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Anton Corbijn, U2, Echo & The Bunnymen, and Depeche Mode in the Reagan Zeitgeist

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In 1987, minimalism, in the person of Dutch photographer and video director Anton Corbijn, challenged extravagance.

In contrast to minimalism, albums like Mötley Crüe’s Girls Girls Girls –which came out in 1987 – had showy, flamboyant, and bombastic covers that reflected the extravagance of Reagan’s materialistic America.


Everything in Reagan’s America seemed to be big. The Cold War (which featured Reagan’s over-the-top “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” speech) and the Iran-Contra affair were larger-than-life. So-called “Reagonomics” included the theory of “trickle-down economics,” which led to tax breaks for the USA’s most economically successful.

For example, the cover of Girls Girls Girls demonstrated a society where the rich (in this case, four rock stars) reaped the materialistic “rewards” in the form of expensive motorcycles, flashy clothes, and big hair.

The result? An intense emphasis on male heterosexuality and aggression, in which traditional signifiers of female sexuality (hair and make up) were flipped into signifiers of the male libido. And what’s a greater sign of aggressive male heterosexuality than the cock rock of bands like the Crüe?

In fact, stylistically similar bands like Winger, Poison, Whitesnake, Ratt, Skid Row, Warrant, Bon Jovi, Faster Pussycat, Slaughter, and many bands of their ilk dominated MTV and rock radio. These bands – and their father, Mötley Crüe – captured the zeitgeist of the Reagan era in its extravagance, circa 1987.

Enter Anton Corbijn and the cover of U2’s 1987 album, The Joshua Tree.


In contrast to the cover of Girls Girls Girls, whose male sexual aggression practically roars at you from the four leather-clad rockers straddling their bikes, The Joshua Tree’s minimalistic black-and-white cover depicts four pensive pilgrims, humbly dressed and huddled in a desert landscape. This landscape – the biblical place of spiritual searching – recedes far into the horizon, signifying the depth of the music on the album.

Indeed, “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “With or Without You” are songs of spiritual longing, just as “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Mothers of the Disappeared” are direct critiques of the policies of the Reagan administration. Compare these to just two of the songs on Girls Girls Girls – “Wild Side” and the title track – which reflect and reinforce the entitlement and extravagance of male heterosexuality.


Corbijn’s cover for Echo & The Bunnymen’s 1987 self-titled album pulls the band out of the desert, but it’s similar to The Joshua Tree cover in its intense, black-and-white focus on the personhood of each band member. The band stands out because they’re in uniformly stark contrast to the plain background.


But what’s really interesting is Corbijn’s video for the single, “Lips Like Sugar.” While maintaining the minimalism of the album cover, it lifts the main image from the lyrics – lips – and places it at the focal point in most frames. Singer Ian McCulloch’s lips are the focus of close-ups. They appear to be just as lipstick coated as the smooch mark on his cheek. Giant disembodied lips appear above the band, and the video concludes with the band being hunted by two space-suit clad women on an alien planet, the set of which comes straight out of the 1960s’ TV show, Star Trek.


Compare Corbijn’s work to the video for “Girls Girls Girls,” which abounds with phallic symbols, strippers, ogling band members, revving engines, caged women, pole dancers, switchblades, cigarette smoking, finger wagging, G-strings, boozed-up potbellied men, “total nude” signs, Dalmatian basses, and nighttime sunglasses wearing.


Spiritual pilgrims the Crüe are not. Yet, at last count, they’ve sold around seven million copies of Girls Girls Girls.

In 1987, Corbijn made six videos for Depeche Mode’s Music for the Masses album, one of which was for “Strangelove.” “Strangelove” is shot in Corbijn’s minimalistic, black-and-white style. It’s no less replete with scantily clad women than “Girls Girls Girls,” but the sensuality is not pornographic because the women are in their own spaces, walking their dogs or relaxed in their homes. They’re not strippers on a stage performing.

“Strangelove” is also self-referential in the way in which the band members and women break the fourth wall at the video’s conclusion, smiling and laughing at the camera in what could be a blooper reel.


Corbijn’s work for U2, Echo & The Bunnymen, and Depeche Mode provided a much-needed counterpoint to the trickle-down effect of Mötley Crüe and their children. But it’s political effect in countering the Reagan zeitgeist cannot be minimized.