I should know better than to step within two time zones of Marilyn Monroe. She has a way of drawing the worst from writers of my gender. Stalwarts from Norman Mailer to Thomas Pynchon have embarrassed themselves, some at greater length than others, trying to mask their macabre and masturbatory impulses as "psychobiography" (this is what Mailer called his own emissions on the subject -- really). Even Elton John's lyricist, Bernie Taupin, who wrote "Candle in the Wind," struggled to do better than project the most cloying part of himself onto the former Norma Jean. So what chance do I have to avoid the fate of these superior writers? Yet, here I am. And it's all Christina Aguilera's fault.
You see, Aguilera has a new single called "Your Body." Its cover art pays homage to Bert Stern's The Last Sitting, a photo shoot Marilyn surrendered to over three days during the summer of 1962. The most famous shots from The Last Sitting are nudes in which Marilyn's only prop is a sheer scarf. Marilyn uses the opaque material to diffuse the photographer's light, making her body appear weightless, you might say spectral. She died six weeks after the photos were taken.
So Aguilera's new single comes loaded with enough mid-20th Century signifiers to fill three Wes Anderson movies (plus an American Express ad or two). Which makes the singer's choice of packaging a shrewd one, for sure. Record buyers who are unfamiliar with The Last Sitting can look at the cover of "Your Body" and think, "Wow, Christina's figure has really bounced back from that baby she had a couple years ago," which I suspect is half the photo's intention. While others can ponder the other half: why it is that allusions and homages to Marilyn continue to flood the city Bo Diddley and Les Paul originally built? (Or was it Grace Slick and Taupin, again, who built this city?)
For over 50 years now, the twin iconographies of rock 'n' roll and Marilyn have grown up together. From Bowie's "The Jean Genie" to the Misfits (whose name is borrowed from one of Marilyn's last films) to Madonna's Blonde Ambition phase to Aguilera's own "Ain't No Other Man" video to Lana Del Rey's "National Anthem" promo -- and countless points in between (those are just the most immediate that come to mind): it would be hard to argue for a single source of pop imagery that is as common and has pollinated as wide a variety of music as Marilyn.
But why? That's a somewhat naive question, I realize, as part of the enduring appeal of Marilyn for anyone trying to connect to a large audience is that she's instantly recognizable. Everybody (namely, prospective record-buyers) has some easily-called-upon association they will make with Marilyn. In other words, it's simply good marketing sense to plaster Marilyn's face on your product.
More interesting, though, is what happens once you fit Marilyn within your branding scheme. How does it change the essential content you've made? What exactly are you doing when you use Marilyn's image on your single or Pop Art painting? What's the advantage of presumptuously slipping her voice between the covers of your book (as Mailer did in his groty Of Women and Their Elegance; and as Truman Capote did, with way more empathy, in Music for Chameleons)?
Here's an example of what Marilyn's iconography can do to for a pop star: Aguilera's upcoming album is called Lotus. Last week, she tweeted an explanation of the title: how the lotus flower "represents an unbreakable flower that survives under the hardest conditions and still thrives." Here, she's likely referring to the commercial failure of her last album, 2010's Bionic. For a summer or two there, Aguilera's career was in freefall, plunging toward reality TV hell.
So, with respect to Aguilera's comeback attempt, The Last Sitting resonates with several tones at once -- some bright and optimistic, others foreboding. Depending upon how you look at it, Marilyn's last photos can either echo the flower's meaning (Marilyn's image and legend have survived, after all, overcoming her emotional and physical frailties). Or they can say the opposite of what the lotus says (the movie star died not too long after the photo shoot, a seemingly inevitable victim of her vicious environment). Whether Lotus turns out to be a tragedy or triumph remains to be seen. But the stakes seem pretty clear.