When Musicians Go Rogue: Popular Alter Egos
by Danielle Samaniego
What do you do when you’ve gained enough commercial success musically that you need a break from yourself? Create an alter ego, of course! Some musicians swell with so much creativity that it ends up manifesting itself in another persona altogether. And why not? Musical transformations are usually amusing, and sometimes they’re downright inspired. Sometimes.
David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust
David Bowie is a man of style and experimental rock, but in 1972, he took his persona to a whole new level with his concept album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The album focuses loosely on the story of Ziggy Stardust, an alien sent to present a message of hope to humankind in the last five years of its existence. His own excesses of drugs and sex and his fans eventually destroy him, but the album lives on thanks to classics like the title track and “Suffragette City.”
Marshall Mathers/Eminem/Slim Shady
Eminem, whose real name is Marshall Mathers, wasn’t content with just one rap moniker, so he created Slim Shady. As he once told MTV, “Slim Shady is the guy who is saying the most ridiculous stuff you can think of, stuff you can’t even imagine somebody saying. Then there’s Eminem, who is conscious of the outcome and this is how he really feels.” Slim Shady made his first impression on The Slim Shady LP, Eminem’s 1999 debut album. With hits like “My Name Is” and “’97 Bonnie & Clyde,” the rapper gained insta-success. His follow-up, The Marshall Mathers LP, solidified his fame as Eminem, but Slim Shady lingered in songs like “The Real Slim Shady” and is still referenced by Eminem today.
Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana
The ultimate pop star for the ’tween set, Cyrus would be nothing without Hannah Montana. The Disney show that spawned the Miley juggernaut is all about a fictional character named Miley Stewart who juggles a double life as herself and famous pop star Hannah Montana. As hits like Montana’s “The Best of Both Worlds” crack music charts in real life, the show and music have become a huge properties for Cyrus, who’s parlayed that success into sold-out concerts and movie deals. She’s also recently managed to break into the pop scene using her own name, with songs like “Party in the U.S.A.” and “The Climb,” but she’s likely to remain synonymous with her alter ego for years to come.
Beyoncé Knowles/Sasha Fierce
She could have been posing as Clark Kent and it wouldn’t have mattered, because “Single Ladies” was arguably one of the best songs of the year—at least, Kanye West thought so. For I Am … Sasha Fierce, Knowles released a two-CD album, one featuring the softer side of Beyoncé, the other featuring her more hardcore persona. The album would be solid regardless of the concept, but if Sasha Fierce brings out the hits in Beyoncé, so be it.
Damon Albarn and Friends/The Gorillaz
Damon Albarn, front man for the Brit-pop band Blur, joined forces with comic book artist Jamie Hewlett in 1998 to form an animated rock group known as the Gorillaz. They came up with four key characters: 2D (vocals, keyboard), Murdoc (bass guitar), Noodle (lead guitar and occasional vocals), and Russel (drums and percussion). Two albums later, and with a third slated for release in 2010, the band is responsible for chart toppers like “Feel Good Inc.,” “Dirty Harry,” and “D.A.R.E.” While Albarn is the one constant member in the band, other guest musicians include Dan the Automator and De La Soul.
Garth Brooks/Chris Gaines
This country singer’s attempt to pull off his own “Ziggy Stardust” was ultimately a spectacular misstep, but it’s worth noting for Brooks’s dedication to trying to make Chris Gaines happen. One album, a Saturday Night Live guest spot, and a fake VH1 special could not muster the amount of public excitement Brooks wanted to generate about his alternative-music alter ego, and plans for a motion picture quickly collapsed. Brooks as Gaines did manage, however, to score his only pop chart single, “Lost in You.” And that Saturday Night Live episode (in which Brooks hosted and Gaines sang) remains a favorite.
The Traveling Wilburys
Perhaps influenced by his former band’s attempt, George Harrison took another shot at a band full of fictional characters, this time in the form of a supergroup known as the Traveling Wilburys. Composed of the Wilbury half brothers—Nelson (Harrison), Charlie (Tom Petty), Lefty (Roy Orbison), Lucky (Bob Dylan), and Otis (Jeff Lyne)—the band scored with hits like “Last Night” and “Handle with Care.” The Traveling Wilburys put out only two albums, but with that kind of star wattage, the venture was definitely a winning one.
The Beatles/Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Beatles were a massive success well before they dropped their eighth album, in 1967, but John, Paul, George, and Ringo had grown tired of touring and being in the spotlight. It was Paul McCartney who decided that the best way to avoid the attention was to come up with an alter-ego band known as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Of course, the Beatles being the Beatles, some members (i.e. John Lennon) failed to go along with the full charade, but the Lonely Hearts Club Band’s album is still considered one of the first and greatest concept-album successes.