Ugliness Rears its Ugly Head on Talent

by Terence Leung

“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months” – Oscar Wilde

The female fashion in a fashionable music industry is a fairly simple one. The mantra goes something like this: We are an industry, an art form told by way of conglomerates and dollar signs, be something pretty for someone to look at and we will thusly look at you. It is a long a road to glory, but it is not a miscellaneous record executive sitting behind an oak mahogany desk with a wall of record plaques behind him/her that is purely at fault here. After all, the mantra would be different if we as consumers did not view music wholly as something fashionable, as something we can wear and toss out to the Salvation Army after six months. To boil it down even further, let us have a look at an online conversation I recently had with someone who wishes to remain anonymous. For the moment, give him the appropriate working title of Stud Ranger (SR):

SR says:
you on a rant about how only hot chicks are getting a musical break?

SR says:
and that they have no talent?

Terence says:
something like that

SR says:
the problem is that there are so many people who can sing.. why bother promoting someone who isn’t hot..

Terence says:
well, look at male singers..

Terence says:
ie.. radiohead’s thom yorke

SR says:
screw the talent, if they have no talent, the record companies can have control.

SR says:’s a male dominated society.

SR says:
It’s a double standard.

Terence says:
males are allowed to be ugly

Terence says:
my point is the true talent we are missing out on

Terence says:
we get the best of male’s, but probably not females

SR says:
yeah, well, who cares about chicks..

SR says:


SR says:
that’s how the world works man.

SR says:
straight up.

SR says:
and you can take that to the bank.

SR says:
and smoke it

The above (and yes, it is real) exhibits male chauvinism at its finest, something that everyone, regardless of whether you are a farmer, lawyer, teacher or even a Pygmy tribe member has been privy to in the past. Beauty is something that is highly valued within all cultures and more specifically the North American one. But, firstly, before we continue let us define what physical “ugliness” or “beauty” actually is in order to achieve some semblance of consistency:

One line of research found that women perceived as most attractive have either childlike features (large, widely spaced eyes and a small nose and chin) or “mature” features (prominent cheekbones, narrow cheeks, high eyebrows, large pupils, and a big smile).

Men perceived as most attractive are those who have big eyes, prominent cheekbones and rugged chins (Hatfield & Rapson, 1996).i


…investigators concluded that, for most people, an attractive face is simply one whose components represent the arithmetic mean of the details of many faces (Langlois, Roggman, & Musselman, 1994). One possible reason for this is that the average of multiple individual faces is perceived as more familiar than any of the actual faces, and, as we saw earlier, familiar stimuli receive a more positive evaluation.ii

Taking the above excerpts one step further, lets us now turn to relating this information to the physical constituents of current male and female music artists, circa 1992 (for simplicity’s sake, the last decade or so). Unfortunately, this is the point in which subjectivity creeps in and tries to ruin everything as I will now attempt to name a few of the most talented (by social consensus) male and female musicians of recent memory. However, we will define talent by way of Françoys Gagné’s model of talent and giftedness:

“Giftedness” refers to a student’s outstanding ability in one or more domains (e.g. intellectual, artistic or sensorimotor) and “talent” refers to outstanding performance in one or more fields within these domains: that is, talent emerges from ability as a consequence of the student’s learning experience.iii

Under this arguably loose constraint, we can now view a collection of male and female music artists who do in some shape conform to the definition above:
On the male side:

Conversely, to the females:

Now pause for a moment. Look at the pictures again. Carefully. Did I pick these artists and pictures with a purpose? Of course I did. For the duration of this article, throw away all musical inhibitions you may (and probably do) have and accept the notion that everyone on this list is considered to be “gifted” and possess “talent” by way of social consensus or by way of the definition provided above. Whichever you like.

Notice that the first five photos of male artists do not conform by any means to the aforementioned definition of “beauty”. Their faces are not symmetrical and are positively not based upon “averages”. Exhibit number two of Tricky would show small eyes, while exhibit number one of Thom Yorke would show unsymmetrical eyes, sunken cheekbones and a small chin. Exhibits number three through five show more of the same. In spite of this, why then are there legions of fans backing these artists and hanging on their every word? It is simply because they are good at what they do: make artistic, creative, and sensorimotor stimulating music. It does not matter how they look because after all, it’s just music, we hear it, we are not meant to see it.


Right..sure, now let’s look at the female artists. Large, widely spaced eyes? Neko Case and PJ Harvey, check. Small nose and chin? Bjork and Beth Orton, check. Prominent cheekbones, narrow cheeks, high eyebrows and a big smile? Well then, all of the above. Check.

Of course, the knee jerk reaction is to say something along the lines of: “Well, he purposely picked females that are pretty!” If that is the case, go ahead and try it yourself. Put together a list of females (in the last decade or so) that are by social consensus and by definition do not conform to the aforementioned characteristics of physical beauty. It is terribly difficult to do so.

Initially, the main intent of this article was to show talented males and females that do not conform to beauty’s standards and then correlate album sales (which I assumed the female ones would be lower than the males) in order to show how important it is for females to be beautiful in order to survive in the music industry. Three frustrating hours were spent in this endeavor and my list never topped two.

So, if female artists are thusly picked (by us, the media and the industry) by basis of beauty, then invoke the imagination. There is a girl somewhere in the world running around strumming her half-broken guitar and humming quietly to herself, with the potential to re-arrange the entire face of music in one fell swoop, just like Joni Mitchell did, just like Stevie Nicks did, or Chrissie Hynde, or Aretha Franklin, or Billie Holliday and so on. If this girl does not fall within the boundaries of beauty, then instead, without a heartbeat passing, we can substitute talent in for breasts.

At its core, there are two columns. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll label them ‘A’ and ‘B’. ‘A’ being reserved solely for the “privileged” that have their images constantly plastered from billboards, magazines, newspapers, bus shelters, MuchMusic and MTV. As stated from Klein (2000) “it seemed overnight, every video on MTV – from Brandy to Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys – looked like a Gap ad”iv . Column ‘B’ is what music was intended for. It is reserved for those willing to take leaps outside their own musical boundaries and make something memorable, perhaps even something groundbreaking for listeners who are equally willing to listen.

Will we be seeing even more of Column ‘A’ in the immediate future? This is almost a mathematical, if not, an economic certainty. This is, after all what we as one large conglomerate group want to see, but is this a well-traveled argument in music pop culture? I am most certain it is, at least it is one that is very obvious and moot. Nevertheless, until we can distinguish beauty from talent, it is only then that the argument dissolves and mercifully withers away. It is only until then that we will have less of Column ‘A’ (Britney Spears, Chirstina Aguilera et al) and more of Column ‘B’ (Bjork, Lauryn Hill, et al). At this moment however, we will continue to be treated to more and more insignificant variations of column ‘A’ every six bloody months.

  • Ugliness Rears its Ugly Head on Talent
  • by Terence Leung
  • Published on July 1st, 2002

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