The Thinking Man's Take On: Alter Egos

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It’s time to talk about a growing trend in pop music that is often confusing, sometimes disturbing, and often remarkably effective.No, I’m not talking about Autotune (although that time will come) – I’m talking about musical artists adopting multiple personalities.

To be clear, I’m not talking Puff Daddy/Puffy/P.Diddy/Diddy multiple personalities.Not Prince, The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, or The Artist Formerly Known As The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, either.I’m talking Eminem/Slim Shady multiple personalities. T.I./T.I.P. multiple personalities.Cookie Monster/Veggie Monster multiple personalities. More and more, in contemporary music, artists already performing under nom-de-records are choosing new names for new music.Why?And why does something that seems so wrong feel so right?

I sat down to write about why I don’t like it when artists use two or more identities to compose songs, and I hit a road block.I couldn’t think of good reasons.I couldn’t even think of good examples.And that’s when it hit me – that same queasy feeling as when I realized I might actually like cats – I like it when artists take on alter egos.

Popular music has always had a bit of a flirtation with pseudonyms – bands like Four Tet, Bright Eyes, and The Streets are actually comprised of a single member, for example.But in the Eminem era of music (post-’99) it’s become more popular for the same person to play different characters within a single LP, in an Eddie Murphyan experiment.(NOTE:Before everyone jumps down my throat, I should clarify that Eminem did not in any way start this trend – The Beatles became Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967, and they probably weren’t the first to do it).

Now, more and more artists are shedding their stage names for new stage names – Of Montreal’s lead singer became Georgie Fruit on their most recent Skeletal Lamping, Beyonce unveiled Sasha Fierce, and Outkast’s Big Boi plans to release an album under the name of Sir Luscious Leftfoot, to name a few.Why?

Wikipedia, source of all knowledge, defines Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) as “a condition in which a single person displays multiple distinct identitiesor personalities(known as alter egos or alters), each with its own pattern of perceiving and interacting with the environment.”Not to belittle anyone actually suffering from DID, but it seems like the right lens through which to look at this phenomena.

The rub lies in the distinct “pattern[s] of perceiving and interacting with the environment,” as well as the pride and ego of the performers themselves.The construction of new and different identities allows performers to step outside themselves, or more importantly, outside of the musical constraints set by the expectations of their fans, to experiment and test the boundaries.With Eminem taking a backseat, Slim Shady was free to roam across albums wreaking havoc and offending people everywhere.Sasha Fierce allowed Beyonce to be sexual and loud, while reserving her “I Am” side for, as she remarked to Billboard, “more traditional R&Bsongs for my fans who've been there the whole time”.Georgie Fruit allowed Kevin Barnes to get in touch with his bizarre side as a middle-aged black transgendered man.And so on and so forth.

The breaks from the norm, flirtations with new genres, styles, lyrics and themes are critical to the growth of popular music, and often produce tracks that wouldn’t show up otherwise.Cuts that might be too edgy for Beyonce are perfect for Sasha.Prince can gender bend as Camille without people questioning his motives.RZA can embrace new production styles as Bobby Digital.By jumping into new characters, musical actors break their patterns of interacting with the sonic environment around them, avoiding stagnation and surprising fans.The “this album sounds just like the last one” doldrums are nowhere to be found, replaced by analysis of new styles and whether the growth represents improvement or not.

Sure, these experiments don’t always end well.When Garth Brooks tried taking a turn as Chris Gaines, he was largely shot down and “Garth Brooks in…The Life of Chris Gaines” (look familiar?) is to date his worst selling album.Georgie Fruit has drawn backlash from Of Montreal fans as taking over Of Montreal and subverting it rather than helping it grow. T.I.’s T.I./T.I.P. double disc was a bloated flop that suffered from a glut of material.

But other times, it makes magic, allowing artists to step outside the lines, experiment without large repercussions, and occasionally strike gold.David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Saul William’s resulting Niggy Tardust homage are both amazing constructions that don’t cease to amaze.Eminem’s Slim Shady and Stan twisted some of Marshall Mathers’ best horrorcore raps.Tupac turned some heads as Makaveli.Maybe.

There has been a lot of criticism of Beyonce, the latest and biggest star to embrace this trend.She’s a successful pop star who shouldn’t need to mess around with stage names and new personas, critics say.But you might also notice that the alter egos seem to follow critical and commercial success.Until making it big, artists feel free to change and grow and experiment without fear of repercussions.Once popular, the need to create a front is seen, bringing the blame back to the fans.It’s our own fault that artists hide behind alter egos, intimidated by the prospects of putting themselves on the line with a risky song or album.

We make artists escape to experiment, and we’re damn lucky that they continue to do so.

Alter Egos in Action
Beyonce: If I Were A Boy ("If I Were A Boy...")
vs
Sasha Fierce: Diva ("I'm-a Diva")

Eminem: The Way I Am ("I am what ever you say I am")
vs
Slim Shady: My Name Is ("Hi! My Name Is... Slim Shady")

Chris Barth is a guest-blogger here at Pretty Much Amazing.  You can read his daily entries at his blog, The Stu Reid Experiment.