Pop Personae: Why Do Some Women Perform In Character? : The Record Female performers like Beyonce create alter egos to reach out beyond themselves and to their fans.
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Pop Personae: Why Do Some Women Perform In Character?

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Pop Personae: Why Do Some Women Perform In Character?

Pop Personae: Why Do Some Women Perform In Character?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/129134759/129146332" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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There are a lot of women on the pop charts right now with big, outsized personas. They're so big that it took two series to bring us our next story: "The Kitchen Sisters' Hidden World of Girls" and NPR Music's "Hey Ladies! Women in Music 2010." NPR's Zoe Chace explores why female pop stars are creating these alter egos, and why their young fans love them so much.

ZOE CHACE: There are some pop stars right now who look a lot like drag queens.

(Soundbite of song)

LADY GAGA (Singer): (Singing) I want your love, and I want your revenge. You and me could write a bad romance...

(Soundbite of song)

NICKI MINAJ (Rapper): (Rapping) Its going down, basement, "Friday the 13th," guess whos playing Jason...

(Soundbite of song)

BEYONCE (Singer): (Singer) Oh, oh, oh, oh...

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. KATY PERRY (Singer): (Singing) California girls, we're undeniable...

(Soundbite of song)

KE$HA (Singer): (Singing) Tic toc on the clock but the party don't stop, no...

CHACE: Thats Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Beyonce, Katy Perry and Ke$ha - all on the charts this year. But dont take it from me; ask Bebe Zahara Benet. She's last year's winner of the reality show hosted by maybe the most famous drag queen ever - RuPaul.

Is there anything in particular about these pop stars that reminds Bebe of her colleagues?

Mr. NEA MARSHALL KUDI (as Bebe Zahara Benet): You mean everything they wear?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KUDI: That's my answer. Everything they wear on that stage is drag.

CHACE: Its the wigs. Its the coats. Its the dresses that look like lampshades made of lollipops. Its the velvet stilettos that somehow resemble slinkies.

Mr. KUDI: When you do the artform of drag, you can be whatever or whoever you want to be. So I think that a lot of these female artists have noticed that it's powerful. They can use that as a platform to express themselves, even if that's not who they are in their daily lives.

CHACE: Beyonce becomes Sasha Fierce when she performs. Katy Perry puts on a bright blue wig to walk the red carpet. And Stephanie Germonotta, better known as Lady Gaga, wears sunglasses made of cigarettes and sells out stadiums.

LADY GAGA: I want to create a space for my fans where they can feel free, because I didn't fit in in high school, and I felt like a freak. So I like to create this atmosphere for my fans where they feel like they have a freak in me to hang out with, and they don't feel alone.

(Soundbite of applause)

CHACE: And its not just talk show host Ellens studio audience that gets what Lady Gaga is doing. Katherine Weiss and Sam Mandry are fans outside a Gaga show in St. Louis.

Ms. KATHERINE WEISS (Lady Gaga Fan): I definitely relate to her because I don't fit in at school, either. But her as a person, just like, helps me get through.

Mr. SAM MANDRY (Lady Gaga Fan): So she's creating this space so people can feel free and be how they want, and it's like we're all crazy because of her, you know?

CHACE: But when it comes to creating outsized personas, there's someone going toe to toe with Lady Gaga.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. MINAJ: (Rapping) I'm Nicki Minaj, Nicki Lewinski, Nicki the Ninja, Nicki the boss, Nicki the Harajuku Barbie like...

CHACE: Nicki Minaj, Nicki Lewinski, Nicki the Harajuku Barbie has only released one single and a bunch of mix tapes. But if you listen to pop radio, you cant escape her. It sounds as though shes guesting on every song this summer.

What makes Minaj stand out, besides her supply of gaudy Lil Kim wigs and burlesque outfits, is her endless closet of characters: in one song alone, she's Jamaican, then she's Queens. Not to mention, childlike, gangster, valley girl.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MINAJ: (Rapping) Excuse me, Im sorry. I'm really such a lady. I rep young money, you know, slim baby. And we be doing doughnuts while we wave the 380. We give a lot of money to the babies out in Haiti.

CHACE: She ends the song as Roman Zolanski.

Ms. BRITNEY ROSS (Nicki Minaj Fan): When Roman comes out, that's when all the craziness and the voices, and the crazy looks and styles start to come out.

CHACE: Twenty-two-year-old Britney Ross loves Nicki Minaj so much, she's adopted Roman Zolanski as her own alter ego.

Ms. ROSS: Sometimes I'm shy but when Roman or Nicki comes on, that just goes out the window. Like, I don't even - I don't think about it anymore, I just do it.

CHACE: At a club outside Chicago, called Secrets, where she's been performing as Nicki Minaj for over a year...

Ms. ROSS: (Unintelligible)

CHACE: On Facebook, Ross's name is Britney Lil Bee Zolanski. That's where Nicki Minaj rounds up many of her fans. Just like Lady Gaga, who dubs her followers monsters, Nicki Minaj has built a team by giving her fans a name.

Ms. MINAJ: And so to all my Harajuku Barbies, step your cookies up, hit me up at Twitter.com/NickiMinaj or Myspace.com/NickiMinaj. Thank you, guys.

(Soundbite of kiss)

CHACE: Minaj has an army of Barbies on Facebook and Twitter. This generation really gets alter egos. After all, theyre constantly deploying different versions of themselves online: one for Facebook, one for Twitter, even one for going out at night.

Take 18-year-old Darnell Purt, a Lady Gaga fan in Brooklyn. He created his own persona, Lord Glam.

Mr. DARNELL PURT (Lady Gaga Fan): When I'm Lord Glam, dancing in the club or something, just performing in front of people, it's a different kind of rush. It's a different feeling. I have more confidence. I'm more it's like Beyonce with Sasha Fierce. I kind of relate to her, because I kind of know that it's two sides.

CHACE: This is a modern phenomenon, but that doesnt mean its new. Judith Halberstam teaches media studies at the University of Santa Cruz in California. She says, look back at the 19th century.

Ms. JUDITH HALBERSTAM (University of Santa Cruz): People like Oscar Wilde. Oscar Wilde may well be one of the early people who created a public persona for himself, and then was happy when called upon to perform this role of the glib dandy.

CHACE: Instead of spinning around helplessly in a media cycle devoted to his outlandish behavior, Oscar Wilde grabbed the steering wheel. Halberstam says the British punk band the Sex Pistols did much the same thing in 1976, when they upended a live television show by lobbing expletives at the host.

(Soundbite of TV show)

Unidentified Man #1: Well, you dirty (beep). What a (beep) rotter.

Unidentified Man #2: Well that's it for tonight.

Ms. HALBERSTAM: It marked a new era in terms of the ways in which performers were going to interact with the supposedly neutral machinery that was just there to capture them.

CHACE: The artists found the controls for the machine, and started feeding it images of their own creation. Glam rocker David Bowie created Ziggy Stardust, an extraterrestrial version of himself. Then there was cross-dressing disco queen Grace Jones. Rapper Lil' Kim showed up on MTV in the '90s wearing a pink wig and matching stilettos, as if to say: You want sexy? Can you handle this?

(Soundbite of song)

LIL KIM (Rapper): (Rapping) I'll be undressed in the bra all see through, while you count your jewels thinking Ima cheat you. The only one thing I wanna do is freak you...

CHACE: Is this empowering or exploitative? And who's being manipulated? Consider that these stars often have all-male management teams who will push a female singer to be provocative.

Today, there are so many platforms to manipulate, an artist needs a savvy team to navigate them all, to grab fans and hold them. And the window to make an impression is short. One video is watched by millions, all over the world, in a matter of minutes. As current pop star Ke$ha puts it...

KE$HA: I have three and a half minutes to change somebody's mood, and if I can make them in a better mood, then that's like magic. That's like magic mind control.

CHACE: So are these stars controlling their fans, their media coverage, or just enabling everyone's inner drag queen to come out?

(Soundbite of song)

RuPaul: (Singing) Stroll down the runway, another payday, cover of magazines.

CHACE: Zoe Chace, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: See Nicki, the Harajuku Barbie, plus the other pop stars Zoe's been talking about in and out of character, at our website, nprmusic.org.

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