A Brief History Of Music's Alter Egos

David Bowie as Thin White Duke i i

David Bowie as Thin White Duke, one of his many characters. Michael Putland/Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Putland/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
David Bowie as Thin White Duke

David Bowie as Thin White Duke, one of his many characters.

Michael Putland/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Last week, Zoe Chace explored the personas embodied by women pop stars performing today, from Beyonce's Sasha Fierce to Nicki Minaj's Harajuku Barbie. Some of you noted that this wasn't a new trend — artists have been constructing multiple identities for centuries. Fair enough. (Although I would argue that exploring any artistic expression against the current cultural backdrop is a worthy exercise.)

But you got us thinking.  What are some of the standout and surprising musician alter egos over time?

To be clear, we're not addressing over-the-top personalities like Sun Ra, who really was from Saturn, offstage and on, or the shifting appearances of Madonna, who changes her look and accent, but remains Madonna (don't even call her Madge) to the core. These are personas developed for creative, calculated or crazy reasons to facilitate a unique performance or alternate expression.

Share your favorite alter egos in the comments below.

  • Nineteenth-century composer Robert Schumann was well aware that his personality had manic tendencies. According to Fred Child, "In [Schumann's] early 20s, he created two characters for his inner dialogue: Florestan was impassioned, rebellious, fiery and wildly energetic; and Eusebius was orderly, quiet, reflective and introspective. Schumann often wrote about how these two characters inspired d...
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    Nineteenth-century composer Robert Schumann was well aware that his personality had manic tendencies. According to Fred Child, "In [Schumann's] early 20s, he created two characters for his inner dialogue: Florestan was impassioned, rebellious, fiery and wildly energetic; and Eusebius was orderly, quiet, reflective and introspective. Schumann often wrote about how these two characters inspired different moments in his music."
    Getty Images
  • In 1950, Hank Williams began recording as Luke the Drifter, a moral character who sang about the gospel and good deeds. This allowed Hank Williams to go about his business singing songs about drinking, cheating and chasing women.
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    In 1950, Hank Williams began recording as Luke the Drifter, a moral character who sang about the gospel and good deeds. This allowed Hank Williams to go about his business singing songs about drinking, cheating and chasing women.
    courtesy of the artist
  • For jazz musicians, 20th-century record contracts often buried exclusivity clauses in the fine print. If a musician wanted to take a job elsewhere, he or she had to record under a pseudonym. In 1957, an alto saxophone player named Buckshot La Funke appeared on a recording released by Blue Note, but it had the unmistakable bounce of Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, who was signed to Mercury Records...
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    For jazz musicians, 20th-century record contracts often buried exclusivity clauses in the fine print. If a musician wanted to take a job elsewhere, he or she had to record under a pseudonym. In 1957, an alto saxophone player named Buckshot La Funke appeared on a recording released by Blue Note, but it had the unmistakable bounce of Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, who was signed to Mercury Records at the time. The name went on to inspire another alter-ego project: Branford Marsalis' hip-hop jazz group Buckshot LeFonque.
    Expess/Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
  • The biggest band on the planet got away with producing an experimental concept album by performing as a newly hirsute, military-costumed band. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band only elevated the status of The Beatles.
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    The biggest band on the planet got away with producing an experimental concept album by performing as a newly hirsute, military-costumed band. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band only elevated the status of The Beatles.
  • David Bowie is known for many outlandish alter egos in his early career.  But Thin White Duke, his 1976 character associated with Station to Station, was surprising for what it wasn't. Thin White Duke's style was much more subdued, with a classic tailored white shirt and waistcoat.  Although the character looked more normal, his erratic behavior and hollow songs still caused a stir. (Mic...
    Hide caption
    David Bowie is known for many outlandish alter egos in his early career. But Thin White Duke, his 1976 character associated with Station to Station, was surprising for what it wasn't. Thin White Duke's style was much more subdued, with a classic tailored white shirt and waistcoat. Although the character looked more normal, his erratic behavior and hollow songs still caused a stir.
    Michael Putland/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
  • Her foray into jazz received some critical acclaim, but Joni Mitchell's notions of "natural" blackness raised eyebrows, particularly when she appeared on the cover of Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (1977) as Art Nouveau, her African-American alter-ego, complete with blackface and an Afro.
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    Her foray into jazz received some critical acclaim, but Joni Mitchell's notions of "natural" blackness raised eyebrows, particularly when she appeared on the cover of Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (1977) as Art Nouveau, her African-American alter-ego, complete with blackface and an Afro.
  • In the '80s, Prince introduced Camille, a sexy female counterpart that he created by speeding up his voice on tape.  Recordings by the studio-processed alter ego exist, but Camille's album was never officially released.
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    In the '80s, Prince introduced Camille, a sexy female counterpart that he created by speeding up his voice on tape. Recordings by the studio-processed alter ego exist, but Camille's album was never officially released.
    Frank Micelotta/Getty Images
  • Distinguished by a mini-goatee, mascara and an over-styled goth-black wig, Chris Gaines was a late-1990s alternative rocker embodied by country superstar Garth Brooks. It is the only alter ego so far to have its own episode of VH1's Behind the Music.
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    Distinguished by a mini-goatee, mascara and an over-styled goth-black wig, Chris Gaines was a late-1990s alternative rocker embodied by country superstar Garth Brooks. It is the only alter ego so far to have its own episode of VH1's Behind the Music.
  • Lady Saw is the most famous woman in dancehall reggae. Her sexually charged, energetic songs are matched by risque performances. But every now and then, she'll perform a ballad or gospel tune and announce beforehand that she is performing the song as Marion Hall (her real name).
    Hide caption
    Lady Saw is the most famous woman in dancehall reggae. Her sexually charged, energetic songs are matched by risque performances. But every now and then, she'll perform a ballad or gospel tune and announce beforehand that she is performing the song as Marion Hall (her real name).
    Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images
  • Eminem claims that Slim Shady exists to say the things that Eminem can't. In the late '90s, the public didn't really buy the distinction and the rapper became the subject of much controversy and debate about censorship in music.
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    Eminem claims that Slim Shady exists to say the things that Eminem can't. In the late '90s, the public didn't really buy the distinction and the rapper became the subject of much controversy and debate about censorship in music.
    Sal Idriss/Redferns
  • Miley Cyrus introduces a meta alter ego for a new generation. She plays a character named Miley Stewart, who performs as pop singer Hannah Montana. Real-life Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana go on tour together. Then there's a movie in which fake Miley Cyrus stops playing Hannah Montana. Real life Miley Cyrus is free to perform as a risque pop star.
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    Miley Cyrus introduces a meta alter ego for a new generation. She plays a character named Miley Stewart, who performs as pop singer Hannah Montana. Real-life Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana go on tour together. Then there's a movie in which fake Miley Cyrus stops playing Hannah Montana. Real life Miley Cyrus is free to perform as a risque pop star.
    courtesy of the artist

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