today. This fact in itself is trivial and hardly worth mentioning. More interesting, historically speaking, is the controversy surrounding the manner in which the album was promoted (pictured, left). The Rolling Stones, one of the earliest rock bands to model itself consciously on the 1950s jazz subculture (or counterculture), successfully blurred any clear distinctions between being bohemian and being deviant.
The trend began, at least in terms of the band's album covers, with the graffiti-covered bathroom wall of Beggars Banquet (1968), which invoked the stereotypical site, in the popular imagination, of the male homosexual encounter. The origins of the S&M themed promotional image for Black and Blue came out of trends in fashion photography in the mid 70s, in particular the work of photographers such as Helmut Newton and Chris von Wangenheim. A year before Black and Blue's release, Newton had created a controversial May 1975 Vogue spread, "The Story of Ohhh…," which featured an image of a man sadistically grabbing hold of a woman's breast, linking sex, violence, and danger. On his part, Von Wagenheim had created a advertisement depicting a bejeweled model being bitten on the wrist by a Doberman pinscher. Although I no longer remember the moment when I first saw the promotional image for Black and Blue, studying it now it seems to be both a deliberate provocation as well as something of a put-on, perhaps another instance of Pop Art irony, possibly yet another illustration (for some) of art's fundamental donnée, to disturb. While the poster's visual pun on "black and blue" is hardly subtle -- a kid in junior high can get it -- that doesn't seem to be the real point. Album cover aside (in which the Stones seem strangely mannequin-like, alienated, and unfocused, perhaps to suggest the state of the band at the time), the poster for Black and Blue links sexual adventurism with S&M. The poster's self-conscious S&M theatricality, with its cuffs and ropes and its staging of violence and humiliation and the model's unambiguous sexual invitation, suggests domination and enslavement as well as outre´ sex as an exciting way of life. Hence the Stones represent everything hip and Modern--they are with it, man.
In her 1975 essay, Fascinating Fascism, Susan Sontag observed that this sort of imagery is "a logical extension of an affluent society's tendency to turn every part of people's lives into a taste, a choice; to invite them to regard their very lives as a (life) style. In all societies up to now, sex has mostly been an activity (something to do, without thinking about it). But once sex becomes a taste, it is perhaps already on its way to becoming a self-conscious form of theater, which is what sadomasochism is about: a form of gratification that is both violent and indirect, very mental." While Black and Blue's poster is perhaps stereotypical in the way it associates rock music with transgressive behavior, Sontag might argue that the poster's self-conscious imagery of sadomasochism acts as a sort of enticement, suggesting that while rock music to some is ultimately a harmless form of transgression (like driving through a red light at 3:00 a.m. when no cop is around), to the enlightened it is altogether more significant, promising the sort of extravagant life to which only Sade himself aspired, filled with dominance and submission, sex and humiliation, made even more exciting because "it is forbidden to ordinary people." In other words, to consume rock music (especially the Stones) is to surpass the limits of your dull, profane existence. In her essay, Sontag cites Leni Riefenstahl, who said, "What is purely realistic, slice of life, what is average, quotidian, doesn't interest me." Sontag writes, "As the social contract seems tame in comparison with war, so fucking and sucking come to seem merely nice, and therefore unexciting." In other words, Altamont was not the disaster that is usually depicted, but rather life at its most extreme, with all of its promise of excitement and danger. Anything but nice. Nice was Woodstock.
Which is also to say, rock itself is a form of gratification that is indirect and vicarious. But that is the way the Stones seem to want it: listen to the music and get your rocks off. The Stones, the dark double of the Beatles, the bad boys of rock, however they wanted to be perceived, certainly it was never as "nice." The Black and Blue poster is certainly not "nice." To be "nice" is to be civilized, which means to be alienated from, or deprived of, the savage experience the poster image promises -- even if that experience is theatrically staged.