Divided Souls: Musical Alter Egos

by Amanda Flinner

The adage "be yourself" is a tricky piece of advice these days when there are so many selves to choose from - at least in the music industry where everyone seems to have an alter ego. But it's a trend that's been going on for a long time.

A little history lesson: in the late eighteenth century, German physician Franz Mesmer was exploring the healing possibilities of hypnosis when he discovered an entirely different person could emerge when a patient was in a hypnotic state, another "self." Shortly after, psychologists coined the phrase "alter ego" to describe patients struggling with Dissociative Identity Disorder or multiple personalities.

Robert Louis Stevenson brought the idea of two warring identities into pop culture with his classic thriller the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886. Jump ahead another century - and all of the literary pseudonyms and comic book superheroes in between - and David Bowie breathed life into Ziggy Stardust, a "Martian messiah" who propelled his career to superstardom but nearly drove him crazy in the process.

Since then, other performers have created alter egos to take their careers in another direction or even give a glimpse of who they really are apart from their celebrity status. Some have always been known by this other self. Brian Warner crafted Marilyn Manson as his stage persona and is rarely seen without his signature makeup, and the members of KISS were associated with their glam personalities for years. It's still hard to look at Gene Simmons without seeing "The Demon."

This list looks at artists who created alter egos as a way to separate themselves from their already famous identities. Let us know some of your favorites in the comments section below.
David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust

Just a few years before David Bowie transformed into the icy, cocaine-addled Thin White Duke, he was busy inventing glam rock. The singer recalls his iconic alter ego Ziggy Stardust, the glittering rock star that brought him superstar status and inspired a cult following in the early 1970s:

"Ziggy really set the pattern for my future work. Ziggy was my Martian messiah who twanged a guitar. He was a simplistic character. I saw him as very simple... fairly like the character Newton I was to do in the film [The Man Who Fell to Earth] later on. Someone who was dropped down here, got brought down to our way of thinking and ended up destroying himself." (Ziggy Stardust Companion)

Bowie credits British rock 'n roller Vince Taylor as the main influence for the Ziggy Stardust character. Taylor was a former Elvis impersonator who made it big in the late-1950s but is most remembered for his erratic behavior, culminating in his wild claims that he was a messiah.

"There was something very tempting about him going completely off the edge. Especially at my age, then, it seemed very appealing: Oh, I'd love to end up like that, totally nuts. Ha ha! And so he re-emerged in this Ziggy Stardust character," Bowie said.

Bowie didn't end up going totally nuts, but he made it at least halfway nuts. As his alter ego began to grow in popularity, he started to believe the fantasy. Like a WWE wrestler who lives his gimmick, he no longer left Ziggy on stage but brought him to interviews and took him home at night. To save his sanity, he retired Ziggy at the height of his popularity in 1973.

The story of Ziggy Stardust is told on the 1972 concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

The Weeknd/Starboy

Coming off of the enormous success of his 2015 sophomore album Beauty Behind the Madness, The Weeknd quickly went to work again on his 2016 follow-up record, Starboy. Inspired by another Bowie character, Starman, The Weeknd killed his old persona (literally in the "Starboy" music video when he suffocates himself with a plastic bag) by cutting off his signature dreadlocks, creating a brand new character: the boastful Starboy.

The Weeknd told Zane Lowe in their Beats 1 interview about Starboy's personality, "He's a more braggadocios character that we all have inside of us."

Starboy brags about his expensive cars and sings about girlfriends snorting cocaine off of his ebony wood table. There's always the negative that comes with fame, though, and for a brief moment it seems as if he might regret his decision to become a mega pop star when he sings, "Look what you've done."

The 18-song album tells a story about the trappings of wealth and fame conveying the excess and party lifestyle that comes along with it. On Track 14, "Ordinary Life," Starboy seems to come to terms with his inevitable tragic ending when The Weeknd sings, "Like I'm James Dean, I'ma die when I'm young."

It won't be the last we hear from The Weeknd's alter ego. He revealed to Zane Lowe that he wants to make a comic book strip out of the character and pitch it to Marvel or DC Comics.

Beyoncé Knowles/Sasha Fierce

It's a little known fact that Beyoncé Knowles confessed to murder in 2010. She told Allure magazine: "Sasha Fierce is done. I killed her."

Beyoncé officially announced the invention of her alter ego on her 2008 album I Am... Sasha Fierce. The bolder, brasher, sexier and all-around crazier doppelganger was usually reserved for Beyoncé's stage performances where she felt she needed to channel a more vibrant persona to exhilarate a live audience. She explained to CBS News:

"I'm not like her in real life at all... I'm not flirtatious and super-confident and fearless like her. What I feel onstage I don't feel anywhere else. It's an out-of-body experience. I created my stage persona to protect myself so that when I go home I don't have to think about what it is I do. Sasha isn't me. The people around me know who I really am."

I Am... Sasha Fierce is, fittingly, a double album, one disc dedicated to Beyoncé's vulnerable, more natural side with songs like "If I Were a Boy" and "Broken-Hearted Girl," and the other boasting more electro-poppy type numbers from her outspoken side like "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" and "Sweet Dreams."

Two years after her demise, Sasha Fierce is coming back from the dead. In May 2012, Beyoncé announced she would be resurrecting her alter ego for her Revel concerts.

Garth Brooks/Chris Gaines

Garth Brooks sold over 90 million albums in the '90s, but he never had a Top 40 hit on the Hot 100. Chris Gaines, however, charted at #5 in 1999 with "Lost In You."

By the end of the decade, Brooks was a firmly established country music superstar and was ready to take on a new medium: film. Brooks planned to portray fictional rock star Chris Gaines in the movie The Lamb. To prepare himself - and audiences - for the role, he released the album Garth Brooks in... The Life of Chris Gaines. The soul-patched alter ego had his own Behind the Music special on VH1 and was a musical guest on Saturday Night Live. The album sold over 2 million copies in America, but was a relative disappointment considering his previous album, Sevens, sold 10 million. Audiences were more befuddled than amused, and this alter ego came off as more of an ego trip.

Not only did The Lamb never make it to the big screen, but it was never filmed at all due to "financial and management problems" - or to the fact that fans couldn't adjust to seeing their down-home country crooner as a rock star with an emo haircut and guyliner.

Either way, his stint as Gaines did nothing for his acting career - his aforementioned appearance on the VH1 special Behind the Life of Chris Gaines remains his solitary "Actor" credit on IMDB.

Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana

Miley Cyrus' alter ego originated on the Disney Channel's Hannah Montana, but Cyrus continued to bring the character with her on the road to spice up her performances. Mimicking the TV series' plotline, Montana was the attention-craving, pop star side to Cyrus'girl-next-door persona. The singer released two Hannah Montana soundtracks as her alter ego before striking out on her own with Meet Miley Cyrus in 2007. She then promptly tried to outdo her alter ego with a string of high profile incidents, leading the media to label her a "good girl gone bad" alongside troubled celebs like Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan.

With allegations of drug use, racism and all-around inappropriate behavior, it seemed like the wilder side finally won over, but who could really tell the difference in the first place?

As Time magazine quipped: "But as far as we can tell, Montana is just Cyrus in a blond wig. And as far as rock alter egos go, that's pretty lame."

Bono/Mr. MacPhisto

As it turns out, the devil really is in rock and roll - and he's flashy. U2 front man Bono took on the devil-meets-glam-rock-star Mr. MacPhisto during the band's ZooTV tour in the early '90s. On the same tour, he also morphed into The Fly (a vinyl-clad stereotypical rock star) and Mirror Ball Man, who author Bill Flanagan describes as an "American TV evangelist/used car salesman/game-show host in a cowboy hat throwing dollars around." Both The Fly and Mirror Ball Man laid the groundwork for MacPhisto. Bono explained in his autobiography, U2 by U2:

"It was time to put the Mirror Ball Man in mothballs. We wanted a more Eurocentric character, more decadent, more old world, rather than the brash Yankee salesman with God on his side. I started to think about what The Fly would be like when he's old and fat and playing Las Vegas. U2 conjured up the Devil!"

Marshall Mathers/Eminem/Slim Shady

Eminem says his psychotic alter ego Slim Shady "gives him an excuse to be an asshole." Nothing is too offensive for Shady: he can be murderous, misogynistic, homophobic and every other negative adjective in the book, but he's just a character. In fact, the rapper claims he's three personalities in one. There's Eminem, the award-winning artist who single-handedly changed the reputation of white rappers in the hip-hop community since the downfall of Vanilla Ice. There's Slim Shady, who acts out the knee jerk reactions to the tumultuous events in Eminem's life - the divorces, the break-ups, the addictions, the arrests. Then there's Marshall Mathers, the lonely kid from Detroit who discovered he could rhyme. All three make up a complex persona, but as he asked in his autobiography, The Way I Am, "Where does Slim Shady kick in, when does Eminem step in, where does Marshall begin?"

Only he can know the real answer, but we do know where Slim Shady first kicked in. Since nothing is too foul for this alter ego to spew, it's only fitting that Eminem came up with the character while he was on the toilet: "Boom, the name hit me, and right away I thought of all these words to rhyme with it," he wrote. "So I wiped my ass, got up off the pot and, ah, went and called everybody I knew."

Eminem had made a dismal debut with the album Infinite in 1996, but it was Shady who helped the rapper earn his deal with Interscope Records in 1999 with the release of the Slim Shady EP, which included his breakthrough hit "My Name Is."

The Beatles/Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band wasn't just a groundbreaking rock album. It was a chance for the Beatles to stop being the Beatles. After a particularly exhausting US tour in 1966, John Lennon famously said: "We're fed up with making soft music for soft people, and we're fed up with playing for them, too."

The band saw themselves with two options: break-up or change it up. Paul McCartney had the idea to create alter egos to have the freedom to be creative apart from the stigma of being the Beatles.

With hits like "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," "A Day In the Life" and "Getting Better," Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is an anti-Beatles album that ironically became one of the defining pieces of the Beatles legacy. The concept went only as far as Ringo singing "With a Little Help from my Friends" in character as "Billy Shears," but the façade gave the band a chance to transcend their former image as the lads from Liverpool.

Years later, McCartney used this same creative technique by creating a female alter ego - Gladys Jenkins - for the 2008 album Electronic Arguments by his act The Fireman.

Nicki Minaj/Roman Zolanski

When Nicki Minaj was a little girl, she would create characters to help her cope with a tumultuous childhood torn apart by her parents' bickering.

"To get away from all their fighting, I would imagine being a new person. 'Cookie' was my first identity – that stayed with me for a while. I went on to 'Harajuku Barbie,' then 'Nicki Minaj.' Fantasy was my reality," she told New York magazine.

Minaj injects a heavy dose of that fantasy into her music, where "Roman Zolanski" remains one of her most prevalent alter egos. The angry twin brother with a taste for violence made his debut on the Pink Friday album and did a memorable collaboration with Eminem's twisted alter ego, Slim Shady, in "Roman's Revenge." Roman's mother, another one of Minaj's creations named Martha Zolanski, can be heard shouting in her British accent at the end of the song.

Creedence Clearwater Revival/Willy and the Poor Boys

Inspired by the Beatles' psychedelic transformation as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival indulged in a bit of role play as Willy and the Poor Boys for their 1969 album of the same name. Unlike Sgt. Pepper, however, psychedelia was far from present on songs like "Down on the Corner," which detailed the story behind the fictional jug band that performed on street corners for smiles and nickels.

Willy and the Poor Boys made their television debut on the Ed Sullivan Show on November 16, 1969 where they performed "Down on the Corner" and the protest song "Fortunate Son."
Die Antwoord/Ninja

By the time Watkin Tudor Jones joined the South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord in 2008, he was used to slipping into different roles onstage in bands like the Original Evergreens, MaxNormal.TV and the Constructus Corporation. But for this group, he had a different type of alter ego in mind, one with the mind of a killer and the stealth of a ninja. Fans weren't sure if Ninja was a character or the personality of Tudor-Jones himself. He explained in a video interview:

"Ninja is, how can I say, like Superman is to Clark Kent. The only difference is, I don't take off this fokken Superman suit."

Kid Rock/Bobby Shazam

In the spirit of David Bowie's glam-rocker alter ego Ziggy Stardust, Kid Rock embodied the role of Bobby Shazam for his ode to rock, "Mr. Rock n Roll." It's a fitting title considering the song is strung together with 24 (as far as we could count) classic rock references.

As for the man behind the title, Kid Rock explained the origin of his new persona to MTV News: "Oh, man, Bobby. He probably came from having too many adult beverages, and trying to come up with something fun and different to do musically, and maybe have this character that could come out at shows," he said. "He's just this psychotic rock and roller. Like, I picture his dad being a roadie for REO Speedwagon, and his mom was a high-priced call girl somewhere, and he's just out of his mind."

"Mr. Rock n Roll" debuted on Kid Rock's 2012 album, Rebel Soul.

Judas Priest/Painkiller

Who would've thought that British heavy metal would save the world from destruction? In 1990, Judas Priest created a new messiah: The Painkiller. Although not technically an alter ego, the character would be a conduit for the band's emotions during a rough patch in their career. The sleeve notes for the Painkiller album proclaim:

"As mankind hurled itself forever downwards into the bottomless pit of eternal chaos, the remnants of civilisation screamed out for salvation - redemption roared across the burning sky. The Painkiller!"

The song describes the fallen angel as half man and half machine. He descends upon the earth on a metal monster, "closing in with vengeance soaring high." The descriptions bring to mind a lethal, Superman-like character: Faster than a laser bullet, louder than an atom bomb, chromium-plated boiling metal, brighter than a thousand suns.

The fact is, Judas Priest was in desperate need of a Painkiller, someone to absorb their own rage and re-right the wrongs of the world. It had been a tough few years for the band, to put it lightly. Their previous two albums, Turbo and Ram it Down, were met with little more than a yawn. On top of that, they were being sued by the parents of two boys who made a suicide pact after hearing "hidden messages" in the song "Better By You Better Than Me," from the 1978 album Stained Class. One boy managed to kill himself with a 12-gauge shotgun, while the other was left severely mutilated, but alive, from the blast. He died three years later. The $3 million lawsuit against the band and their CBS label was eventually thrown out, but the experience infused the band with a new purpose for a new album. Rob Halford explained to Metal Hammer magazine:

"The thing about 'Painkiller' was that it became a defining moment. We set ourselves a challenge to make the consummate heavy metal album, and that's exactly what we achieved."

Lady Gaga/Jo Calderone

Lady Gaga, known for her outlandish fashion statements and over-the-top performances, pushed the envelope even further in 2011 at the MTV Music Awards when she performed in drag as her male alter ego Jo Calderone. Not only did she physically transform herself with a swoop of black hair and sideburns, but she stayed in character, only answering questions backstage as Calderone.

"My family's from Palermo, Sicily. And I'm not a singer or a model or actor or anything, I'm just a guy," Jo said.

Gaga originally created the character months earlier on the sly and sneaked him into a men's fashion editorial for Vogue Hommes Japan, leading fans to wonder if this new male model with a rough-around-the-edges style was indeed the female singer.

Apparently, Jo wasn't content at playing the modeling gig, so Gaga included him in her "You and I" music video and allowed him to perform in her place at the VMAs. After the ceremony, some fans and critics were left wondering if it was all too bizarre.

Although he said it months earlier, perhaps Chris Rock addressed the Gaga controversy the best: "Well, she's Lady Gaga," he told CNN. "She's not 'Lady Behave Yourself.' Do you want great behavior from a person named Gaga? Is this what you were expecting?"

Katy Perry / Kathy Beth Terry

Any fans of John Hughes' teen comedies from the '80s probably felt a bit nostalgic when Katy Perry starred as her nerdy alter ego Kathy Beth Terry in the "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" music video. If Joan Cusack's head-gear wearing character from Sixteen Candles had her own spin-off - where a geeky teen wakes up to find that she, like, totally threw the most awesome house party ever - it would be this video.

The 13-year-old Kathy Beth knows she has Katy Perry to thank for her sudden popularity and "performing on stage with her has been so fun!" Plus, her own Facebook and Twitter accounts have helped her connect with more people like her. She told Digital Spy: "I never knew there were so many people into Sudoku and the solar system like me! I've made a few really great Weenie Baby trades recently as well."

Hank Williams/Luke the Drifter

Hank Williams was on a hot streak in 1949 with the release of seven hits, including enduring songs like "Wedding Bells," "Mind Your Own Business," "You're Gonna Change (Or I'm Gonna Leave)," and "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It." By the following year, he was ready for a change of pace, but would his fans be? This was the question that nagged the singer as he prepared religious-themed narratives that were a far cry from his popular work. Enter Luke the Drifter, a traveling man with a story to tell and a message to preach.

But Luke the Drifter didn't leave Hank Williams far behind. While he was busy sermonizing, Hank was his same old hard-drinking, skirt-chasing self. He continued to record hits under his true identity but would often introduce his other half on stage with "Here's a song by my friend Luke the Drifter."
Joni Mitchell/Art Nouveau

In the soul of every sensitive folk singer there's a black pimp waiting to emerge... wait, what?

Blonde-haired, blue-eyed and very pale-skinned Joni Mitchell first transformed herself into alter ego Art Nouveau for a Halloween party in 1976, where she showed up in blackface and decked out with an afro, large sunglasses, a mustache and, of course, funky hipster duds. She fooled everyone.

Author Sheila Weller noted in her biography Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon - and the Journey of a Generation:

"Like many young white people of her generation, Joni romanticized being black (without the disadvantages of being black, or course). She would increasingly insist that her music was "black" and that, as it progressed deeply into jazz, it should be played on black stations (it rarely was). Joni has repeatedly said that she has already written the first line of her autobiography, and (perhaps referring to the day at the Ashers) it is this: I was the only black man in the room."

Art Nouveau graced the cover of Mitchell's 1977 jazz-based album Don Juan's Reckless Daughter.

Laurie Anderson/Fenway Bergamot

Laurie Anderson's alter ego lurked in her music for years before he was finally given a name, and a face, in 2010. Named Fenway Bergamot by her husband Lou Reed, the character arose out of a voice filter that gave the singer a deeper, more masculine sound, or what she called "a voice of authority." Although Anderson is hardly an artist afraid to speak her mind, there are moments that give her pause. That's when Fenway steps in.

"Any kind of stupid thing that I wouldn't do in front of people, I can have Fenway do," she told CBC News.

The Wire magazine claimed Anderson's Homeland album "reminds us why Anderson, now in her sixties, is the (modulated) voice of America's conscience." But that distinction really should go to Fenway, who peers from underneath his bushy eyebrows on the album cover looking quite unimpressed with the whole spectacle.

Justin Bieber/Shawty Mane

When the non-Beliebers (aka most adults) desperately wished for Justin Bieber to go away, a rapping alter ego was not what they had in mind. Or was it? Surely the Biebs would be laughed off of Twitter if he attempted anything, well, so un-Bieberlike. Instead, the teen pop star first boasted his rhyming skills in a remix of Cam'ron and Vado's "Speakin' Tungs" in 2010 under the slick moniker "Shawty Mane," and he was far from humiliated. In fact, Vado even told the New York Daily News, "I was shocked! He killed it! He sounded like [Notorious] B.I.G."

When Shawty Mane returned in 2011 on Chris Brown's "Ladies Love Me," the Vulture even admitted "he is definitely still not the worst."

Glowing praise aside, don't look for a Shawty Mane album any time soon. Bieber told XXL: "I just do it for fun, but nothing serious. I don't think people would take me seriously if I came out with, like, a rap album." Hmm, we'll see.

Updated December 14, 2016. Starboy section by Laura Antonelli.
More Song Writing

Comments: 16

  • Brian from TennesseeShakira/She Wolf
  • Brian from TennesseeChristina Aguilera/Xtina
  • Mack from Another RealityPrince's alter ego of Camille
  • Pacifica Northwest from Gravity Falls, OregonSome newer ones include:
    Tyler Joseph/Blurryface- Blurry is the human version of negative feelings, such as anxiety, anger, and depression
    Marina and The Diamonds/ Electra Heart- A version of Marina who is described as "ruthless" and "invulnerable"; and
    Melanie Martinez/ Cry Baby- Cry baby represent a more childish side of Melanie, who still has to struggle with issue Melanie feels in her day to day life
  • Roy K O'hara from Venus & MarsDon't forget: Klaatu Barada Nikto!
  • K.c. from NhEric Clapton as Derek in Derek & the Dominoes?
  • David Evans from Rotterdam, Nyi believe tori amos had a bunch on one of her works "american doll posse".
  • Karl Stuber from Mackinac IslandThen Blue Oyster Cult is Soft White Underbelly's alter ego
  • John Virden from Arkansas City,kansasYou forgot,Peter Gabriel's Rael among many other personas he had.
  • Mark from AnonymousAlice Cooper?
  • Stephen KubackiWhere's a Roger Waters/Pink article?
  • Keely from Why Do You Care?MacPhisto and Ziggy are my favorites. I wasn't even awaer that a lot of these performers had alter egos. I guess it's kind of a fashionable thing to do these days?
  • AnonymousYou Forgot Roger Daltrey as Tommy!!!!! :( BTW, Justin Beiber, REALLY??? You've got 2 b kidding me!
  • AnonymousAmanda Palmer and her "Evelyn & Evelyn" alter would be an intriguing study. Fun article! Well done.
  • JonnyYou guys forgot Tommy!!!!
  • Jim from North Billerica, MaDon't forget XTC/The Dukes of Stratosphear and Devo and their "opening act" Dove, the Band of LOve
see more comments

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