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The literalism of album artwork in Egypt

It happens with such regularity, you’d think there was a law mandating it: Any Egyptian musician releasing a record will, regardless of their age, gender, or chosen genre, limit their album’s representative artwork to an image of themselves, either smiling (if it’s an album of love songs) or doing their best to look pensive (if it’s an album of break-up songs).

For as long as anyone can seem to remember, Egyptian album covers have given music buyers some of the laziest graphic design work known to man, and, contrary to reason, advancements in technology have brought little improvement.

Typically, close-ups of the artist's’ face are the simplest, and safest bet. Full body shots are riskier as they come with the added hassle of context. Frequently, designers will buckle under this kind of pressure, leading to bizarre results. What should the artist be doing on his or her album cover? Disturbingly, the most common answer seems to be: straddling something. It doesn’t matter what – it could be a bicycle, a horse, or a fence. The second go-to for most – superimposing the artist over a hazy, multicolored cloud, unintentionally making them look like the sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust – isn’t much better.

“There’s not much experimentation on display in the commercial arts in general, especially when it comes to things that supposedly represent a product, like album art covers,” says Ramy Allam, who, as a graphic designer employed by a major label, has worked on album covers for several prominent artists in the past few years. Allam’s experience in the mainstream industry has left him believing that “the main problem is the producers, who, as a whole, are unimaginative businessmen.” This, he explains, leads to the larger problem: “their [the producers’] lack of faith in the public’s imagination.”

“They worry that, if they present an album with artwork that is too abstract – in other words, a cover that doesn’t show a clear image of the artist’s face and name front and center – people will be confused as to what the product is, and won’t buy it,” says Allam, before adding, “of course, this is absolute nonsense. The producers are just worried that the public is as unimaginative as they themselves are.”

“Because of the bland type of work that’s constantly requested, talented designers are being replaced by anyone with a basic knowledge of Photoshop, or Illustrator,” says Allam. “It’s quickly becoming so that their work has no place in the mainstream industry.”

Unfortunately, this restrictive mentality isn’t limited to musical productions – evidence supporting Allam’s claims is equally abundant in virtually all other forms of graphic design. Egyptian film posters, for example, may be slightly more sophisticated in terms of imagination, execution, and overall effort, yet it remains virtually impossible to find a poster relying on a standalone image or logo to grab the public’s attention. The focus, it seems, is always on the “stars” attached to the project, rather than the project itself.

“If I want a can of Coke, I’ll go to the supermarket, and know exactly what to look for. It’s clearly marked, and branded by colors and a logo which are both familiar to the eye,” says Ahmed al-Tawil, an independent graphic designer who, after years of frustration, quit his job at a label after coming to terms with the fact that “there is no difference between that Coke can and a pop star.”

“Every now and then, you’ll hear news about a certain artist’s ‘new look’ and you’ll see magazine images and posters of the artist with a new hairstyle, or whitened teeth, or something similarly meaningless and entirely unrelated to their music,” says Tawil. “In today’s market, that’s as far as the concepts of ‘change’ and ‘evolution’ go, and it mirrors the superficial change we see in other products, like soft drinks and potato chips – that ‘new look, same great taste’ drivel.”

Tawil argues that local album artwork has always been laughable, even before the rampant product endorsements and marketing tie-ins shaping today’s industry. Unlike Allam, he believes that the fault lies with the actual music rather than the producers. “The artwork,” he claims, “is as imaginative as the music allows it to be.”

This point can easily be argued: besides the fact that the supposed role of a producer is to nurture their artists and help develop their sound, there have been a few examples of albums that debatably warranted more effort than the few minutes’ work that probably went into their artwork design. Medhat Saleh’s career-defining 1988 release “Kawkab Tany” (Another Planet) could have been a perfect opportunity for graphic designers to flex their previously untested muscles, but instead, audiences got an image of a constipated Saleh crudely superimposed over some stairs leading directly into a white-hot ball of light. Sadly, this 23-year-old image remains the pinnacle of creativity as far as Egyptian album covers go.

At the time of its release, Iman al-Bahr Darwish’s “Teir fel Sama” (A Bird in the Sky) went against tradition by not including an image of the singer anywhere on the cover. Unfortunately, in this case, traditionalism had been scrapped in favor of an even more unimaginative direction – a picture of a bird, in the sky.

Albums geared toward children have provided the most bizarre results, showing an inability to distinguish some adult’s questionable taste from what most children would find appealing. Unfortunately, this leads to releases as baffling as Haifa Wahby’s album of children’s songs, released under the name “Baby Haifa” (shudder), and with artwork featuring the sexpot singer in a low-cut shepherdess dress, and knitting a sweater directly off a computer-generated sheep.

In the absence of such strong assets to market a product on, most children’s albums have been treated with the same lack of imagination as other “adult” releases. For example, the inexplicable, and almost certainly demonic, 2002 hit “Baba Fein” (Where’s Daddy?) by toddler supergroup Free Baby (also known as Spicy Baby, Free Spicy Baby, and every pedophile’s dream come true) came with an album cover that looked like a poster made by parents desperately trying to give away their tone-deaf children – though, to be fair, it’s hard to come up with any other meaning when you write “Free Baby” over an image of a baby.

In the most depressing cases, this lack of imagination even extends to the album’s title. It is not uncommon for artists to release an album under a title consisting of their own name, and the year of release. “It tells you that you’re working on promoting a bunch of songs that bear no relevance to the singer other than the fact the he or she sang them in a certain year,” says Tawil. Needless to say, the graphic designer struggles to find inspiration for these assignments. “If I’m working on an album of love songs called Tamer Hosny 2011, there’s really not that much motivation to diverge from the work I did on an album of love songs called Tamer Hosny 2010.”

Hosny might not be the best example, though, as it seems like some thought might have gone into the design of his latest album cover. In an attempt to move past a string of revolution-related humiliations heavily, and amusingly, covered by the media, the lupine crooner’s latest album is a statement of unabashed optimism. Titled “Elli Gai Ahla” (The Best is Yet to Come), the cover features Hosny, dressed entirely in white, standing on a beach with his arms wide open, presumably ready to embrace all the good stuff that’s yet to come. He even has a new haircut, to further emphasize that the old Hosny, the one who got thrown out of Tahrir Square by protesters, is gone. This is a new Hosny, and he just wants to frolic on the beach with you.

Not everyone, however, shares Hosny’s optimism. “Yes, things have changes since the revolution, but there’s no reason to think the music industry will do the same, just for the sake of change,” Allam believes. “Unless these albums start bringing in drastically smaller profits, the way they’re marketed probably won’t change.”

“There’s no thinking outside the box. People are happy in the box. They’re comfortable and busying themselves with making it their home,” sighs Tawil. “And why not, when it’s so much easier than anything else?”

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