Why Pop Singers Often Take on Personas and Perform in character
Sasha Fierce is one of the biggest names in modern popular music. She's insanely wealthy. She's sung at the Super Bowl and at a presidential inauguration. You may be scratching your head wondering why you've never heard of her. If you're up-to-date on modern music you definitely have. You just know her as Beyoncé. Sasha Fierce was her alter-ego. Her album I Am... Sasha Fierce spawned the massive hit Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It). According to the Washington Post:
"Sasha Fierce as an alter ego was a useful tool: A mechanism Beyoncé could use to safely and publicly experiment with performances of her sexuality while keeping her ladylike integrity intact."
Beyoncé herself said about her alter-ego:
"Sasha Fierce is the fun, more sensual, more aggressive, more outspoken side and more glamorous side that comes out when I'm working and when I'm onstage...this alter ego that I’ve created that kind of protects me and who I really am...When people meet me, they expect Sasha. I’m really reserved, and nothing like Sasha. She can do things I cannot do."
(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)
Blah Blah Blah
We live in a "sex-negative" and judgmental culture. It's easier and safer for an artist to explore controversial topics using a character rather than their real selves. If an actor plays a serial killer on TV we know they're just acting. But many people think everything that comes out of a singer's mouth is their personal opinion.
Take (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!) by The Beastie Boys. The song was written as a parody of the slacker lifestyle. The fact that the songwriters were making fun of that lifestyle went over the heads of many listeners. The band was unhappy when the song became a party anthem. This is also true of Ke$ha's Blah Blah Blah which is a female version of sexist songs that treat women as disposable sex objects. While critics generally got the point, for the general public the feminism of the song was overlooked and Ke$ha was labeled a slut and whore for singing it.
Singers like authors and scriptwriters are storytellers. They often take on characters like the slackers in (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!) or the woman who wants to get laid and talk is a distraction in Blah Blah Blah. We shouldn't assume someone's lyrics are literally how they see the world or how they live their lives. However many people do make that assumption and this is where alter-egos or personas come in so handy. Women are held to much harsher standards than men, which may be a reason alter-egos are more popular among female pop singers.
Lady Gaga - Paparazzi
"She reinvents herself faster than Madonna on a treadmill, exhibiting multiple personalities within the span of a single video."
No one does personas like Lady Gaga (Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta). Most artists like Beyoncé will have one persona or alter-ego. Or perhaps they'll have one at a time. Lady Gaga's are ever-changing. When she adopted Lady Gaga as a stage name, she told her producer:
"Don’t ever call me Stefani again."
Her bizarre style choices preceded her musical career. When she first met her original producer Rob Fusari he said she was dressed in 60's clothing. He was embarrassed to be seen in public with her because she looked so strange. When she was dropped by her first record label Island Def Jam, Joshua Sarubin who had helped her get the deal speculated:
"There may have been people at the company who got turned off because of the outfits and the overtly sexual lyrics."
Fusari himself was later turned off by the Lady Gaga spectacle:
"I felt like I had worked at finding a sound for this artist and I was proud of it, and she was undermining it with the outfits, with the comedy."
Despite reservations from her first producer and record label about her costumes and make-up, Lady Gaga became massive. She was popular with both critics and audiences. What were some of those style choices like? Here are some examples:
- A leather bra and underwear with a leather jacket, inches high heels and massive green tinged hair
- A metallic bra/breastplate with salmon colored pants and a long white wig
- A tight sheer blue dress with duct-taped nipples
- Prosthetic pyramid horns grafted onto her skin
- A dress with matching purse made of fresh meat including bacon, steak and pork chops
- A red latex gown with an Elizabethan collar and 12 meter train
Personas are central to Lady Gaga's music. She isn't just a pop singer. She's a performance artist as well. She believes the lines between her personas and her real self have become blurred.
"I know not the difference between a moment of performance and a moment of honesty...Art is a lie. And every day I kill to make it true. It is my destiny to exist halfway between reality and fantasy at all times. They call me 'theatrical,' but I posit profusely that I am theatre, and that theatre is me. I am a show with no intermission...That I (we) possess something magical and transformative inside - a uniqueness and specialness waiting to be exiled from the depths of our identity."
Personas and Talent
Some people dismiss this as gimmicky. If these people had talent the critics proclaim they would feel no need to resort to dressing up and playing characters. But playing characters is nothing new in music. David Bowie created the character Ziggy Stardust. The Beatles wore colorful military-style costumes on the cover of their album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The heavy metal band KISS are known for their heavy face paint and flamboyant outfits. The band was together for a decade before they appeared publicly without their costumes. Alice Cooper, a born again Christian, still plays around with Satanic imagery in his music.
There's no connection between talent and the use of personas and costumes. Selena Gomez doesn't resort to "gimmicks" yet can't sing or play an instrument. Lady Gaga does resort to "gimmicks" yet she can sing and is a classically trained pianist. Even in high art like ballet and opera performers dress up and play characters. Performance often serves the purpose of escapism and it wouldn't be escapism if it was exactly like our day-to-day realities.
- The Psychology of the Mask and The Real You
Are we pretending to hide our true selves? Is life one long masquerade or are we just smart when it comes to playing different parts? A look at the history and fascination we have with the mask.
In prehistoric times people wore masks when they engaged in rituals and celebrations. Masks helped them confront danger whether that was in hunting or war. The helmets worn by ancient warriors and knights were designed to both protect the head and intimidate the enemy. Putting on a mask transformed the fighter or hunter and made him feel stronger and less vulnerable. Masks were empowering. Warriors could hide their weaknesses and true feelings. The book Masks: Faces of Culture starts with this:
"Masks are the most ancient means of changing identity and assuming a new persona. In order for masking to have meaning and relevance, it needs an audience...The urge, perhaps even universal human need, to transform ourselves has coexisted with the development of human society."
When a warrior donned a mask:
"...he appeared ominous, daunting, and invincible, prepared to conquer the world. He exuded a look of rationality, domination, and control, totally disengaged from nature."
Popular singers may wear masks, literally or figuratively, for many reasons. It allows them to express controversial or irreverent views. If they feel insecure an alter-ego can give them the courage to appear on TV in front of millions, including many who are hostile to them. It can make them feel free and less self-conscious. They can go crazy in a way they normally wouldn't. Rather than being mundane, they can become exciting and outrageous. John Quale, who transforms into the stage persona Prince Poppycock said "Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth." Drag queen BeBe Zahara Benet puts it this way:
"When you do the art form of drag, you can be whatever or whoever you want to be, and you can say whatever you want to say. I think a lot of these female artists have noticed that it's powerful. They can use it as a platform to express themselves, even if that's not who they are in their daily lives. They found that secret."
The Animal Inside
Ke$ha is the brash, drunken, overconfident, IDGAF party girl persona of Kesha Rose Sebert. Ke$ha parodied the misogynistic club and rap music that was popular when she came on the scene. Not surprisingly, she listed The Beastie Boys as a major influence for her debut album Animal. Ke$ha allowed the normally sweet and friendly Kesha to become a character who was as rude and crude as the boys. And she was upfront about the fact the party girl wasn't really who she was even at the beginning of her career.
"If you mean ‘party girl’ like, at a club with a short skirt on with no underwear, then no. I’ve gotten drunk before but never gotten a DUI. I don’t go to clubs. I don’t do drugs, but I think I’m a walking good time and I talk kind of funny, so people think I’m messed up all the time. I’m not."
"I’m known as a party girl, but I think it would be tragically boring to actually live that stereotype."
Kesha's Deconstructed version of Blow sounds haunting and sinister unlike the original upbeat dance version
It might seem odd that a girl who sold millions of club singles didn't even like clubs. Her favorite artists are rock, country and punk singers. She grew up in Nashville and sang pop rock, rock, country and blues songs before Tik Tok. She even has a song called Blow where she imagines leading a group of her misfit fans into a club to cause trouble and seemingly threaten to blow it up. The girl who had been picked on and shunned in school for being 20lbs overweight became a magnet for bullied and outcast youth who saw her as an inspiration, someone who was on their side against the cool and acceptable people. According to the Spectrum Pulse reviewer:
I suspect part of it is cathartic for Ke$ha as well - she was the weird girl who was generally ostracized, and now she's writing the stupid songs that those who ostracized her dance along with, making them the joke, not her.
Many people condemned Ke$ha for being smart (she had almost perfect SAT scores, spent a summer in a Columbia University gifted teens program studying comparative religion, and was accepted to Ivy League colleges) but making "crap" party music. Most songs on Animal weren't about partying though. Some of the songs were by Kesha and not Ke$ha. The Kesha lyrics were personal, emotional, heartbreaking or uplifting.
But the Ke$ha lyrics were silly, fun, comedy and parody. She was throwing sexism back at the guys, or celebrating the freaks and misfits, and being deliberately ridiculous in the process. The reviewer from Spectrum Pulse said Ke$ha was one of the few popstars he liked because:
"if you can get the joke and are still willing to be a part of it, you'll have a f**king blast."
Nicki Minaj's controversial Grammy performance
Becoming a Guy
Roman Zolanski (to rhyme with Roman Polanski) is one of the alter-egos of female rapper Nicki Minaj (Onika Tanya Maraj). He's a blond homosexual from London. He's very outspoken and sometimes quite malicious. He can be threatening and violent. He's insensitive and arrogant. Minaj has described him as someone who says things that she doesn't want to say. Papermag called him Minaj's "gay, paranoid and violent male alter-ego." The character appears on her album Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded.
The Catholic League condemned a Grammy performance by Nicki (Roman) because of:
"religious overtones in the performance, which included a mock exorcism, a confessional skit, choirboys and monks dancing"
Minaj also took on the persona of Roman's mother who is trying to get her son to behave.
"take your medication Roman, take a short vacation Roman, you'll be okay"
Minaj has taken on other personas as well. Why might she do this? Maybe because rap, like rock, is a very male dominated genre. It's more difficult for a woman to get taken seriously and it can be much harder for a woman to say things a man can get away with. She can use alter-egos to say things she may personally feel uncomfortable saying. She's talked about him as a physical part of her, someone she can't control. She asks:
"...him to leave, but he can't. He's here for a reason. People have brought him out. People have conjured him up now he won't leave."
Killing Off an Alter-Ego
While personas are often part and parcel of heavy metal they wear thin in pop music very quickly. Maintaining an alter-ego for too long can start to seem desperate and attention-seeking and turn off once fascinated audiences. Beyoncé killed off Sasha Fierce in 2010. She told Allure magazine:
"Sasha Fierce is done. I killed her."
She had originally created the character to separate her shy personality from her stage persona. The character allowed her to feel sexy and powerful. She got rid of the character just a couple of years after acknowledging her existence in an album title. Over that time period she became comfortable as a performer and didn't feel the need to take on a separate character.
"I don't need Sasha Fierce anymore, because I've grown and now I'm able to merge the two."
Throughout 2013 Nicki Minaj made no mention of Roman Zolanski. On February 14, 2014, she admitted she had "got tired of him" so he "died."
Kemosabe Records ignored fans who begged for the release of a mature Ke$ha song like Last Goodbye
Ke$ha wanted to dump the party girl image for her second album and go in a rock and country direction but her record label wouldn't allow it. The final product was a mix of rock and pop but only party songs were released to the radio. Her sophomore album Warrior was a critical success but a commercial flop. The continuation of the party persona with single releases killed off interest before Warrior's release and her label refused to release any of her mature and personal songs to try to save the album. Kesha became increasingly frustrated at the lack of control she had over her career, so she took on Dr. Luke, one of the most powerful men in the music industry. She's filed a lawsuit to break her contracts with him.
Lady Gaga's controversial "vomit" performance
Lady Gaga also ran into trouble when she maintained her theatrics over three albums. Having a performance artist vomit on her brought interest from critics but was met with a yawn by much of the general public. Her elaborate and extravagant music videos got far fewer views over time. Many fans turned against her for putting theatrics and performance art ahead of her music. The personas which had seemed so fun and interesting during her first album era seemed like desperate ploys for attention when her sophomore album Born this Way didn't do as well commercially. It seemed even worse when her much hyped 3rd album ARTPOP failed to impress either critics or the public. Even though Lady Gaga had always mixed weird costumes and performance art with pop music it seemed like desperation and attention-seeking coming from someone who's music career was clearly running into trouble.
Katy Perry took on a child-like persona for her 2nd album era
Singers should also be careful when it comes to choosing an alter-ego. Katy Perry adopted a very child-like persona when she released her 2nd album Teenage Dream. The video for the lead single California Gurls featured Katy in a kind of grown-up Candyland. Her concert sets consisted of giant lollipops. While Katy Perry has been a massive commercial success, she's been a critical failure. She has a career score of only 53 on the website Metacritic, which is an aggregate of review ratings from the most respected publications. Compare this to 70 for Beyoncé, 66 for Ke$ha and Nicki Minaj, and 65 for Lady Gaga. Even when Perry released her more "grown up" album Prism, critics didn't take her seriously. A child-like image may not have damaged her when it came to sales but it likely did when it came to earning respect.
A persona or fascinating character can help a new artist stand out from the herd and ensure longevity. But audiences seem to expect artists to mature at some point and continuing a schtick can backfire.