Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Rolling Stone Covers

Last week, Barack Obama appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone again. It was the first time a politician graced the front of that magazine in the same year. It was big news. It made the Huffington Post; conservative bloggers went on and on about it; it even made TV (well, what doesn't?).

In an of themselves, the covers are only moderately interesting, but there are some notable semiotic signifiers that make them rich visual texts:

The cover on the left first appeared in March, the one on the right, last week, and the two covers seem to express the two Obamas--the one pre-nomination and the one post. In the former, he looks worried, uptight, and earnest; in the latter, he's relaxed, happy, even humbly shy. In March, he needed to look presidential, but now, he just wants to come off as normal, warm, funny, and, most importantly, likable.

Part of the problem with the March cover is the bizarre Sears Portrait Studio background and the even more bizarre heavenly glow limning the senator. He looks airbrushed. He looks like he's about to have his aura read. He looks like he might wind up on the cover of a romance novel.

The most recent cover, though, humanizes Obama a great deal. You can see traces of gray hair, and the photo is closer, and the background, warmer and less moody. One also notices the lapel pin. A smart, smart, smart move on his part. It's a key semiotic signifier that got Mr. Obama into a lot of trouble with veteran groups and others who fear he may be a) Muslim; b) not really American; c) anti-flag; d) a hippie; or e) all of the above.

Most notable is the lack of any written text on the cover, save the eponymous "Rolling Stone." No bands, no teasers for inside, no captions. Its proof that Mr. Obama is no longer simply a man or a candidate; he is an icon. He doesn't need written language to explain who or what he is. He now so fully occupies visual space that his image is its own clarification.


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