Classic Album covers : Playing Possum - Carly Simon

Playing Possum is singer-songwriter Carly Simon’s fifth studio album, released in April 1975

“Being attractive sexually is not something which I feel guilty about or embarrassed by in any way”, Carly told a Rolling Stone reporter soon after Playing Possum was released in 1975. The album cover and her defence of it represented a brave, if unintentional, intervention in that decade’s earnest debates about sexual politics and the objectification of women in popular culture. Prior to Playing Possum, bands such as the Ohio Players and Roxy Music featured women in erotic poses on their album covers, but in that context - illustrating albums by all-male bands - eroticism could easily look exploitative or even degrading

Carly’s singer-songwriter contemporaries certainly took a more restrained approach to album art. Has there ever been a frumpier album cover than Tapestry? Carole King is pictured knitting, and even her nearby cat looks bored by this predictable attempt at illustrating the album’s title. Meanwhile, Joni Mitchell, who seemed to be pursuing a reputation as the Queen of Artistic Integrity, regularly featured her own paintings as album covers. Even Simon’s previous covers had been forgettable, showcasing her good looks and natural appeal in unremarkable settings

So no one expected that one year after Hotcakes the happily-married mother of one would reappear in nothing but negligee, knee high boots and a pair of stockings. Oh – and in a rather suggestive pose that brings to mind fellatio

As it happens, neither did she. Simon arrived at the studio of legendary photographer Norman Seeff wearing an outfit that was consistent with her previous image. As she tells it, after a couple of glasses of wines, “Norman said: ‘Well don’t you have something on under that?”

It all sounds a little creepy – like the beginning of a bad porno. But keep in mind that this was one of the world’s most famous pop stars: there was no imbalance of power. In the resulting shoot Simon got “caught in the moment. I was dancing, I was all over the place… I was being Martha Graham.” As for the pose itself, Simon insists it was not a conscious effort to be suggestive: “I think it’s the containment that’s exciting about this particular picture.” Simon claims, in fact, that some of the shots taken at the session were “a lot wilder” than the one finally chosen. Judge for yourself

To a world that had yet to encounter Madonna or Prince, the sight of Carly, in her black teddy and knee-high boots, strutting across an album cover, was positively avant garde in its frankness. After all, Carly was a married woman (famously, to James Taylor) and new mother as well. No wonder, then, that the back cover featured a much less powerful pose, and one that assured the viewer that a sense of humour and proportion were still very much intact. Her smile and joy seem far more natural than her previous covers

Though the cover choice wasn’t challenged by Elektra or by record retailers — “I did have trouble getting the record played, but that had to do with the material,” Simon says, laughing — it did provide a taste of controversy for the artist. “I was in Bloomingdale’s about a month after the album came out,” she says, “and an irate woman approached me and asked, ‘How can you do that? Everyone knows you as an upstanding woman, and you have a young child!’ So I was sort of arranging my attitude when a salesman started defending me, taking the approach that art is art and doesn’t necessarily reflect life. Then as I was just standing there listening, a third person came up and took the side of the woman; then a fourth person took the side of the salesman.” Meanwhile, Simon sneaked over to the elevator and left the building

In subsequent years,  Playing Possum has regularly featured in rankings of the best-ever album covers. It ranked at #20 on the Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest album covers.

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