Alter egos in music: invention and reinvention

A change of persona can yield new creative space and energy.

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Mural of the queen with a ziggy stripe on her face

We drove on through the night, our faces illuminated by nothing except the flash of the occasional speed camera. My father was driving as quickly as he dared. He drives like a vicar. A slow vicar. A really slow vicar. So, this was unusual. But for a good cause. I was playing an evil headmistress. As you do.

For two nights only, the people of Amersham got to see me in a production of Matilda. I looked like an evil drag Mary Poppins, except with a riding crop and an itchy white wig. Quite the look, and brilliant fun. It was very silly, very funny, and camp as your hat. I even had some solos, which is always exciting. Not that I’ve got an ego or anything.

Any way, the point of this nostalgia, apart from gratuitous self indulgence, is to show how playing a persona on stage is something dear to my heart. Broadly, a persona is a character a musician creates for performances. Mine was far from Ziggy Stardust, but probably had just as much makeup.

Ziggy is, of course, the most iconic musical persona out there. Chances are when most think of Bowie they have the shocked orange hair, ghostly white face and outrageous outfits in mind. With a man who was everything from a Nazi space duke to a ghostly harlequin, it’s interesting to that this persona endured. Why, in fact, do any? Why are Ziggy, Alice Cooper and (ahem) Sasha Fierce so iconic?

Adopting an alter ego for the stage is often sparked by a desire to draw attention to a subject, like Marilyn Manson exploring death, or Madonna sexuality. Sometimes it’s because a certain look proves memorable – think Bob Dylan with scruffy hair, clothes and guitar. Sometimes it’s to strike a pose for a particular song or album – like The Beatles and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely-Hearts Club Band – or for spicing up a song, such as Mick Jagger playing Satan in ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. They’re either a way of bringing personal interests on stage, or something to make a song stand out.

If I’m honest, I don’t buy any of those excuses. Well, not entirely. Because I know what it’s like playing someone outrageous. It’s too much fun. I wouldn’t want to dress like Miss Trunchbull all the time, but up onstage, the audience cheering me on – it was liberating. My worries, my shyness, my irritating awkwardness, all wiped away. I was someone else, just for a little while. That’s why, I think, personas remain popular. Sometimes the only way to escape the usual is creating a whole different character. We get a chance to be who we’re not, who we want to be, or who we could never be but would love to be.

Beyoncé goes wild as Sasha Fierce. Nicky Minaj pushes boundaries as English homosexual Roman Zolanski. And Bowie? A man can’t go through that many faces without wanting to be someone else. There’s a fascination with the transgressive, a burning desire to do something completely crazy, that lurks within all of us. Bowie was just lucky enough to be able to let it out. Musicians are only human, and they dream of being someone else just as we all do. Fortunately, for them, they can make money out of it. You can’t be you all the time. Who would want to be? Not me. Being a bit outrageous occasionally is healthy. If it’s good for Bowie and Beyoncé, it’s good for us. Or at least that’s what I told the police officer who stopped my father for speeding.

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