Musicians and alter egos go hand in hand. By definition, alter ego means alternate self, and from this, we can extrapolate why David Bowie used it as one of his main tools to establish his career in the 1970s, setting an example for all those who followed.
It’s a means of saying more about the self and humanity as a whole, without feeling like you’re giving too much of yourself away. Ironically, it’s a mask but also a form of unmasking, allowing musicians to say what they feel, do what they want to do, and take their craft to the next level.
Whilst the employment of an alter ego can sometimes come across as gimmicky, when it is done properly and with real artistic panache, it creates an audio-visual experience that goes far beyond that of purely music, or on the other hand, performance art. It creates an immersion for both artist and audience, whisking us away into these cerebral neverlands that are created in the mind’s eye of the artist.
This is why we’ve had a range of memorable alter egos in music over the years. We’ve already touched on Bowie, who is the most significant figure to have used the strategy, but everywhere you look across the timeline of music, you see musicians adopting alter-egos and personas that allow them to imbue their craft with a density that maybe, you ordinarily wouldn’t get from them.
From Paul McCartney to Eminem to Slipknot, it’s a trend that’s as old as music itself, extending way further back than the Vaudeville shows of old, and it shows no signs of abating. Therefore, today we are listing the ten greatest alter egos in music. Expect to see some iconic figures and some lesser-known ones.
The ten greatest alter egos in music:
David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust
Whilst David Bowie employed numerous alter egos over his long and celebrated career, including Aladdin Sane and The Thin White Duke, the most important and iconic is Ziggy Stardust. The main character of Bowie’s 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, through this alter ego he was able to craft a narrative that changed the face of music forever.
Ostensibly a glam album, it tells the story of the titular androgynous and bisexual rock star who is sent to Earth as a saviour before an impending apocalyptic catastrophe. Taboo busting for the era, Bowie’s turn as Ziggy seemed to come and go in the blink of an eye, and because the musician found it increasingly hard to differentiate between himself and the character, he decided to retire it, and adopt a new one, Aladdin Sane for the 1973 album of the same name.
Bowie as Ziggy was so monumental, that it directly inspired the 1998 film Velvet Goldmine.
To put it simply, without their collective alter egos, shock-metal legends Slipknot would not be the world-beaters that they are today. Donning unsettling facemasks and jumpsuits as well as assigning each of themselves a number from #0 through #8, the band packaged their visceral music in a genius way.
When they burst onto the scene in the late ’90s, they caused a stir with people either loving or hating them, and parts of Christian America denouncing them as Satanists. However, this was exactly their brilliance. People knew about Slipknot just by reputation, and this shipped millions of records.
Frontman Corey Taylor explained in 2002: “It’s our way of becoming more intimate with the music. It’s a way for us to become unconscious of who we are and what we do outside of music. It’s a way for us to kind of crawl inside it and be able to use it.”
Prince as Camille
Aside from David Bowie, Prince was the most chameleonic artist out there. Famously, his unreleased 1986 album Camille, was the eponymous debut by his gender-fluid alter ego. Whilst, he, like Bowie, assumed a variety of different guises of the years such as Alexander Nevermind and Jamie Starr, Camille is the most legendary amongst fans.
Using the studio to create the character, for the album he recorded his vocals at a slower speed but then altered them to a higher pitch to achieve a feminine voice. Interestingly, most of the cuts from Camille made it onto the following year’s Sign O’ The Times, such as ‘Strange Relationship’, which has since been hailed as a fan favourite. Afterwards, Camille also appeared on another unreleased record, The Black Album.
Eminem as Slim Shady
Whilst many rappers have used alter egos from Tupac to MF Doom, Eminem’s character Slim Shady is the most famous. Notably, it was off the back of him adopting Shady for The Slim Shady EP and The Slim Shady LP in the late ’90s that allowed him to hit the big time.
This sadistic character also allowed Eminem to discuss horrific subjects ranging from murder to rape and dodge any real criticism that they were his own beliefs. He explained: “When I started rapping as Shady, as that character, it was a way for me to vent all my frustrations and just blame it on him. If anybody got mad about it, it was him that said it.”
Duly, he caused a stir and became a sensation.
Herman Blount as Sun Ra
One of the most interesting entries on the list, revered American composer and bandleader, Herman Blount, actually believed he was an angel from Saturn, something that extends a lot further than the lines being blurred between Bowie and Ziggy Stardust.
A pioneer of Afrofuturism, he claimed that he was sent to earth to deliver the message of peace, denying the existence of the “slave name” he grew up with, “Any name that I use other than Ra is a pseudonym.”
Damon Albarn as 2-D
Whilst Damon Albarn created the virtual band Gorillaz alongside artist Jamie Hewlett, he is the band, and more importantly, the band’s frontman 2-D. Taking their inspiration from across the spectrum of culture, the pair were mainly driven to form the group after watching MTV in their shared flat. Hewlett said: “If you watch MTV for too long, it’s a bit like hell – there’s nothing of substance there. So we got this idea for a virtual band, something that would be a comment on that.”
Loosely based on Chris Gentry from the Britpop outfit Menswear, and the pair’s mutual friend Stuart Lowbridge, 2-D was initially designed as a representation of the “classic stupid pretty boy singer”. Described as “a sweetheart with a blank sheet of paper where a brain should be”, 2-D has fronted the band since they broke through at the turn of the millennium, and has allowed Albarn to say what he wants to, but with more of a Ballardian edge.
David Johansen as Buster Poindexter
Whilst David Johansen made his name as the androgynous frontman for the influential rock ‘n’ roll rabble New York Dolls, this was not enough for him. In the late ’80s, he assumed the role of the comedic lounge singer, Buster Poindexter.
After the band called it a day, he donned a tuxedo, quiffed up his hair as Teddy Boys did in the ’50s, and backed by The Uptown Horns, he delivered a memorable mix of jazz, lounge, calypso, and comedy.
He made such a splash off the back of hits such as ‘Hot Hot Hot’, that for a time he became part of the house band of Saturday Night Live. He eventually returned to being David Johansen as a solo artist after growing tired of Poindexter, before New York Dolls reunited in 2004.
Jesse Hughes and Josh Homme as Boots Electric and Carlo Von Sexron
Formed in Palm Desert, California by Jesse Hughes and Josh Homme, Eagles of Death Metal are one of the most intriguing bands out there.
Famously, their name is intended to be a joke, as they are not a death metal band by any stretch of the imagination. In 2003, Homme described their sound as, “bluegrass slide guitar mixed with stripper drum beats and Canned Heat vocals.”
In 2008, Homme clarified his position in the band, saying: “This isn’t a side project for me. I’m in two bands. I have musical schizophrenia, and this is one of those personalities. In brief, they are amazing.”
Together, he and Hughes’s characters, Boots Electric and Carlo Von Sexron, tie the whole project together, and it’s likely that without these identities the band wouldn’t have been so successful. They cap off the semi-ridiculous edge that the band espouses.
Hank Williams as Luke The Drifter
Hank Williams’ character of Luke the Drifter is one of the most important in music history. Adopting the character in 1950 for gregarious means, he also used it as a way of escaping the sound that had made him such a star. As Luke the Drifter he could sing about more serious subjects than he had as Williams, and do his bit to set society right without any significant backlash from DJs and his millions of fans.
Labelled “talking blues” songs, they included well-thought-out takes on subjects that Williams sometimes called “recitations”. He recorded 150 songs as Luke, releasing just 14, and unfortunately, none of them made the splash that he had intended in his lifetime.
Jim Morrison as The Lizard King
The late frontman of The Doors, Jim Morrison had a handful of alter egos but none are as iconic as The Lizard King. When the band went to record their second album, 1967’s Strange Days, Morrison had found himself captivated by Native American folklore and the great deserts of America so started calling himself The Lizard King.
The performance piece ‘Celebration of the Lizard’ was a direct nod to his reptilian alter ego, with Morrison saying that it was “kind of an invitation to the dark forces.” However, it wasn’t just esotericism that inspired him to assume this guise, but the difficulties he was having with fame, as formed a shield.