David Garrett fans: here and here.
It's not just musicians trading on good looks, it's also a question of personality. Why doesn't Nigel Kennedy look dapper like Jascha Heifetz?
But I have two questions, which are, to my mind, the interesting questions:
1. Does the trading on image compensate for inferiority of talent, or is it incidental? I happen not to be one of Joshua Bell's greatest fans, but I do adore Nigel Kennedy. Perhaps, unjustly, some of us suspect an inferiority of talent just because we can't quite believe that a really talented artist would trade on anything but pure musical ability. I don't doubt that Angela Gheorghiu is a very brilliant singer, but the great Dame Joan Sutherland did, not, as far as I am aware, ever have her photograph taken posing like this. I don't believe that David Oistrakh, a heftily built gentleman, ever bared his chest for his fans (and nor do I imagine that they would have wanted him to). Is it unkind to wonder whether David Garrett (a very fine violinist, certainly) does this, at least in part, because he is not quite in the same league as Oistrakh?
2. Have musicians perhaps always traded on image, though perhaps in more subtle ways than ### appeal? Paganini and Liszt were, of course, great showmen, and child prodigies, almost by definition, trade, at least in part, on the fact of their youth. Josef Hassid, for example, was marketed as the 'Polish Boy Violinist', and his enduring legend surely has something to do with the tragedy of his life, though much, of course, to do with his obvious greatness as an artist. I happen to enjoy listening to Pavarotti more than I enjoy listening to any other tenor (though Franco Corelli certainly comes close), but I'd also be the first to admit that his success, certainly his popular success (the opera buffs seem to make a virtue of disdaining him), had as much (at least) to do with his huge personality (which in turn had something to do with his physical hugeness), which always came across so much more strongly than that of Domingo or Carreras.