Memorable LGBTQ Album Covers of 2018

Record albums refuse to die even though sales are no longer what they used to be. Musicians continue to rely on long-form collections of songs to tell personal stories, and album cover art remains a crucial aspect of the storytelling. In 2018 (as I’ve done for many years), I explored music released during the year to identify the most memorable album cover art. I looked for album covers that: 

  • Capture your attention.
  • Express the essence of the artist.
  • Say something about the musical content of the album itself.

This year, I was struck by the number of album covers that expressed what it means for an artist to be the Other, especially to be LGBTQ. The year witnessed a bumper crop of works created by LGBTQ musicians, perhaps most notably by Janelle Monáe, whose acclaimed Dirty Computer created a public forum for Monáe to announce her pansexuality. The album cover art of LGBTQ artists was as intensely personal as their music. Here are three examples:

Blood Orange, Negro Swan

Negro Swan, the fourth album from Blood Orange, the moniker for musician Devonté Hynes, expresses the complicated journey of the black LGBTQ experience. Blood Orange recently said that Negro Swan is “an exploration into my own and many types of black depression, an honest look at the corners of black existence, and the ongoing anxieties of queer/people of color. A reach back into childhood and modern traumas, and the things we do to get through it all.” The album’s title underscores race-based Otherness by using wordplay to subvert a term, black swan, meant to signify a rare thing of beauty. Songs such as “Charcoal Baby” articulate the artist’s vision, with lyrics such as:

No one wants to be the Negro Swan

No one wants to be the odd one out at times

Can you break sometimes?

In “Dagenham Dream,” Blood Orange recalls how he stopped wearing makeup and tried to start conforming after getting beat up for being an Other, much to the sadness of one of his school teachers:

And my eyebrow acted like the boys in town

Then my teacher told me that this, made her sad

Had to act just like the others to get around

But Blood Orange also offers hope that he will embrace his Otherness, as in the song “Smoke,” in which he sings,

Choosing what you wear and getting this far

Waiting for the smoke to clear . . . 

The Sun comes in, my heart fulfills within

Indeed, Blood Orange has also said of Negro Swan, “The underlying thread through each piece on the album is the idea of hope, and the lights we can try to turn on within ourselves with a hopefully positive outcome of helping others out of their darkness.”

The album cover personifies Negro Swan through the image of Kai the Black Angel, who appears sitting on a car’s front passenger window frame with a white do-rag on his head and angel’s wings sprouting from his back. His head rests on his arms. His facial expression looks ambiguous. Is he calmly resting? Resigned? Sad? It’s hard to tell because his face is partially obscured by his arms.

In the video for one of the album’s songs, “Jewelry,” Kai the Black Angel appears briefly sitting on the car’s window frame. His facial expression again exudes a sense of calm. He also looks hopeful for the touch or embrace of the viewer. He reaches out toward the camera with a gentle wave, and as the car moves away from view, he continues to gaze back at the viewer, as if to make the brief moment of communion last as long as possible. For a few seconds, Kai the Black Angel shares the light that Blood talks and sings about on Negro Swan.  

Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer

On Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe celebrates LGBTQ sexuality while confronting judgments that are inevitably cast upon the Other. On the song “Crazy, Classic Life,” she sings with confidence and defiance,

Young, Black, wild and free

Naked in a limousine . . . 

I just wanna party hard

Sex in the swimming pool . . .

I’m not America’s nightmare

I’m the American dream

Just let me live my life

Elsewhere, she explores what it means to live as a sexual being on her own terms, as in the song “Take a Byte”:

I’m not the kind of girl you take home to your mama now . . .

Maybe it’s lust, maybe it’s love, maybe it never ends

Ooh, say your goodbyes (say ’em now)

Play in my hair and nibble there all on my mocha skin

Yeah, just take a byte

In “Pynk,” she speaks bluntly and frankly about a sexual experience whose meaning is even more clear in the song’s video: 

Pink like the inside of your . . . baby
Pink behind all of the doors, crazy
Pink like the tongue that goes down, maybe
Pink like the paradise found
Pink when you’re blushing inside, baby
Pink is the truth you can’t hide, maybe

But the album cover dials down the overt sexuality and instead presents the artist in another light. Her eyes are nearly closed, and her face is covered with a beaded veil. Why? One explanation I’ve read makes perfect sense: she’s expressing an homage to her mentor Prince:

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bfjqxxgnhab/

The connection is obvious in the video “Make Me Feel,” which sounds and looks like a Prince video. In it, Janelle Monáe explores her own lust for female bodies. And indeed she adorns the beaded veil in the video as she does on the album cover.

But the video also appears in a completely different context, as part of a 48-minute movie, Dirty Computer – An Emotion Picture, that debuted in April along with the album’s release. The movie depicts a world in which people living lives of individual freedom are rounded up and have their memories erased.  A voice-over explains, “You were dirty if you looked different. You were dirty if you refused to live the way they dictated. You were dirty if you showed any form of opposition at all. And if you were dirty, it was only a matter of time . . .”

Monáe portrays Jane 57821, whose life of unfettered sexual joy makes her an outlaw and a target for the authorities. Her life is told through sequences taken from her standalone videos, including “Move Me,” which recontextualizes Monáe as Jane 57821 wearing the jeweled veil. In the context of Dirty Computer– An Emotion Picture, her joyous pansexual life puts her at risk for being persecuted and subjected to a horrible fate. Now we see the cover in a new light: her sexual identity, which is a source of pride and joy, also creates a personal risk, as it does for the Other. 

In a Billboard interview, she elaborated on the meaning of the movie:

Dirty Computer is a near-future story about a citizen who finds love and danger in a totalitarian society. She’s an outlaw because she’s being herself . . . Overall, I wanted to reflect what’s happening in the streets right now, and what might happen tomorrow if we don’t band together and fight for love.

Jane 57821 is alive today, fighting for her own identity in the United States. Jane 57821 is Janelle Monaé.

Ah Mer Ah Su, Star

Star is an expression of self-love and healing from the perspective of a transgender artist, Amerasu Star, who performs as Ah Mer Ah Su. In an interview with PAPER, she says the album reflects her learning self-compassion and acceptance after surviving an abusive relationship with a man and being diagnosed as bipolar type two. On the song “Heartbreaker,” she not only transcends a relationship but turns the tables on a man who is hurting her:

I once tried to put you under my spell

Then realized I’d failed and I was overwhelmed

I’ll run into the arms of others

To try to forget you

And it hurts, it hurts, it hurts

But being a heartbreaker is easier than being broke

Here is how she describes the song meaning to PAPER:

I think I’ve had my heart broken too many times by men, to the point where I’ve become someone who ghosts people or runs away. It’s my way of turning the tables, of running away from feeling too good, because I want to break your heart. I’m tired of being heartbroken; it has happened too many times. As a transfemme, it happens so much that we are with shitty dudes who don’t care about us at all really. They view us as sexual objects and I’ve been devastated by that, so I wanted to totally change the narrative.

The overwhelming vibe on the album is about claiming your own narrative by reaching within. On “Need You, Need Me,” she defiantly looks forward after breaking free from an abusive relationship. On “Be Free,” she asks her audience, “Are you growing?/Are you showing any sign of change?” The soaring “Perfect” exhorts the listener to reject self-loathing, stop trying to chase for perfection and instead embrace something more positive and healthy:

How many days have I spent feeling shame?
Where I said I was to blame for my circumstance?
What would you do?
If you couldn’t be you? . . . 

Perfect
I’ll never be perfect
The world isn’t perfect and neither are you

The album cover art, taken from the video for “Perfect,” expresses the album’s themes. The vibrant colors suggest the star that shines within us. Ah Mer Ah Su holds herself tenderly with her eyes closed, as if lost in a moment of self-love. The somewhat grainy and blurred image seems to capture the narrative of “Perfect” – the reality that there is no such thing as perfection, and what matters is accepting and celebrating ourselves as we are. Hers is a universal message, too. As she told Billboard,

[M]y album isn’t just for transgender black people. I want everyone to listen to this album and listen to a trans woman sing about her experience. I want everyone who listens to understand what it’s like to be me and realize how precious and delicate — yet strong and empowering — my story is. I want my sisters to listen to this album and know that they are worthy, beautiful, and deserving of love.

Ah Mer Ah Su, like Blood Orange and Janelle Monáe, has connected with listeners in emotionally powerful ways. Fortunately we have her music and artistic expression of her songs to deepen that connection.

For more examples of memorable LGBTQ album cover art, check out my SlideShare. What album cover art from 2018 resonates with you?

How Apple Is Changing Healthcare through Partnerships

Apple took a major step forward to influence the future of healthcare with the release of an ECG app and irregular heart rhythm notification. With the Apple Watch Series 4, users can take an ECG similar to a single-lead reading. And owners of Apple Watch Series 1 or later (with watch OS 5.1.2) can get notified if an irregular heart rhythm such as atrial fibrillation (AFib) is identified (per the American Heart Association, AFib is present in about one in five strokes.) The new functionality has already been credited with saving one man’s life. The release of the app also comes with a challenge: earning credibility with physicians, who have voiced concerns about people misreading the app’s data. But Apple is up for the challenge — and will succeed. That’s because for years, Apple has built partnerships across the healthcare ecosystem. Those partnerships have provided a proving ground for Apple’s healthcare apps and generated a reservoir of goodwill for one of the world’s most valuable brands.

A Healthcare Strategy

The ECG app, announced at Apple’s September 12 Special Event, support Apple’s strategy to improve healthcare by being the data backbone for patient care. That strategy has three key elements:

  • Software for patients and providers to monitor and share data, which is where apps come into play.
  • Hardware: the Apple Watch and iPhone to create an ever-present device platform.
  • Relationships with healthcare providers such as hospital networks to monitor and share wellness data.

Apple’s penetration of healthcare supports its growth in both wearables and services, two categories that, while small, are contributing more to Apple’s revenue growth based on its fourth-quarter earnings results announced November 1. But with healthcare, CEO Tim Cook has loftier aspirations than generating more revenue. As he told TIME recently, “Apple’s largest contribution to mankind will be in improving people’s health and well-being.”

His focus on wellness care in particular positions Apple well. The PwC’s Health Research Institute (HRI) cites wellness care as one of the top forces shaping the future of healthcare industry, with wellness accounting for $276 billion of the $5 trillion U.S. healthcare ecosystem.

Reaction from Physicians

But to improve health and well-being, Apple needs to have physicians on board. Some have been publicly critical of the ECG app, while others have been supportive. The announcement of heart monitoring features during Apple’s September Special Event almost immediately triggered concerns from physicians who worried that patients would misdiagnose themselves. But the announcement also came with support from the medical community. For example, Christopher Worsham, a critical care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Anupam B. Jena, an internist at Massachusetts General Hospital, wrote in Harvard Business Review, “ . . . doctors shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the new feature, particularly as it appears amidst growing consumer enthusiasm for wearable devices that measure health behaviors. The Apple Watch has the potential to provide valuable data that benefits the entire health care community.”

Now that the ECG app is live, Apple has experienced both criticism and good PR. On the one hand, an Orange Country cardiologist, Dr. Brian Kolski, has complained about numerous patients contacting him because they thought their Apple Watches were reporting heart problems when in fact nothing was wrong. Dr. Kolski discussed a patient who contacted him in the middle of the night, panicking about a heart reading he’d seen on his Apple Watch.

“He texted me the strip, and it was completely normal,” Dr. Kolski told The Orange County Register. “This was a healthy 45-year-old man who was playing around on his watch and went into a major panic.”

On the other hand, the new features are generating positive news coverage for Apple. TechCrunch and ABC News have already reported the case of Ed Dentel, whose physician told him that the new app likely saved his life by notifying him of an abnormal heart rate. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, tested the ECG app and reported it to be “remarkably easy” although he cautioned users to use the app with care.

“The app may also increase visits to the doctor from newly concerned patients,” he wrote. “Still, there has been considerable enthusiasm from the medical community as a whole . . . There is no doubt Apple is counting on doctors to use the data collected by the Apple Watch. The company has made it easy to upload your ECG, along with a description of your symptoms, to your personal doctor directly from the app to facilitate that communication. It’s all part of their big bet on making an impact in health care.”

Strong Relationships in Place

The PR is important, and so is the data that Apple cranks out to substantiate the value and accuracy of the ECG app. But Apple already has something else going for it: a demonstrated ability to forge partnerships with the medical community. The launch of the ECG app is just the latest in a long list of Apple’s accomplishments on the road to become a healthcare player — and those successes have come through partnerships with physicians that I discussed in my recent white paper, Dr. Apple Will See You Now. For example:

  • In 2014 Apple, launched HealthKit to give Apple users a central repository to track health and fitness data on their Apple devices. In February 2015, Ochsner Health System in New Orleans launched its “Hypertension Digital Medicine Program,” which relies on HealthKit to help patients measure and share with the provider their own blood pressure and heart rates. Oschner adjusts (in real-time, if needed) patients’ medications and lifestyle counseling based on the findings.
  • In 2015, Apple released ResearchKit, an open source software framework designed for medical and health research, intended to help doctors and scientists gather data more frequently and more accurately from participants using iPhone apps. The University of Rochester has used ResearchKit to build an app for the largest Parkinson’s study in history. According to Apple, “the app helps researchers better understand Parkinson’s disease by using the gyroscope and other iPhone features to measure dexterity, balance, gait, and memory.”
  • In January 2018, Apple announced that its Health app will make it possible for users to see their medical records right on their iPhones, which would thus empower potentially 90 million Americans who own iPhones. When Apple launched the capability, the company came out of the gate with 39 hospital networks participating. (Apple keeps a running list of participating hospital networks on its website.)

Apple has published more examples of successful physician collaboration. For instance, at Johns Hopkins, physicians provide epilepsy patients with Apple Watches to track their seizures, possible triggers, medications, and side effects. Thanks to a special app developed by Johns Hopkins, the EpiWatch, patients have access to their personal information through a dashboard that also shares data with providers if the patient wants to do so. Patients can also send a message to family members and providers to let them know when the patient is tracking a seizure. Johns Hopkins is collecting this data to eventually understand how to predict seizures before they happen.

Hiring Physicians

Reportedly, Apple’s journey to healthcare prominence also means hiring approximately 50 physicians. CNBC cited the example of hiring hired an orthopedic surgeon, Sharat Kusuma, who leads a team working with medical device maker Zimmer Biomet “to study whether Apple technology can help patients recover from knee and hip replacement surgeries.” In a December 12 article, Christina Farr of CNBC wrote, “The hires could help Apple win over doctors — potentially its harshest critics — as it seeks to develop and integrate health technologies into the Apple Watch, iPad and iPhone.” She added,

Doctors can also help Apple guide the medical community on how to use Apple’s new health technologies  and to deflect criticism. As an example, when Apple announced its electrocardiogram sensor to track heart rhythm irregularities, the company  put up a website to help answer physicians’ questions. That’s important because there’s a very high bar to win approval among doctors who fear liability and are  already overburdened by technology

And here is where Apple’s established relationships with medical networks will pay off. Apple is not trying to build relationships and credibility from scratch. Apple already possesses goodwill by proving itself through efforts that precede the ECG app (such as those cited above). And Apple’s other ace in the hole is usage among physicians: 75 percent of doctors in the United States own some form of Apple device, according to a study by Manhattan Research.

We all know Steve Jobs was the super power who made Apple synonymous with changing the world. But Tim Cook is building a legacy, too, around healthcare. That’s because Apple is improving healthcare through partnerships, not disruption.

How Virtual Reality Re-Imagines the World of Norman Rockwell

I recently stepped inside the paintings of Norman Rockwell through virtual reality. After viewing Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms paintings at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, I experienced them in an immersive way that only VR can provide. Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms: A Virtual Reality Experience demonstrates how VR can educate by complementing, not replacing, the physical world — but only if VR offers compelling content.   

About the Four Freedoms

In 1943, Norman Rockwell painted the Four Freedoms series — Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear – to visualize the four freedoms, or essential human rights, espoused by Franklin Roosevelt in a 1941 State of the Union address. Upon their publication in The Saturday Evening Post, Rockwell’s  Four Freedoms became immensely popular. They expressed a nostalgic, reassuring image of America at a time when World War II had made the world seem darker. The Four Freedoms ensured Norman Rockwell’s fame as an artist whose work expressed American ideals in a way that resonated with a mass audience. 

Many decades later, the Four Freedoms are on display in a traveling exhibit that began at the New York Historical Society on May 25 and will continue until 2020. The Henry Ford has hosted the second leg of the tour since October 13 and will do so until January 13. Seeing these paintings in person is like viewing the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives. They don’t need virtual reality to convey their power. But as I discovered, VR helped me appreciate the artist and his times.

Rockwell Up Close

I came across a VR viewing area near the end of the tour, after I’d spent a Sunday afternoon studying Rockwell’s works up close, including Freedom from Want, which has become perhaps the most cherished if satirized vision of American bounty. 

As with just about every famous art I’ve seen reproduced somewhere, Rockwell’s paintings are more vivid when you see them in person. By contrast, the VR viewing area consisted of a spartan arrangement of chairs and headsets. You always know when you’ve entered the VR zone: no matter what the context, you’re greeted by a clusters of disconnected people gazing into headsets unaware of the real world around them. But I’d already gotten what I came for. I was game for spending some time in the VR zone. What did I have to lose? After I was given a brief explanation of how the VR experience works, I strapped on a headset and let my mind wander.

Intuitive VR

The experience was as intuitive as VR should be. From a virtual viewing room, I could step inside different Four Freedoms paintings to explore a re-creation of the settings suggested by Rockwell’s art. For example, Freedom from Fear depicts a mother and father tucking their children in bed for a night of peaceful, carefree sleep. The father holds a newspaper with a headline that suggests the London Blitz bombing occurring across the Atlantic. 

Through VR, I explored the room in more detail as well as the family’s home as it might have looked in 1943. I came across a silver-colored penny on a dresser. When I clicked on the penny, words appeared onscreen to explain that the 1943 silver-colored penny was a wartime coin issue made of steel and coated with zinc. It was necessary to create pennies from steel because copper was needed to make shell casings and munitions. Throughout the house, I found many other belongings from the era, including a civilian air spotter guide, blackout curtains, comic books, and trading cards.

VR expanded my understanding of wartime in the United States by inviting me into Rockwell’s time rather than separating me from it with a panel. Rockwell’s paintings engaged and taught me more about Rockwell and his vision. VR taught me more about Rockwell’s world. 

VR and AR Take Hold in Museums

Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms: A Virtual Reality Experience constitutes a laid-back experience as far as VR goes. Touring the paintings requires not much physical effort beyond tilting your head to navigate. This experience is designed to ease you into VR from a sitting position. Created by Academy of Art University, San Francisco, and the Norman Rockwell Museum, Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms is one of many ways museums are using VR and augmented reality (AR) to become more immersive. For example:

  • The Franklin Institute transports people into space, the ocean, and the human body with Oculus Rift and HTC Vive VR headsets. 
  • “David Bowie Is,” the critically acclaimed David Bowie exhibition, will become an AR app following a multi-year run at museums ranging from V&A Museum in London to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
  • The Kremer Museum, launched in 2017, features more than 70 17th Century Dutch and Flemish Old Master paintings exclusively through VR. It is believed to be the only museum to exist entirely within VR.

And many, many more examples abound, as museums employ technology to remain relevant with audiences whose expectations are set by immersive games, music, and movies using multiple devices and screens. 

Why the Four Freedoms VR Experience Succeeds

In this context, Four Freedoms: A Virtual Reality Experience succeeds. Here’s why:

  • Most importantly: the content is effective. The idea of using VR to visit the settings suggested by the painting is inspired, and the execution delivers with interesting examples such as the steel penny. 
  • VR complements the in-person experience. Placing the VR stations at the end of the tour means that VR does not compete with the landmark paintings. You first get the measure of Rockwell’s work before experiencing the paintings from a fresh perspective with VR.
  • The low-key experience suits the topic. You explore the paintings at a leisurely pace, befitting the idyllic setting of Rockwell’s paintings. This is no Lone Echo or Star Trek: Bridge Crew, nor should it be. Norman Rockwell’s work evokes a simpler, homespun time, like comfort food. His paintings do not lend themselves to an overwhelming sensory experience. 
  • It does not cost extra. I was more likely to strap on a headset and geek out with VR because I didn’t have to pay more. I’d already paid for the entrance to the exhibit when I bought my ticket for The Henry Ford. 

The experience also underscores the limitations of VR as a technology for mass consumption. At the end of the exhibit, I walked away, probably never to experience Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms: A Virtual Reality Experience again. VR requires repeated use by consumers to take hold. And with the exception of gaming and entertainment, VR lacks the requisite content to justify the expense of buying the equipment and the time required to delve into VR. Put another way: it’s one thing for museum goers to use VR as part of an experience they were going to pay for, anyway, especially when someone else is providing the equipment. But asking them to make an investment into VR for common use in their homes? That’s a totally different story unless they are into gaming. 

But these limitations are only a problem if you expect VR to become a popular everyday consumer experience. VR continues to take hold in industries ranging from education to training (to wit: STRIVR works with businesses such as Walmart to use VR to improve employee performance with training). Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms: A Virtual Reality Experience demonstrates one useful application.