Today in Tedium: Despite the clearly successful legwork done by figures like Bruce Wayne, Tupac Shakur, Sacha Baron Cohen, David Bowie, Will Oldham, and Eminem, I would like to inform you that not every alter ego is going to be a success. In fact, many alter egos just don’t connect, even though the whole point of having an alter ego is to give yourself a persona to do things that you, yourself would not be able to easily pull off. Call it “The Chris Gaines Rule”: For every successful alter ego that’s out there, there’s at least four or five others that should have have never left the station. Today’s Tedium is going to talk about alter egos good, bad, and ugly—including, but not limited to, Chris Gaines. — Ernie @ Tedium
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“When I was a postdoc, we had a little saying in our lab that if you’re an undergrad, pretend to be a grad student. If you are a grad student, pretend to be a postdoc, and if you’re a postdoc, pretend to be the leader of the lab—just to get you to that next level.”
— Rachel White, assistant professor of psychology at New York’s Hamilton College, explaining why people tend to embrace alter-egos as a way to break though to the next level. White, speaking to the BBC, said that the psychological crutch, famously used by Beyoncé and David Bowie among others, was a great way to help navigate situations where a high level of self control is paramount. This concept, I kid you not, is called the “Batman Effect,” and is the subject of a paper that White co-wrote in 2017.
The alter ego term dates to the Roman Empire, but it found its true calling in comic books and in concert
The Roman philosopher Cicero played a key role in shaping the Roman culture in general, particularly the Latin language, of which he is responsible for a decent chunk of, especially as reflected in the writings within his own lifetime. He wrote so much stuff that he has an outsized influence on the Latin language.
And Cicero arguably gave us the concept of the alter ego, the idea of the counterpart the friend that looks after us in times good and bad. Cicero meant it to describe an actual friend, however, rather than someone an internal counterpart. Cicero’s alter ego, if you asked him, was his childhood friend Atticus, and the spirit through which the term is meant shines through in this passage from Letters to Atticus (translated from Latin into English by someone other than me):
You must forgive me here. I am reproaching myself far more than you, and if I do reproach you it is as my alter ego; also I am looking for someone to share the blame. If I am restored, my fault will come to seem less grave, and you at any rate will care for me, for the sake of what you have done for me since I have done nothing for you.
It took a while, until about the 18th century, for the concept to reach its modern form, with the concept passing through medicine and psychology before it found its true calling within the arts.
The alter ego, of course, is a useful tool in basically any creative medium. It allows us some Jekyll/Hyde separation between our methodical moments and when we want it all to hang out. It’s why Clark Kent never gets blamed when Superman fails to save Metropolis, even though he was technically there.
Following through on that point a little further, in many ways, super heroes are the perfect personification of the alter ego we all want to be. (Beyond, y’know, the Marvel character Alter Ego, which is more of a “living planet.”) They’re the people who no longer have the limitations of the universe on their back.
If there’s one type of person who will do a good job embodying an alter ego, odds are it will be a musician. And if there’s one musician who exemplifies the power of a good alter ego, it is most assuredly Beyoncé, who leveraged the power of Sasha Fierce, the aggressive stage persona she concocted in the mid 2000s to help her get past the stage fright she sometimes felt having to be Beyoncé on a 24/7 basis. She was a dominant part of her personality—Sasha Fierce once nearly upstaged prince—but as soon as she felt that her confidence had transcended this tool she created for herself, she ditched it, but not before creating an album around it that not everyone felt really sold the idea all that well. In a way it didn’t matter if it worked for the audience, because it worked for Beyoncé, and that ultimately benefited the audience.
The concept was nonetheless so influential that it directly inspired another pop star, Adele, to do pretty much the same thing, creating Sasha Carter—a mix of Sasha Fierce and June Carter—to get through her own experience of larger-than-life pop stardom. Say what you will about ripping off another pop star’s idea, but it obviously worked, as Adele sold a lot of copies of 21 around the time of this revelation.
Sometimes, a good alter ego offers some effective artistic distance from the work. Will Oldham, perhaps the most notable example of a musician who uses an alter ego in this way, told DCist in 2011:
I’ve never been able to have perspective on my birth self, this Kentuckian that is the son of my parents and the brother of my brothers, or a guy with a Social Security number. I still have no idea who that person is, but I don’t want to be singing from a stance of ignorance. I want to be singing from some sort of confidence, or some direction and I can do that by inhabiting the identity of the pseudonym. It’s the created structure, character, being, similar to Marilyn Monroe saying, “This is the person that everybody is looking at in a photograph or a movie, and this is the identity I’m developing, in conjunction with the points of view of the audience.”
Oldham, who spent years messing around with different personas before landing on the excellent Bonnie “Prince” Billy, says that this gives him the ability to look into the persona, just like the audience.
“You can create an identity that everyone is looking at, from one angle or another, but that everybody is looking at,” he said.
If you think about it, Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Superman are more alike than different.
The amount the record industry planned to pay to fund the first public performances of Jobriath, a heavily hyped glam rock musician who was sold to the public as music’s first openly gay rock musician. (The show, at the Paris Opera, did not go on because of the high costs.) Jobriath, the alter ego of Bruce Wayne Campbell, flopped hard with audiences partly because of overhype and partly because of attitudes of the era, attitudes that would eventually warm to his work in later decades. (A 2021 New York Times piece recalling Jobriath’s legacy noted that glam music was gay-friendly during the time, a reputation that faded after the failure of his two albums.) Campbell, an early victim of the AIDS virus who died in 1983, had at least gotten past the failure and found a new life direction in his final years. He said in a 1979 interview that the alter-ego he created “committed suicide in a drug, alcohol and publicity overdose.”
Five examples of musical alter-egos that don’t really hit the mark—and why
Look, alter egos are hard to pull off, and many of the best require an ability to separate the artist from the act.
But some musicians are clearly more effective at them than others, and some simply just don’t make sense for the audience.
We know the obvious good ones—depending on your tastes, Ziggy Stardust or Hannah Montana might fit the bill on that front—but let’s talk about five that just disappoint the artist, the audience, or both:
5. Shawty Mane, Justin Bieber’s occasional hip-hop persona
What he was trying to do: Build a way to let off steam by stretching beyond the confines of teen pop
Why it didn’t work: He didn’t take it seriously enough
Look, if I was Justin Bieber and I had been so musically typecast as someone who was cute and could sing, I think I would also try to release a harder-edged version of my music just to prove I have skills other than singing.
Hence the creation of the alter-ego Shawty Mane, which honestly didn’t really fool anyone, but was not necessarily a one-and-done kind of endeavor, but the persona Bieber pulls out whenever he wants to rap. Slim Shady he was not.
Bieber, at least, knew his place. “I just do it for fun, but nothing serious. I don’t think people would take me seriously if I came out with, like, a rap album,” he said in 2011.
4. Percy Thrillington, Paul McCartney’s attempt to distance himself from being Paul McCartney
What he was trying to do: Have fun releasing music outside of the confines of The Beatles or Wings
Why it didn’t work: Too obviously Paul McCartney
In the 1980s, it became known that mega-author Stephen King had for years been quietly publishing books under a pen name, Richard Bachman, with the goal of working around contractual limitations that limited the amount of work he could release in a year. It worked really well as an alter ego, and he was only caught because he produced a work, Thinner, which felt so much like a King novel that a perceptive reader had figured out it was him.
McCartney didn’t have that problem with Thrillington, a project that involved the release of an instrumental version of Ram, an album I will totally go to the mat for as being one of McCartney’s best records. The reason for this is that the persona he chose—an unusual, clearly fake identity that was promoted in British music magazines—was so clearly just McCartney screwing around that reviewers suggested that’s the only reason a project like this even saw release.
They, of course, were right. McCartney tried doing something similar about 15 years later with an electronic project called The Fireman, only for McCartney’s involvement to get leaked to the press ahead of time—which is too bad, because the band, a duo with the prominent British music producer Youth, was a much better alter ego.
3. Buster Poindexter, the ’80s novelty persona of New York Dolls singer David Johansen
What he was trying to do: Perform an against-the-stream reaction to hair metal that highlighted his interest in lounge and blues music
Why it didn’t work: Honestly, it might have worked too well—it turned Johansen into a novelty act
If Johansen’s goal was to get consistent work as an actor and performer, embracing lounge styling and putting on the Buster Poindexter getup worked pretty effectively on that front. He spent time in the Saturday Night Live house band, and he got a lot of acting work around the time he introduced his lounge persona, most famously in Scrooged.
The problem was, one could argue, that it took something away from his earlier work with the New York Dolls, despite the fact that he was clearly quite good at the lounge getup—so good, in fact, that he didn’t even need a supporting swing revival trend to make “Hot Hot Hot” a mainstream hit. It was novelty, and it clearly did not match his original fan base.
Johansen, for his part, never hid that he was a New York Doll trying on a different getup—the video for “Hot Hot Hot,” above, actually pointed it out. “You know, these heavy metal bands in L.A. don’t have the market cornered on wearing their mother’s clothes,” he said.
2. Lola, Jennifer Lopez’s attempt at some Sasha Fierce energy
What she was trying to do: Create a fresh persona, just like every other female pop singer in the 2000s
Why it didn’t work: Clear attempt at trendjacking, label meddling
From Xtina to Damita Jo to Sasha Fierce, it was hard to be a major pop star in the 2000s without a secondary persona. But Jennifer Lopez, who closed out the decade with a little less momentum than she started it, didn’t have one of those … until, back in 2009, a label exec had a bright idea.
As Daily Beast entertainment critic Coleman Spilde wrote in a 2021 issue of his newsletter Top Shelf, Low Brow, the persona had been pushed by Amanda Ghost, a songwriter who cowrote James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful” and briefly ran Lopez’s label at the time, Epic Records.
With her last album failing to score a big hit, she was convinced to record one of Ghost’s songs, “Fresh Out the Oven,” under a new persona, complete with viral campaign, in an attempt to reignite her recording career. It didn’t work, failing to chart outside of the Hot Dance Tracks charts, and honestly the video feels like it has some Chris Gaines energy, except with more Pitbull.
Lopez left Epic the next year, leaving “Fresh Out the Oven,” Lola, and Ghost, at her old label—and off the track list to her next record.
1. Chris Gaines, Garth Brooks’ pop-star persona
What he was trying to do: Create a context for his pop-music interests to live outside of his country superstardom
Why it didn’t work: Jobriath-level hype, mixed with an out-of-nowhere approach
Look, Chris Gaines at this point is a punching bag, the perfect example of something that attempts to open a new stage of a career but instead became synonymous with the phrase “midlife crisis.”
I do not doubt that Brooks, who had conquered basically every single hurdle that country music can throw in front of a performer during a jaw-droppingly consistent eight-year run of successful albums and hits, wanted a new challenge. Brooks’ great gimmick is that he allowed his work in country to be influenced by pop and classic rock when that was still a novel idea, but when separated out from that country star persona, as Chris Gaines just didn’t feel very bold or exciting. If Brooks’ idea of a hip rock star looked more like The Strokes and less like a soap opera cast-off, maybe it would have worked, but no. Just no.
While not too much of a big-budget overextension of the Brooks brand, it had a lot in common with the Jobriath oversell, which also played on a degree of mystery and hype to sell the full package. Brooks meant well, but it just didn’t work. Hey, at least Garth Brooks’ version of a midlife crisis wasn’t a bed that looks like a race car.
During the early days of the internet, it was possible to wear alter-egos like a glove. You could build personas for yourself in one place, then disappear and go somewhere else for a while. I like to think of these as phases, but really, they work a lot like alter egos that you build a persona against.
I associate this with the late ’90s and early 2000s (the pre-social era essentially), but it never actually went away. Case in point: Recently, there was a story that went viral about a self-published romance novelist who faked her own death—then, in a twist worthy of a self-published romance novel, returned to the internet alive and well.
In many ways, Susan Meachen became her own alter ego by doing this. She had to pretend that she was dead for years, utilize the way that this shifted the audience around her work, pretend to be family members who were managing the page, and then figure out a time to do a big reveal.
Being dead on the internet while you’re still alive sounds exhausting. But alter egos are great opportunities to take the pressure off if necessary.
I think about what Paul McCartney did with Percy Thrillington as a great example. It is not hard to imagine Paul having a Bandcamp page out there right now under a super-obscure and generic name where he’s having the time of his life without anyone knowing the wiser. He couldn’t do that in the ’70s without some critic easily figuring it out. He can do that now.
That’s one of the greatest things about the internet. Anyone can have an alter ego.
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