Monday, October 03, 2005

The Hardcore Art Gallery: Dead Kennedys "Plastic Surgery Disasters"



Please join me in welcoming Jason Powell as the new cover art critic at Barebones Hardcore!

Dead Kennedys "Plastic Surgery Disasters"

When I was 11 years old, my friend let me borrow his brother's tape of this record. It was the first time I had ever heard punk or hardcore (in fact, I didn't even know what those words meant until maybe a year later). After I returned it, I saved up my lunch money for what seemed like a month and I bought the record for myself, and saw for the first time what the cover looked like. I dont know what I really expected it to look like, but it definitely seemed odd.

The front cover is a seemingly innocuous, harmless photo of two hands, one black and shriveled, and one white and healthy. It has a journalistic feel to it, like it was photo from the Associated Press about some news item. Over the years I heard almost insane readings on who is in the photo, as if it could not just be some anonymous persons' hands; people said it was ET or Michael Jackson holding hands, or the white hand was JFK. Of course, in the 80's the starvation of people in Africa, particularly Ethiopia, was common knowledge, and was the source I thought responsible for the photo, but still it begged the question of what it was doing on the cover of a music record. You get the impression that this is a serious picture, meant to be taken seriously, its so stark and important looking, it could have been taken out of your high school history book, or the newspaper, but then, its surrounded with hot pink, and its on a piece of entertainment. Its a strange dichotomy.

Scrawled at the top in either a childish or demented handwriting is "Dead Kennedys." Juxtaposed to that is "Plastic Surgery Disasters" written in a very elegant script. But looking at the track listing, "Plastic Surgery Disasters" is not a song title, in fact, the phrase doesn't even appear in any of the lyrics. It seems to be just an arbitrary phrase meant to give meaning to the picture on the front. The picture is too straight forward to imply that the hand is really a botched plastic surgery job, instead the assertion seems to mock the seriousness implied by the photo.

The back cover is a shot of an anonymous Anytown, USA suburbia with a smiley face printed on the water tower looming in the background. Its a sharp contrast to the front cover, in a similar way to how the script of the album's title contrasts with the chicken scratch band logo, and it too carries a trivial playfulness that seems to mock the subject in the photo. Inside, the record sleeve reflected all this and more- a Da Da-esque collage of consumerism, media, and sarcasm.

The appropriated images placed into humorous yet serious new contexts seem to want an answer as to whether this is intended as parody or pastiche. It offers open and various meaning to be attached to the art, but it makes on thing clear: this is not normal. It wears that idea all over the images it gleans from the culture it is breaking away from, practically beating you over the head with it. Whether you want to take these images seriously or as a joke is up to you, but one thing is obvious and that is how this record does not conform to the rest of the world. There is a pattern here, that echoes the lyrics and music of the band on the record inside. Does Jello really think the government is putting drugs in our water, that rich people care more for cocaine than their family, that the secret police kill protesters by slipping LSD in their drinks and spin them out into traffic, or that campers feel it is their right as pioneering americans to feed doritos to bears? At the same time, it establishes a critique on politics, religion, authority, and the american dream.

The record stood out from the rest of the records, even though the photo on the cover wasn't really very "shocking" or gory or typically "punk," it had this displaced feel of something wonderfully unusual and bizarre and exciting, which had been what I loved about the music in the first place. It was a thrilling experience buying something that was this different from almost everything else there in the shop. I say almost, because there was one other record that I also thought looked out of place because of the cover, even though I had never even heard the band, I wanted that record too because it looked like it also was going to be a fun new experience. I'll write about that record next month.

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