Something about achieving major fame in music seems to drive creative artists to assume new personae. Whether it be fodder for an epic concept album, a stab at a different genre or just plain boredom, many of our favorite stars have conjured up characters in order to explore and indulge their fancies.
In fact, many current superstars (Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj) have skipped building their careers under their own names and gone straight to the made-up pop confections. In honor of these brave and often foolish attempts, here are Eleven of the Weirdest Rock Star Alter Egos:
David Bowie (The Thin White Duke)
David Bowie has the most colorful cast of alter egos in rock history, including Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the gay trenchcoat guy who covered “Dancing in the Streets” with Mick Jagger. The creepiest, though, was the Thin White Duke. While touring behind 1975's Young Americans, Bowie began to move away from that album's “plastic soul” funk stylings into a newer, elegant phase. Unfortunately, that phase included bizarre pro-fascist comments, Nazi imagery and silos of cocaine. The persona informed much of 1976's excellent Station to Station, but dismayed many of Bowie's fans and embarrassed him for years after.
Beyoncé (Sasha Fierce)
Beyoncé Knowles is one of the biggest multimedia stars on the planet, so it's kind of odd that she would decide to take on a new persona at the height of her fame. I Am. Sasha Fierce was a album split by personality: I Am. took an eclectic take on her normal pop and R&B, but Sasha Fierce went for a harder-edged electro sound that many fans didn't particularly dig outside of “Single Ladies.” The unusual part of Sasha Fierce was that she was basically Beyoncé with a glove and different clothes on. No one ever really figured out her reasoning for the split, but it didn't stop her from selling millions of albums. The moral of the story: Beyoncé can call herself whatever she damn well pleases.
David Johansen (Buster Poindexter)
David Johansen was best known for being the outrageous frontman of the classic 1970s glam/protopunk group the New York Dolls. He released a few more rock-tinged solo records before re-emerging in the '80s as both an actor (Scrooged, Let It Ride) and a bizarre, calypso-obsessed lounge singer named Buster Poindexter. Most famous for office/limbo/depressing wedding party staple “Hot Hot Hot,” Poindexter and his various backing bands actually explored some interesting territory musically. However, Johansen himself even regretted his big hit single, as it overshadowed what is a fine
career of worthwhile tunes.
Garth Brooks (Chris Gaines)
Easily the weirdest alter ego in the list (which is saying something), Chris Gaines is an Australian pop sensation who resembles Trent Reznor and was to star in a biopic about himself entitled The Lamb. Except for one thing: Chris Gaines was actually zaftig American country music megastar Garth
Brooks. Makes sense, right? Well, no, actually. Released to a confused public, The Life of Chris Gaines actually managed a Top 5 hit in “Lost in You” and a dire Youngbloods-sampling radio single “Right Now” and went to No. 2 on the album charts. The album was pretty mediocre overall, and both the movie and Gaines persona were quickly abandoned.
Bono (The Fly/MacPhisto)
U2 were the biggest rock group in the world through most of the 1980s. They
started off the '90s with Achtung Baby, one of their most successful albums both musically and in sales. They reinvented themselves into an electronica- and world music-savvy postmodern pop group for the record and ensuing Zoo TV tour that went on for about 12 years afterward, and Bono was inspired to take on an “identikit pop star” personality in response. The Fly was an ironic, self-obsessed maniac with a messianic complex (read: Bono with new sunglasses). Over the course of the tour, the Fly morphed into MacPhisto, who was basically Satan-as-rock star and did such “naughty” things onstage as ordering 10,000 pizzas, calling a phone sex line and repeatedly trying to reach President George H.W. Bush. Sadly, it was far scarier/funnier when Bono actually met with his son Dubya at the White House to discuss debt relief and AIDS.
RZA (Bobby Digital)
Why is Bobby Digital on this list, you may ask? RZA is already technically an alter ego for Wu-Tang Clan producer/rapper Robert Diggs, and he has had several personae besides (Prince Rakeem, the Rzarector and the Abbot). Bobby Digital is just the silliest and most fun. RZA reached back to his comic book-obsessed youth for a hip-hop superhero that would resurface multiple times over the course of his career. Rather than the dark themes, martial arts movies samples and creepy strings of Wu-Tang and Gravediggaz, his new persona rapped about partying and bedding ladies over funky, keyboard-laden grooves. RZA has pretty much adopted all of qualities of the alter ego into his bag of tricks at this point, so it's hard to tell where he ends and Digital ends.
Marshall Mathers (Eminem/Slim Shady/Ken Kaniff)
Ah, three for the price of one. Working-class Detroit white boy Marshall Mathers became Eminem on the local hip-hop circuit in the early-1990s, but his career really took off with the invention of his Slim Shady persona. Shady was the vodka-swilling, chainsaw-wielding id to Eminem's dour ego, and he pushed every boundary (and button) uptight America had. The act started to get a bit tired as time went on, as did Mathers, whose partying would take its toll physically and artistically. On the more playful (but still offensive) side, Eminem would add short, effeminate asides on each album as Ken Kaniff, a fan obsessed with baiting Em sexually. Originally played by one of his buddies, Mathers would soon take over the Kaniff character, leaving him in the unusual position of hitting on himself. Which takes us to our next artist.
Given Prince's weirdness factor, it's no surprise that he took on a weird persona at the height of his fame. It was a little surprising that the persona he took on was a sex-crazed woman he called “Camille.” The Artist Formerly Known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince recorded and sped up his vocals to sound even more feminine and planned to release an entire album of this ill-advised project. The album was eventually shelved, but a few Camille vocals made their way onto some of the Purple One's endless parade of compilation releases and bootlegs. It would be interesting to hear the Camille album in its entirety now, though, just for the historical interest; I mean, how could a record be so insane that Prince wouldn't release it?
Bruce Wayne Campbell (Jobriath/Cole Berlin)
Bruce Wayne Campbell was a shy boy from Philadelphia who left for the West Coast in the hopes of becoming the biggest, boldest, gayest rock star in the world. After some unsuccessful folk-rock releases, the newly renamed Jobriath Salisbury caught the glam rock bug and the attention of Jerry Brandt, Carly Simon's manager. With a huge marketing push that compared Jobriath favorably to David Bowie, hopes were high he'd take the charts by storm. Success eluded the starry-eyed, greasepaint-plastered crooner, unfortunately, and he decamped to New York City to become his final persona: jazzy cabaret weirdo Cole Berlin. Sadly, Campbell contracted AIDS and passed away in 1983 at the age of 36.
Damon Albarn and Co. (Gorillaz)
Damon Albarn fronted Britpop brat-geniuses Blur and made several classic albums in a row before the group sputtered out in the late-1990s. Albarn decided to join up with artist friend Jamie Hewlett to explore a pretty oddball avenue: a cartoon trip-hop supergroup come to life. Recruiting the sonic talents of rapper Del Tha Funkee Homosapien and hip-hop superproducer Dan the Automator, the duo created a virtual cast of characters such as 2D, Murdoc Niccals, Noodle and Russel Hobbs. The most unlikely part of the
venture? It was massively successful even in the U.S., and they earned critical accolades, despite being miles away from Blur's snarky pop-rock.
Paul McCartney and Youth (The Fireman)
Paul McCartney has worn many hats throughout his career. Most of his post-Beatles ventures have been corny or insipid. The Fireman, however, was highly experimental and surprisingly cool. Youth, a veteran of post-punk band Killing Joke, took some tracks from an old McCartney solo album, looped and remixed them, then actually got Sir Paul himself on board. The two recorded ambient tracks together as the Fireman, which really has nothing to do with anything related to the project. They made a few more records over the years and even briefly had their own Sirius XM station. McCartney wouldn't publicly admit his involvement as part of the Fireman for years, which made for an awkward open secret, but he eventually got over it.