- Exploring the Funkadelic Aesthetic: Intertextuality and Cosmic Philosophizing in Funkadelic’s Album Covers and Liner Notes
Much has been written about the power of Parliament-Funkadelic’s music and stage shows,1 two undeniably essential elements of the overall P-Funk package, but far less has been said about the significance of the album covers and liner notes in transmitting the group’s philosophy of the funk,2 an elaborate mythology that helped the band gain worldwide recognition and an almost cult-like following of Funkateers.3 The liner notes and cover art of the Funkadelic albums of the 1970s and early 1980s provide a window into the society and culture of that transformative era and a better understanding of how P-Funk as a collective produced a counterhegemonic aesthetic and philosophy that offered not only biting critiques of politics, society, and the record industry but also space to explore other controversial and complex elements of life, such as sex, religion, emotions, and the meaning of life.4 In particular, I elucidate the influence of one of the most significant P-Funk artists and writers—Pedro Bell—and consider the relationships among writing, visual art, music, and performance as well as the significance of intertextuality5—the way in which P-Funk’s various texts relate or speak to one another to provide greater coherence and meaning. The characters who collectively exist as the “Parliafunkadelicment Thang” speak to one another through their music, stage shows, cover artwork, and liner notes, forming interconnected cultural productions in various mediums to produce a coherent worldview. By exploring the album covers as texts worthy to be analyzed as one would fine art, literature, or media, and as historical artifacts [End Page 141] that tell us about the time and place in which they appeared (or were imagined), I hope to demonstrate how P-Funk, and Bell specifically, successfully used both humor and myth to create a carnivalesque image and cosmological philosophy that helped elevate the group from an obscure funk band to mass popularity and legendary influence by transforming an explicitly black working-class style into an universal “Funkadelic aesthetic.”6 In addition, I explore the complicated nature of the band as a collective of artists and their varied experiences in the music industry; the members have experienced both the extreme lows of poverty and the highs of international success at different stages throughout their careers.
Why Album Covers?
Parliament-Funkadelic’s album covers and liner notes deserve attention not only because they consist of amazing cosmic, comic artwork and creative philosophical liner notes that bend the English language in new and weird ways that helped the band reach a mass audience but also because at the time, album covers were an essential form of communication between musicians and their listeners. As visual artist and Funkateer Tym Stevens, explains: “In 1973, there was no MTV, no internet, no VCRs, no marketing strobe in all media. An act toured, they put out an album once a year, and they were lucky to get a TV appearance lip-synching a hit. . . . As a fan, almost your whole involvement with the band came through the album cover.”7 There was a brief window in the l960s and early 1970s when the album reigned supreme—between the era of the 45s, with their plain, white covers, and the advent first of the eight-track tape and later the compact cassette tape, neither of which left room for expression. The introduction of compact disc sleeves provided plenty of space, but in a miniature and therefore somewhat less engaging format than an album cover. In addition, the advent of gatefold record sleeves, which appeared in the mid-1960s, allowed more space to connect images and words with the music inside the package. Stevens recounts the power of the gatefold: “It was big . . . there were inserts and photos and posters. Sitting with your big ol’ headphones, you shut off the world and stared at every detail of the album art like they were paths to the other side, to the Escape.”8 In addition to providing a passage “to the other side,” Stevens remarks on how the...