Musical aliases: Identity obscuration or artistic expression?

Renzo Szkwarok investigates the role of aliases in the music world.

Renzo Szkwarok
15th March 2021
Image credit: Diggit Magazine
Extensive attention has been paid to the effects of fame and fortune on those in the public eye, especially in the music scene. A prime example being the disgusting stigmatisation and harassment of Amy Winehouse for drug use that sadly led to her death, and the persistent tabloid press printing everything artists are doing It is no wonder then that several artists have turned to creative methods in order to hide their identity for multiple reasons.

Reasons for doing so largely boil down to three categories: attempting to remove themselves from the effects of fame; as artistic expression; or to create a mystique surrounding their output, often with overlap between the three.

Artists such as MF Doom, Daft Punk, Sia, to an extent David Bowie, and the bands Gorillaz and Sault all hide behind something. Whether it be an obvious identity-hiding mask in MF Doom’s and Daft Punk’s case, or animated characters in the case of Gorillaz, or even just releasing no information on band members such as what the band Sault have done, the end goal is clear, but the reasoning differs.

Every artist, whether performing under a stage name or not, is actively creating an alias for themselves

There is an argument to say that every artist, whether performing under a stage name or not, is actively creating an alias for themselves – actively generating a completely different character, even if only metaphorically. However, artists like the late MF Doom and Gorillaz especially have gone beyond this metaphorical sense and created complete backstories for their respective outputs. By creating elaborate plots and characters the objective of identity-hiding is superseded by the desire to create something more than just music – by creating an entire universe the artist is creating an immersive experience that goes beyond the standard “singles then album release” format that we are accustomed to. In the example of Doom especially, he also played into hip hop’s fascination with fronting and facade in a way that hadn’t really been done before.

This overt identity covering as the primary aim is in stark contrast to artists such as David Bowie who had multiple characters and personas, many of which he developed whilst already famous, which were more of a vehicle for artistic expression than anything else. His most famous and iconic Aladdin Sane; the extravagance of his cosmic Ziggy Stardust; or his dark, drug-fuelled Thin White Duke of his time in Berlin all signify different periods in his career that encapsulate different musical (and drug-taking) styles.

Aladdin Sane Classic Album Cover, David Bowie Canvas - Buy Online

Bringing this concept in to the last couple of years, the group Sault have taken this in a different direction by attempting to obscure band members identity and doing little to no press coverage of their 4 critically acclaimed albums: “5”, “7”, “Untitled (Black Is)” and “Untitled (Rise)”. I would argue this is more in attempt to create a mystique surrounding their releases by creating a certain level of hype.

Social media and the internet have made this somewhat paradoxically easier and harder in terms of hiding behind an alias, with platforms such as Soundcloud and Instagram allowing artists to have greater agency of not only their output but their public image as well. On the flip side, it has also made obsessing over the rich and famous a daily ritual and past time. Increased agency is undoubtedly a good thing in my eyes and the freedom to do so makes the music scene even more diverse, but the obsession over the individual is an unhealthy one, and the main reason why many hide behind an alias.

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