FEATURE: Persona Grata: The Great Alter Egos Behind the Major Artists




Persona Grata


IN THIS IMAGE: David Bowie as Aladdin Sane/PHOTO CREDIT: Brian Duffy

The Great Alter Egos Behind the Major Artists


THERE is a lot of buzz around Madonna right now...

as she is back with new music. Her previous album, Rebel Heart, was out in 2015 and there have been a lot of people waiting for new stuff. Madonna is no stranger when it comes to reinvention and bringing something fresh to the party. Most of these evolutions regard style and genres: occasionally, she has been known to embrace other personalities and roles. In fact, look back at 1992’s Erotica and how we saw a new side of Madonna. At the peak of her career, she could have repeated 1989’s Like a Prayer or made a move back in her career. In a progressive step that was not welcomed by all critics, she adopted the moniker of ‘Mistress Dita’ and assumed a more sexualised and confident look. The idea behind the alter ego was to highlight sexual freedom and confidence. Madonna was not looking to shock and offend people. Instead, we had this rather enigmatic and unusual heroine who, on the surface, was all rubber, scandal and provocativeness but, underneath, there was a deeper meaning and motivation. Madonna had already released a few albums as her and, whilst Erotica was a Madonna record, she used this Mistress Dita as a way of bringing a new character into her world. Now, twenty-seven years after that album, her second fully-fledged alter ego is here: Madame X is an updated and broader representation of Erotica’s muse.

It seems that this new personality is a superhero heroine who is everything and more. There is not a clear backstory yet but, as we have seen with Twitter teases, there is the teacher, the mistress; the lover, the nun and everything else. Some might claim this is a marketing tool and way of keeping her reputation burning but it is another step forward from an artist who has remained essential since the start of her career. Madame X seems to beckon this new era for Madonna; a character that is less alarming and direct than Mistress Dita but, in a way, more inspiring and interesting. When her album, Madame X, arrives in June, we will get all the different sides to this persona. Maybe it is not as affecting when new artists do it but it is great seeing legends embody someone fictional for an album. Madonna is definitely not alone regarding alter egos. I will come to the artists who, I feel, is the finest when it comes to reinventions but look around and you will see some other great examples. There have been some stumbles along the way – anyone recall Garth Brooks’ reinvention as Australian Chris Gaines back in 1999?! – but the more successful personas have definitely captured something. In a world, now, where superhero franchises are huge I do wonder whether big artists could reinvent themselves and produce a character like this; someone who could have their own film and drama.

So much of modern music is about process and the familiar: breaking conventions and the routine to bring a persona can backfire but it also makes for something brave and new. I am writing about Beyoncé later today but, back in 2008 she released I AM… SASHA FIERCE. This album arrived after B’Day (2006) and took a while to resonate. I like what she did but I felt many missed the all-out bangers and the sort of directness we had with previous Beyoncé albums. Sasha Fierce was already familiar as Beyoncé’s on-stage alter ego but there was a dichotomy on the album. The first half, I AM…, was a slower set of songs whilst SASHA FIERCE represented fire and the up-tempo. A lot of the muted response to the album was the difference between the softer numbers on the first half and the more traditional Beyoncé jams on the second. It was, essentially, the alter ego unleashed that was more impactful than the more reflective and heartfelt artist. Beyoncé is a celebrated icon and was a huge artist back in 2008. Bringing that stage persona to an album was a big move and one that, whilst not immune to criticism, inspired many and made a huge impression of her core fanbase – predominately young/teenage girls. Away from strong women like Madonna and Beyoncé, artists such as Eminem have adopted personas. He has been dubbed ‘Slim Shady’ and ‘Eminem’ as well as ‘Marshall Mathers’ – which is his real name.

The Slim Shady alter ego is a ruder, more comical version of Marshall Mathers but, on all occasions, it provided Eminem the chance to embody someone else and allow himself greater license and creative freedom. This article from udiscovermusic looks at some of the best-known and loved alter egos in music. Included are Paul McCartney, Prince and Nicki Minaj:

After making Ram in 1971, Paul McCartney produced a big-band instrumental version of the entire album, which was later released in 1977 under the mysterious moniker of Percy Thrillington. Paul McCartney, along with his wife Linda, invented the fictitious character and even went so far as to take out ads in various UK music papers announcing Thrillington’s activites as well as spinning a detailed backstory for the Percy Thrillington liner notes.

More than a stage name, musicians have been creating multiple identities as part of their performance for centuries. For some, it was only for an album. When The Beatles wanted to retire their mop-top boy band image and be considered serious artists, they created Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. For others it was self-mythologising, with Robert Zimmerman dropping his supposedly unfashionable moniker for the much hipper Bob Dylan, complete with an itinerant troubadour backstory. For others, it was due to industry pressure. When Simon & Garfunkel were told their names were too “ethnic sounding”, they recorded under “Tom And Jerry”, borrowed from the cartoon adversaries. And some are just ill-fated from the start, like Garth Brooks’ fictional rock star persona Chris Gaines. From country to rock, jazz to hip-hop, these personas embody a specific moment in an artist’s development. Here we pick just a handful of the most famous alter egos from the 50s to today.

IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

Prince’s unreleased albums are nearly as famous as the ones he did release, with the only comfort being that some of this shelved material ended up on official albums. Such is the case with Camille, the 1986 unreleased self-titled debut by Prince’s gender-fluid alter ego. While Prince was no stranger to employing his falsetto (or alter egos, for that matter: Jamie Starr, Tora Tora and Alexander Nevermind are just a few others), for Camille, he purposely recorded his vocals at a slower speed and then adjusted them to the higher pitch to achieve a more feminine sounding voice. Most of the Camille tracks later appeared on 1987’s Sign O’ The Times, including ‘Strange Relationship’, ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ and its B-side ‘Shockadelica’.

In the self-serious landscape of hip-hop, Nicki Minaj is a true chameleon, employing various wigs and guises to embody alter egos, each with their own backstory – so much so that there’s an entire wiki page to track them all. The most famous (and Minaj’s personal favourite) is Roman Zolandski, a fast-talking, flamboyant British gay man who courts controversy. After first making an appearance on Trey Songz’s hit ‘Bottoms Up’, he pops up on other Minaj hits, including ‘Roman’s Revenge’, ‘Roman Holiday’ and ‘Roman Reloaded’. His mother, Martha Zolandski, is another one of Minaj’s alter egos, alongside Harajuku Barbie, Female Weezy (Lil Wayne’s female counterpart), Point Dexter and more than 10 others”.

You only need to look through articles like that to discover all the alter egos you have missed through the years. It is interesting when considering The Beatles and their album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Back in 1967, there had been a few alter egos in music but a lot of them had been from psychedelic acts and not many mainstream Pop artists were doing this. The Fab Four were as we knew them but, in trippy clothes and adopting this more militaristic and fantastical identity, they helped craft one of the most influential albums of all time – even if the record itself was not strictly a concept; its opening and closing tracks mention the fictional band but it is not mentioned anywhere else. The Beatles not only inspired other bands to try something different but, with that album, they pushed the studio to the limits and helped take music to a whole new level. This interesting article investigates some of the modern artists who have followed in the footsteps of Madonna, The Beatles and David Bowie:

Coming off of the enormous success of his 2015 sophomore album Beauty Behind the Madness, The Weeknd quickly went to work again on his 2016 follow-up record, Starboy. Inspired by another Bowie character, Starman, The Weeknd killed his old persona (literally in the "Starboy" music video when he suffocates himself with a plastic bag) by cutting off his signature dreadlocks, creating a brand new character: the boastful Starboy.

The Weeknd told Zane Lowe in their Beats 1 interview about Starboy's personality, "He's a more braggadocios character that we all have inside of us

Starboy brags about his expensive cars and sings about girlfriends snorting cocaine off of his ebony wood table. There's always the negative that comes with fame, though, and for a brief moment it seems as if he might regret his decision to become a mega pop star when he sings, "Look what you've done."

As it turns out, the devil really is in rock and roll - and he's flashy. U2 front man Bono took on the devil-meets-glam-rock-star Mr. MacPhisto during the band's ZooTV tour in the early '90s. On the same tour, he also morphed into The Fly (a vinyl-clad stereotypical rock star) and Mirror Ball Man, who author Bill Flanagan describes as an "American TV evangelist/used car salesman/game-show host in a cowboy hat throwing dollars around." Both The Fly and Mirror Ball Man laid the groundwork for MacPhisto. Bono explained in his autobiography, U2 by U2:

"It was time to put the Mirror Ball Man in mothballs. We wanted a more Eurocentric character, more decadent, more old world, rather than the brash Yankee salesman with God on his side. I started to think about what The Fly would be like when he's old and fat and playing Las Vegas. U2 conjured up the Devil!"
Lady Gaga, known for her outlandish fashion statements and over-the-top performances, pushed the envelope even further in 2011 at the MTV Music Awards when she performed in drag as her male alter ego Jo Calderone. Not only did she physically transform herself with a swoop of black hair and sideburns, but she stayed in character, only answering questions backstage as Calderone.


IN THIS PHOTO: Lady Gaga as her male alter ego, Jo Calderone/PHOTO CREDIT: Terry Richardson

"My family's from Palermo, Sicily. And I'm not a singer or a model or actor or anything, I'm just a guy," Jo said.

Gaga originally created the character months earlier on the sly and sneaked him into a men's fashion editorial for Vogue Hommes Japan, leading fans to wonder if this new male model with a rough-around-the-edges style was indeed the female singer”.

It can quite strange for a relatively fresh artist to adopt a persona and some cynics might say it indicates a lack of original thirst. Conversely, artists who create a new moniker are looking to represent themselves in a way not explored before. Maybe being themselves is a bit too straight and they have to be overly-personal. One can allow some fantasy and expansion when you have an alter ego. It can, as said, be difficult getting the balance right and making the venture successful. There have been failures and confusing attempts but, when you hit the right notes, the effects are mesmerising! This article counts looks at the most famous David Bowie alter egos. There are no other artists out there who have enjoyed as many successful and compelling reboots as David Bowie. Even up until his final album, Blackstar (2016), he was trying out new guises and directions. The Independent, in this article, looked at Bowie’s different faces and personalities through the years:

His first and arguably greatest alter ego was born when Bowie broke through into the mainstream with Ziggy Stardust. Face daubed with a lightening bolt and mullet hairstyle dyed crimson red, Ziggy Stardust was a bisexual rock star alien who acted as a messenger for extra-terrestrial beings. Dressed in a multi-coloured Lycra jumpsuit, Bowie’s androgynous, wafer-thin doppelganger came to redefine an entire era of rock’n’roll. Widely considered one of the greatest albums of all time, it went on to sell an estimated 7.5 million copies worldwide

It was Major Tom who first propelled Bowie into the limelight. As the protagonist of ‘Space Oddity’, Major Tom helped establish Bowie as a solo artist to be reckoned with in 1969. A fictional astronaut, Major Tom has cut off all of his communication with planet Earth and floated into space. The character evolves throughout his career, making another appearance in the 1980 song ‘Ashes to Ashes’.

Aladdin Sane was a continuation of Ziggy Stardust. The protagonist of his sixth album, Bowie describes the alter ego as “Ziggy goes to America” because the album was inspired by his 1972 US tour. Later, he also told friends that the character was inspired by his brother Terry who was diagnosed with schitzophrenia. After all, the name is based on the pun ‘A Lad Insane’.

The darkest of all of Bowie’s alter egos, the Thin White Duke coincided with the peak of his cocaine usage. Although, on the surface, the Duke seemed more ordinary than Bowie’s former personas, at a closer look, he exhibited signs of real trauma. Bowie describes the Duke as, “A very Aryan, fascist-type; a would-be romantic with absolutely no emotion at all but who spouted a lot of neo-romance”.

It is heartbreaking that David Bowie is no longer with us because who knows where he could have taken that keen eye for reinvention, persona and the unusual. Who knows, also, how many other artists he inspired to break from the ordinary and step into a new realm? I think Ziggy Stardust is my favourite of his incarnations but I hold a special place for Aladdin Sane and The Thin White Duke. The darker Bowie, at the peak of his cocaine intake, was controversial but I think the most intriguing and complex iterations.

This feature shows that, even as late as 2016 (the year he died), we were seeing David Bowie adopt a new character:

The Blind Prophet After playing many different characters, on his last album, Blackstar (2016), Bowie shows the real him: David Robert Jones. In the videos, his eyes were covered with bandages as his character was a blind prophet foretelling his own demise. The black star on the vinyl cover contains a hidden message, transforming into a galaxy of stars when light shines on the cover. A beautiful goodbye message to his fans, since David Bowie passed away just days after the album's release”.

The death of Bowie, perhaps, took away the godfather of disguise, character and alter egos. He was a master when it came to embodying these marvellous creations but, rather than mourn a trailblazer, it is worthwhile using Bowie as a lead. Modern artists like Nicki Minaj and Eminem have taken their music in new directions but I feel like more can be done. I do feel like we get caught in the rush of promotion, all the new artists and news coming through. I have a lot of respect for artists who do things traditionally and like to walk that path but, for those who try something different, the effects can be incredible. I do not think there is anything calculated and cynical regarding reinvention and adopting a new name/guise. From David Bowie and Beyoncé to Madonna, Eminem and The Weeknd, there have been some cool and out-there alter egos. Against all the routine, predictability and ordinariness of music, having these eye-opening alter egos in the world gives music…

IN THIS PHOTO: Beyoncé as Sasha Fierce/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

A definite spark!