Like its rough contemporary the telephone, the photograph has a long and storied history as a subject of songs from all corners of popular music. And for much the same reasons: it’s a ubiquitous invention, technically from the 19th century but synonymous with the 20th, that connects people while somehow also emphasizing and exacerbating their separation (it’s also a popular accessory for sex acts). So let’s do what we did a few months ago for the phone, and give photography the musical tribute it properly deserves. Spotify and TIDAL playlists are below; why don’t you take a fucking picture?
1. Rod Stewart: “Every Picture Tells a Story”
(from Every Picture Tells a Story, 1971)
The Faces‘ Rod Stewart and Ron Wood were both enthusiastic users of the Polaroid instant camera in the early 1970s, mainly for its efficiency at capturing images of groupies in compromising positions. “It would be hard to recount the amount of pleasure the pair of us got from doing that slightly smutty ‘rubbing on the picture’ motion that you used to have to do to warm the paper and speed up the developing process,” Stewart later wrote in his 2012 autobiography. All of which, of course, puts a slightly different spin on Rod’s 1971 solo hit “Every Picture Tells a Story”–though, incredibly, the Polaroid story isn’t any more sexist than the actual song, and is if anything less racist (seriously, Rod, “I fell in love with a slit-eyed lady?”). In fact, maybe we should just pretend this song is about taking lewd pictures in hotel rooms, and not pay any more attention to the lyrics.
2. Slave: “Snap Shot”
(from Show Time, 1981)
As we established during last year’s Jheri Curl June, Steve Arrington of Dayton, Ohio funk outfit Slave seems to have something of a voyeuristic streak, and it’s on full display here. Arrington spends the entirety of 1981’s “Snap Shot” in character as a lascivious fashion photographer, purring suggestive instructions like a cross between David Hemmings in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up and, well, Terry Richardson in real life. Somehow I doubt that any of the photos he’s supposedly taking are appropriate for the “cover of Life magazine,” but hey, everyone needs a hobby.
3. Da Muzicianz featuring Mr. Collipark: “Camera Phone”
(from Da Muzicianz, 2006)
“Da Muzicianz” were a short-lived side project consisting of the Ying Yang Twins‘ D-Roc and his younger brothers, “Mr. Ball” and “Da Birthday Boy,” with production by frequent Ying Yang collaborator and crunksmith Mr. Collipark. Given this pedigree, you can probably figure out what they were hoping to capture on their titular “camera phones” (butts–the answer is butts). But the song’s music video just makes things more confusing: does D-Roc really think he’s going to get anything good with that 1-Megapixel-ass flip phone? And if he’s so excited/aroused by this tame dancing, are we to believe he goes through life taking pictures of every attractive woman who crosses his path? How many Micro-SD cards does this dude go through, anyway?
4. The J. Geils Band: “Freeze-Frame”
(from Freeze-Frame, 1981)
I always found it impressive that the J. Geils Band were able to get not one, but two hits out of the premise of racy photographic imagery–and on the same album, no less! My favorite of the two is probably “Freeze-Frame,” because it’s ever so slightly more subtle than “Centerfold”; rather than literally describing a woman in a sexy photo, it uses the language of photography to describe a moment of intense attraction: “Her face still focused in my mind / Test-strip proof-sheet love is hard to find.” And anyway, who can resist that opening keyboard hook?
5. Gucci Mane: “Photoshoot”
(from The State vs. Radric Davis deluxe edition, 2009)
Back in the late 2000s, two things were all the rage: celebrity sex tapes, and Gucci Mane (some things never change). It was only a matter of time before the twain finally met; thankfully, when they did, it was with a song called “Photoshoot” and not with a literal Gucci Mane sex tape. Gucci brags about “fucking on the camera” like “Tommy Lee and Pamela,” but also about his “photogenic chain”; then he discards the whole “photoshoot” motif entirely and just starts listing his favorite rappers. I guess the moral of this story is that drinking industrial quantities of lean might be good for mind-expansion and street cred, but it’s hell on your attention span. Like I said, though, let’s all just be grateful that Guwop didn’t actually shoot a sex tape.
6. R. Kelly: “Red Carpet (Pause, Flash)”
(from Happy People/U Saved Me, 2004)
Take it from R. Kelly: nothing distracts people from a high-profile court case involving video evidence of you “allegedly” urinating on a minor like a chipper steppin’ song about dancing like you’re posing on a red carpet. Was that man in the video with Kelly’s exact same build, voice, face, and sexual proclivities really him?
Yes The world may never know. But if “Red Carpet” proves nothing else, it’s that Kelly definitely isn’t camera shy.
7. Spoon: “I Turn My Camera On”
(from Gimme Fiction, 2005)
I actually have no idea what the hell this song is about (“it hit me like a tom?”), but I do know two things: it has the word “camera” in the title, and it was beloved by the lomography set in the mid-2000s. I believe that’s what us corporate drones like to call “synergy.”
8. Kanye West: “Flashing Lights”
(from Graduation, 2007)
Getting “snapped by the paparazzi”–especially in moments of sexual impropriety–is something of a recurring theme in the lyrics of Kanye West; which isn’t surprising, given the amount of trouble he’s gotten into for assaulting photographers over the years. Of all the documents of this troubled history, though, 2007’s “Flashing Lights” is still probably the best: mainly because of the artful way in which Yeezy captures the glamour of photographed fame in the same breath as he does the paranoia. That Eric Hudson beat doesn’t hurt, either.
9. Mike Will featuring Young Thug: “Take a Picture”
The 2010s are weird, man. Young Thug–who rose to fame in the first half of the decade sounding like a cross between a brain-damaged Lil Wayne and the Uncle Muscles Hour, and looking like Jaden Smith on methadone–is a male model now. And what’s crazy is, he’s actually pretty good: just look at the cover of his new mixtape No, My Name is Jeffery, which legitimately looks like a high-fashion editorial shot (and also a little bit like a rejected Mortal Kombat character). So was “Take a Picture,” his 2014 collaboration with trap superproducer Mike WiLL Made-It, prophetic? Eh, not really; it’s basically just vintage Young Thug mumbling and squeaking with a vaguely camera-related theme. But still: Young Thug is a male model now.
10. A Flock of Seagulls: “Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You)”
(from Listen, 1983)
These days, synthpoppers A Flock of Seagulls are basically known for two things: their 1982 single “I Ran,” and lead singer Mike Score’s ridiculous haircut, which was memorably parodied in the 1998 Adam Sandler movie The Wedding Singer. That’s too bad, because to these ears, the group’s melancholy minor hit “Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You)” holds up a lot better in 2016 than you would expect: it sounds exactly like the kind of thing Jonathan Byers from Stranger Things would listen to while hiding in the woods taking surreptitious photos of girls and monsters from other dimensions.
11. Electric Six: “Naked Pictures (Of Your Mother)”
(from Fire, 2003)
Detroit‘s Electric Six were (are?) masters of the absurd turn of phrase, and never more so than on their 2003 major label debut Fire. Hence “Naked Pictures (Of Your Mother),” which seems to be about blackmail or espionage or something, but with a title so sensationalistic it’s unlikely anyone will bother to parse much deeper. Has there ever been a greater song title? The answer, of course, is yes: but “Electric Demons in Love” was on the same album, so E6 wins anyway.
12. Levert: “Pose”
(from Bloodline, 1986)
Hey, remember “Snap Shot” by Slave, from way back in Track 2? Well, this 1986 album track by Levert is literally the same exact song. Only somehow, it’s even creepier: I don’t know if it’s the fact that they’re brothers who apparently do sexy photo shoots as a unit, or if Gerald Levert is just better than Steve Arrington at leering to a tune, but somehow this pervy photographer song is even pervier than the other one. In other words, if Arrington was David Hemmings in Blow-Up, then Levert is Austin Powers. Make of that what you will.
13. 2 Chainz featuring Pharrell: “Feds Watching”
(from B.O.A.T.S. II: #METIME, 2013)
Contemporary rap music is concerned overwhelmingly with two, seemingly contradictory things: ostentatious stunting over activities of dubious legality, and paranoia over being busted for those same activities. So it’s kind of a stroke of genius that the Artist Formerly Known as Tity Boi came out with “Feds Watching” and combined those two themes. When criminals are stars, federal agents are a kind of paparazzi; so why not be “fresh as hell if the Feds watching?”
14. Icewear Vezzo: “Take a Picture”
(from Solitaires: Drank God, 2014)
Along similar lines, Detroit’s Icewear Vezzo isn’t quite as brazen as 2 Chainz–probably because he’s a lot more likely to actually end up in the pen–but even he can’t resist posing for a photo when he’s feeling fresh: “All these diamonds on the nigga / Take a picture.” Just don’t take the camera out when he’s on his “Money Phone.”
15. Steely Dan: “Peg”
(from Aja, 1977)
From one of the most hardcore artists in modern music to several of the least, here’s Steely Dan with a classic blue-eyed soul ditty about pining after an old girlfriend turned aspiring model. Yeah, I know, dad rock blah blah, but just try to resist those Michael McDonald backing vocals!
16. Yes: “Into the Lens”
(from Drama, 1980)
Written and recorded during keyboardist Geoff Downes’ and singer Trevor Horn’s early-’80s tenure with the group, “Into the Lens” by Yes is actually the exact same song as “I am a Camera,” released by Downes and Horn as their alternate New Wave guise the Buggles in 1981. That version of the song is arguably the “cooler” choice (it’s certainly shorter), but I have to admit, I’m kinda partial to the original. I mean, let’s face it, both songs are pretentious as hell, so why not go with the one with the sweet guitar solos?
17. The Cure: “Pictures of You”
(from Disintegration, 1989)
Finally, we conclude with another portentous 1980s epic, this one from the Cure. I have to admit, as much as I turn up my nose to the “alt-rock” canon these days, I still like this track: it’s Grade-A mope rock, to be sure, but it captures those paradoxical feelings of distance and intimacy that come with the experience of looking at old photos of a loved one. Plus, at seven and a half minutes, it’s the perfect length for a nice, long cry. To our goth readership: you’re welcome.