Despite what Juliet Capulet may tell you, there is a lot in a name. For creative folk, a name is a unique brand associated with one’s appearance, personality and, sometimes, one’s artistry. An artist’s identity is seemingly divided into two dimensions: their personal identity, and the identity within the art they create.
Thus, when an artist chooses to remain anonymous — that is, not to disclose their personal identity, such as their real name or physical appearance — it creates a disturbance. There is no longer a face to put to the music, no longer an identifiable source of the art. The music itself becomes the personality. Its emotion, tone and meaning form in the listener’s minds a character to visualise as the source of the art.
There are many reasons why an artist might choose to remain anonymous, but one of the most common is to shine the spotlight on the music itself. Artists who have no performing identity to speak of become solely defined by their music. British DJ Burial, who had remained anonymous since his debut onto the underground techno scene in 2001, was famously outed in 2008. Upon his reveal, Burial, real name William Bevan, stated that he chose anonymity because he wanted “to be all about the turns.” To artists like Burial, anonymity is a tool to maintain focus on their work and to prevent it being marred by any personal traits, particularly the controversial.
However, anonymity does not need to extinguish the personal identity of the musician. Often, the artist alters their identity, creating a new stage persona to accompany the music. There are a huge number of artists that employ this form of anonymity as a means of artistic exploration. It adds to an artist’s appeal as they break away from the norm and engage both the visual and auditory imaginations of the listeners. Notoriously media-shy house duo Daft Punk’s robotic costumes, for example, have become iconic. Similarly, KISS’ makeup separated themselves from other bands at the time.
When bands like Daft Punk, KISS or Slipknot are on stage, the artist dies and a character takes over. The audience does not see Gene Simmons and his elongated, blood soaked tongue on stage, they see The Demon. They see an inhuman personification of the music. Daft Punk become robots, creating music for their human audiences to hear. Slipknot become personifications of their own inner demons, giving new meaning to their music. The artist behind the music becomes an object of spectacle, rather than a shadow. Their stage identities even inspire the creation of fandoms, such as the KISS Army or Slipknot’s Maggots.
Anonymity has another neat side-effect: generating a lot of (sometimes wildly inaccurate) buzz. Some anonymous artists have found themselves being ruthlessly harassed for their identity, amassing constant media attention and popularity in the process. Other anonymous artists have been mistaken for undercover big shots. Canadian progressive rock band Klaatu found this out the hard way. The band received moderate success for their 1976 debut album 3:47 EST largely due to rumours that the band were a Beatles side project. Maintaining anonymity, Klaatu created a shroud of mystery, refusing to name band members on records. When it was revealed that the Beatles had absolutely nothing to do with the band, Klaatu unfortunately faded into obscurity.
Maybe Klaatu would have enjoyed more success as a virtual band — a type of musical group that possesses a unique form of anonymity. Take for example the most prominent virtual band: Gorillaz. An art project from Blur frontman Damon Albarn and Tank Girl artist Jamie Hewlett, Gorillaz has the structure of an actual band down to the details. It has individual members with established biographies, personalities and backstories. Extensive wiki entries chronicle a saga of band conflicts, adventures and recordings. Leading up to the album Humanz, fans received updates on what each band member had been up to since Plastic Beach via Instagram. The purpose behind Gorillaz can be summed up in one of their slogans: “Reject False Icons”. Albarn and Hewlett created a multi-media critique of popular culture and celebrity status, encouraging people to think for themselves. This line was later expanded in the song ‘Rock It’ to say “Respect false icons, reject false icons,” establishing that while listeners should respect artists and the music they make, they should not see them as anything but humans.
The mask is a powerful tool. To cover up your identity is to cover up the truth of your person. Some artists create a whole new identity — a new name or even fictional biography — becoming defined purely by their actions and body of work. Anonymous artists can remove themselves from their art, reinsert themselves into their art, or even give their work a whole new dimension of meaning. An artist’s identity —whatever permutation of it they choose to use — is a critical part of their art.