by Austin Weimer
Captivating musical acts on the rise today are redefining identity and how it connects to music. The idea of the conventional “rock star” is constantly challenged across genres and every enthusiastic music listener can relate to the fantastical desire of having their name and picture all over a Billboard Top 40 album, becoming successful enough to the point that being noticed in public is almost a guarantee. But oddly enough, anonymity in the music industry is now attracting masses of fans.
Hailing from the gloomy and medieval cathedrals of Linköping, Sweden, is the pop metal band Ghost. In terms of rapidly evolving commercial achievement as a band comprised of nameless musicians, Ghost is a shining example of success. Formed in 2010, the band has seen enormous recognition in the last five years. By their second tour, Ghost was opening for Mastodon and Opeth, two of the biggest names in today’s metal scene. Ghost’s debut album, Opus Eponymous, received the Swedish Grammis nomination, and their release of Infestissuman three years later won the Grammis Award for Best Hard Rock/Metal Album. Their most recent album, Meloria, peaked at No. 8 on the U.S. charts.
Members of Ghost are referred to as “Nameless Ghouls,” except for the vocalist. Papa Emeritus III is the current lead singer of the group. Each version of Emeritus since the first has had wardrobe improvements, but rubber masks in the form of an old man and a corpse-painted priest have been the constant and iconic face of Ghost. Media coverage of changes to the lineup only ever contain facts on Emeritus, allowing the rest of the lineup to be amorphous in musician changes. Fans only know as much about members’ identities as Ghost allows. Dave Grohl, currently of Foo Fighters and formally of Nirvana, has been confirmed by Fuse News to have dressed up in a ghoul’s robes for an unspecified amount of time on Ghost’s 2013 European tour. The group spread through the metal community like wildfire because of the restless conversation on the possible contributors to the band’s studio and live lineup. All of the songwriting credits go to the collective identity of nameless ghouls.
To contrast Ghost’s drastic approach, many successful artists choose to alter their identities in less dramatic ways. In the world of hip-hop, MFDoom of Stones Throw Records is known by his iconic metal gladiator mask and also by his real name, Daniel Dumile. Ever since his 1999 conversion to the mask, Dumile has been basically unrecognizable without it. In the same year, producer Madlib—who works closely with Dumile on the same label—also created his own alter ego personality named Quasimoto, a man dressed up in a fuzzy yellow pig suit with a high-pitched voice. Quasimoto is an extension of Madlib’s voice in music that would not have been within the vision of his normal works, a project motivated by Stones Throw founder Chris Manak. Manak saw the alter ego as an opportunity for his label to be innovative with their approach to artists signed on the label.
Brock Berrigan, an unsigned hip-hop producer, has a ridiculous approach to the notion of his identity. Berrigan keeps his face covered by a bright red chicken mask for performance and photography. His character is always portrayed on album covers as a member of high society, such as on the cover of Pura Vida, where Berrigan wore a tuxedo and held a shotgun next to a shot of whiskey resting on vintage speaker enclosures. Berrigan lives out his fantasies of grandeur through his character, and the smooth quality of his sampled music reflects that sentiment.
Back in time, artists such as David Bowie also experimented with the idea of alter egos. Bowie’s character Ziggy Stardust was a step in the direction towards alter ago characters in music. Alter egos allow the artists to step into the world of their music by removing their worldly identities from them as they perform. Murdoc and the rest of the Gorillaz put their cartoon characters into music videos and live performances as a way for them to rebel against MTV and the commercial music industry, allegedly to make a statement about lifeless corporate pop bands.
No matter the approach taken, alterations to the conventional idea of a musician’s identity are at the very least memorable. This extra dimension in music has proven to be a major force behind artists acquiring a steadily growing base of cult-like followers. Artists who take on this approach tend to pull in much more diverse audience bases just based on the near mythological status their projects obtain by conversation.