The idea of constructing a character for the general public whilst holding onto more personal aspects of one’s character is not a new one in the pop music industry. This trend can be traced back into the 1950’s and 60’s with the likes of Elvis Presley and The Beatles creating these wacky, over the top personas for public bemusement and entertainment. Some pop stars, however, have taken the idea of the persona a little further than others. For some a persona is merely an over-the-top version of themselves, acting as a metaphorical shield against the media’s constant delving into their personal lives and private circumstances. For others, the creation of a persona opens up a realm of new musical and artistic possibilities, offering artists a chance to re-invent both their sound and themselves with every aspect of this fictional persona. Distancing oneself from their art with the creation of a fictional yet completely authentic persona, may be one of the most ingenious inventions of the modern pop star – revolutionizing both the way in which we, the general public, view these musicians as well as how they view themselves.
The easiest way in which to display the effectiveness of the creation and evolution of a persona for musicians is to home in on a particular example, and analyse the way in which they created not only an image but an entirely new persona for themselves. There is no better place to start than David Bowie. Not only did Bowie create an artistic persona that he channeled through his musical and public life; as he grew and changed, his persona did too create multiple personalities, possibilities, and lives which he channeled into the telling of his story through his music. Some may argue that a huge aspect of his success is down to this idea of his ever-changing persona. From Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke to The Goblin King, and last but not least The Blind Prophet, Bowie found ways in which to reinvent himself consistently and regularly physically, creatively, and musically. With each changing persona, came a unique sound, maybe not a million lightyears away from what came before, but certainly not the same. These personas were all-embodying and quite far removed from anything pop music had ever seen before. An excellent article in The Daily Review cited Bowie as a star who ‘totally exploded the notion of self. Self-became an amorphous, androgynous, contrived persona’. Quite certainly ahead of his time, Bowie’s contrived personas became iconic for the likes of the LGBTQ community who viewed the star as an ally as well as a role model in the form of an eccentric, androgynous Rockstar. From one glittery stage outfit to heavy on-stage make-up, Bowie knew exactly how to draw attention to himself without a single care in the world. Whether it was easier to portray this level of nonchalance when in persona-mode is hard to tell, but one thing is for sure – through the creation and presentation of each persona, Bowie ensured his legacy as both a revolutionary popstar as well as an icon for the LGBTQ community.
A more modern example of a popstar who has created a public persona is Lady Gaga (or Stephanie Germanotta) Gaga first broke into the realm of pop superstardom in 2008 with hit singles including ‘Just Dance’ and ‘Pokerface’. However, it was not just Gaga’s banging tunes and stunning vocal range making headlines. In fact, Gaga’s wardrobe seemed to have more of an impact on the world than any of that. You never forget where you were on the night Lady Gaga sported a dress made out of actual meat on the red carpet at the VMAs in 2010. Gaga’s extravagant persona – platinum blonde hair, enormous diamond-covered sunglasses, and wacky outfits have allowed the star to express herself comfortably and flamboyantly. Unleashing one’s inner diva is much easier when you feel so far removed from yourself; the most vulnerable parts of yourself are perfectly concealed under heavy eye makeup and a meat dress. For Gaga, the creation of her alter-ego, if you will, has been nothing but constructive and only beneficial for her career. She has found herself representing certain minorities, in particular the LGBTQ community who view Gaga as an icon of a sort (her onstage costumes and makeup bear a striking resemblance to that of drag for which the star has expressed her love for).
When speaking of the construction and evolution of the pop persona, it is important to recognise the ways in which the persona grows and changes. One of the most common ways in which this occurs is with the release of each new album, which in turn becomes a new era for the pop persona. With each new album comes an entire re-invention of oneself. The appeal of this idea is obvious; an escape from past work which the musician may not feel as connected to anymore, a chance to explore new genres and musical ideas without question because hey, they’re an entirely new person now, remember! Taking hold of a blank canvas and starting again can mean wiping the slate clean in terms of expectations and any anxieties regarding new music. This alleviation can and has allowed for some of pop music’s best and most inventive work. Let’s take Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely-Hearts Club (you knew it was coming). Pioneers of this trend, John, Paul, Ringo, and George wrote one of their most loved albums to date by completely abandoning the idea of ‘themselves’ and creating fictional characters from whose point of view they could write from. We have the taking of this huge artistic liberty to thank for the gorgeous ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and ‘She’s Leaving Home’ to name but a few. The album was not only a change of musical direction but the establishment of a new era for the band which marked the end of The Revolver era, soon to be capped off with the White album era.
The construction of the persona for the modern popstar is not only an interesting if underrated move, but also a truly tried and tested one. The likes of Bowie and Gaga have proved the effectiveness of this method through the longevity of their massively successful careers. If anything, its surprising that more popstars do not choose to create such alter egos. Allowing oneself to essentially start from scratch in terms of constructing a new ‘self’ under which to produce art and music is the most liberating form of artistic freedom.