What is “real,” ultimately, when it comes to entertainment? In an essay titled “The Passion of the Garth” from his latest book, Eating the Dinosaur, Chuck Klosterman writes that “The most telling moment for any celebrity is when he or she attempts to be inauthentic on purpose, and particularly when that attempt fails.” In tribute to that uniquely Klostermanian line of thinking, here are but 10 of music history’s notable alter egos:
Name: David Bowie
Alter Ego: Ziggy Stardust
Successful? Absolutely. Although Bowie has recreated himself in myriad ways over his lengthy career, his Ziggy Stardust persona has a song, album and D.A. Pennebaker-directed concert film that all bear his name. The album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, is consistently named in lists as one of the most important rock ‘n’ roll albums of all time.
Why?: Hard to say, outside of general artistic experimentation. Then again, when you’re writing “a loose concept album about an androgynous alien rock star” (All Music Guide), do you really need a reason?
Power Song: “Ziggy Stardust,” from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Name: Hannah Montana
Alter Ego: Miley Cyrus
Successful? Yes. Both of Cyrus full-length albums have gone platinum or better and the Hannah Montana show has won several awards across three seasons (a fourth and final season is on the way). A movie based off the show was also released in 2009.
But isn’t Montana the alter ego of Cyrus? Good question, but no. Indeed, conventional wisdom would indicate that Hannah Montana, a fictional character, is the alter ego of Miley Cyrus, a real person. However! Since Montana was the first of the pair to be introduced to the public, and because Cyrus’ debut album, Meet Miley Cyrus, was actually packaged as the second disc of the soundtrack to the second season of the Hannah Montana series, Cyrus is, in this case, the alter ego.
Why? When you play a girl in a television show who leads a double life, it makes sense to actually be a girl who lives a double life. Maybe. And besides, if Hannah Montana didn’t launch the recording career of Miley Cyrus, we wouldn’t have “Party in the U.S.A.” Speaking of which…
Power Song: “Party in the U.S.A.,” from The Time of Our Lives EP
Name: RZA (Born: Robert Fitzgerald Diggs)
Alter Ego: Bobby Digital
Successful? Mostly. Although RZA’s three albums—two of which have gone gold—of Bobby Digital output don’t live up to some of his other work, that’s only because RZA’s “other work” is creating soundtracks for movies like Ghost Dog and both Kill Bill movies, producing Raekwon’s best material and a little-known rap group called the Wu-Tang Clan.
Why? From The Onion A.V. Club: “It came from a really good bag of weed one day, right? I was in my studio. My birth name is Bobby Diggs. So at the time, creatively, I felt like I was in a digital frame. I felt like I was in high-speed, where everything was digital, in numbers, mathematics. I said to myself at the same time that as Bobby Digital, I could use a character to describe some of the earlier days of my own life. Partying, bullshitting, going crazy, chasing women, taking drugs. At the same time, I would mix in my love for comic books. It was a mixture of fiction and reality together to make a character I thought would be entertaining, and I could utilize that character to get fans into me as an MC, as a lyricist, and also following the path of my life. It’s like pre-RZA. It’s what The RZA struggles not to be, in a way, you know what I mean?”
Power Song: “B.O.B.B.Y.,” from Bobby Digital in Stereo
Name: Hank Williams
Alter Ego: Luke the Drifter
Successful? Yes and no. Luke the Drifter as persona no doubt relieved a certain guilt for his creator, but the somber songs performed by Luke were not the kind that made Williams the biggest country star in the world at the time. While Luke the Drifter was likely considered a success (or at least an outlet) by Williams himself, he was no star in 1950.
Why? From PoetsPath.com: “Early in his career, he developed the habit of singing preaching type songs under the name of “Luke the Drifter,” a nom de plume for an idealized character who went across the country preaching the gospel, and doing good deeds while Hank Williams, the drunkard, cheated on women, and was cheated on by them in return.”
Power Song: “Be Careful of Stones That You Throw”
Name: DOOM (Formerly: MF Doom; Born: Daniel Dumile)
Alter Ego: Viktor Vaughn/King Geedorah
Successful? Yes, if only by adding to DOOM’s mystique. Remember, this is a guy who makes heads spin with his various projects. If he’s not blowing minds with Madvillain (with Madlib), being goofy with Danger Doom (with Danger Mouse), or releasing instrumental tracks under his Metal Fingers moniker, he’s recording under any other number of aliases, most recently changing his regular stage name from “MF Doom” to simply “DOOM.”
Why? Why not? After all, this is a guy who reportedly sends impostors out to play his shows. He clearly likes messing with people. In a press statement, here’s how Dumile explained the King Geedorah project: “The whole album is Geedorah’s alien perspective on humans. Geedorah is a space monster. He’s not from the Earth. I made it different on purpose. A blend of ill lyrics and instrumentals. To me its way iller than any of the wack shit out now. This is done intentionally to show the listener a mirror image of his/herself and the way we see each other.”
Power Song: “Anti-Matter (ft. Mr. Fantastik),” from King Geedorah’s Take Me to Your Leader
Name: David Johansen
Alter Ego: Buster Poindexter
Successful? Quite. Poindexter’s cover of Carribean artist Arrow’s song “Hot Hot Hot” was a radio and television hit, eventually prompting Johansen to call it “the bane of [his] existence” in an interview with NPR.
Why? A change of pace, apparently. From the introduction of the “Hot Hot Hot” video: “Now I’m into this really refined and dignified kind of a situation. I’m playing music that’s so soft and sweet. I mean, you could sit by the fire place and listen to it. You could have a little glass of wine, maybe. You could even have dinner with this music.”
Power Song: “Hot Hot Hot,” from Buster Poindexter
Name: Garth Brooks
Alter Ego: Chris Gaines
Successful? By today’s standards, yes. Gaines’ debut (and only) album sold two million copies and earned Brooks his only Billboard Top 40 hit with “Lost in You,” which reached the #5 spot on the chart. But as far as Brooks was concerned, no. He quickly abandoned the project, never to return to it again.
Why? From the All Music Guide: “In the spring of 1998, Brooks unsuccessfully tried out for the San Diego Padres pro baseball team, a major indication of his growing desire to expand his success beyond country music. Once it became clear that professional baseball wasn’t in his future, he became fascinated with film, specifically starring in The Lamb, a supposed thriller about a conflicted, tortured rock star called Chris Gaines. He was determined to win the role, and he did after extensive lobbying. Sometime in the spring of 1999, the film was given the green light with Babyface as a producer and Brooks as the star. During pre-production, Brooks decided the best way to prep for the role was to become Chris Gaines. He invented a brooding, leather-clad image and filled in holes in Gaines’ back story by inventing biographies and a musical history. The most important piece in the puzzle was a collection of Gaines’ ‘greatest hits,’ since it would prime audiences for the big-budget spectacular of The Lamb, scheduled for late 2000. So, Brooks jumped the gun, recording a set of 13 songs—as Chris Gaines—that would fill in the fictional singer’s history.” Insane!
Power Song: “Lost in You,” from In the Life of Chris Gaines, but since that song is criminally absent from the internet, “Right Now” will have to do.
Alter Ego: Sasha Fierce
Successful? Hugely, though it’s arguable that, aside from the fact that the ostensible purpose of half of her 2008 album, I Am… Sasha Fierce, was intended to “introduce” Beyoncé’s alter ego, Sasha is really just Beyoncé.
Why? From People: “Sasha Fierce is the singer’s sensual, aggressive alter ego, but don’t expect her to surface anywhere but the stage. ‘Sasha Fierce was born when I did ‘Crazy in Love.’ People, when they meet me, expect that all the time, but that person is strictly for the stage.’”
Power Song: “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” from I Am… Sasha Fierce
Name: Ringo Starr
Alter Ego: Billy Shears
Successful? This is another tricky one. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the iconic album from which Starr got this (admittedly, short-lived) alter ego, is a classic record, hands down. But in terms of this being a successful alter ego, well, it’s just not. Shears basically just exists for one song, though his name has made occasional pop-culture appearances over the years.
Why? See above w/r/t the classic/iconic rock ‘n’ roll record.
Power Song: “With a Little Help From My Friends,” from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Name: T.I. (Born: Clifford Joseph Harris, Jr.)
Alter Ego: T.I.P.
Successful? Not really. Although T.I. vs. T.I.P. did fine sales-wise moving more than one and a half million units, reviews were mixed and it simply couldn’t stand up to the worldwide success of its predecessor, King.
Why? From MTV: “Sometimes people might see me act a certain way one time and another way one another time. They might not believe the same cat you see dressed so sharp and winning awards and speaking eloquently is the same cat you see fist-fighting with hoodlums outside a nightclub. This album will be an explanation of all of this.”
Power Song: “You Know What It Is (ft. Wyclef Jean),” from T.I. vs. T.I.P.