On the naming of artists

The other night, I met up with Carla DeSantis Black, creator of ROCKRGRL Magazine, who moved to Austin late last year. We share some mutual friends and some obvious interests, so it was a natural meeting. I talked about the blog, school, and other things I’m working on. She talked about some projects she’s getting off the ground. We talked about facilitating workshops for Girls Rock Camp and the current state of women in music.

One thing that she brought up that I found especially interesting was the recent crop of female artists using pseudonyms instead of their given names. I hadn’t really thought about it much, but indeed it’s a phenomenon–Glasser, tUnE-yArDs, Bat for Lashes, St. Vincent, Noveller, Circuit des Yeux. Many of these women either started out or continue to write, record, and tour as solo artists. Black is encouraging female artists who record under aliases and do much/all of their act’s writing, recording, and performing to use their given names in order to claim ownership of their work.

Circuit des Yeux, aka Haley Fohr; image courtesy of imposemagazine.com

Of course, adopting a nom de plume is standard practice in popular music. Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara. Erica Wright renamed herself Erykah Badu to honor her African roots. In the grand tradition of drag artists, Christeene Vale was born Paul Soileau. The Donnas and the Ramones created a group identity by sticking to one name. David Bowie was born David Jones, but didn’t want to be confused with the Monkees’ front man. Given hip hop’s inclination toward nicknames, Kanye West’s decision to record under his given name is damn near revolutionary and certainly political. My presence is a present, kiss my ass.

The process of renaming is as old as the entertainment industry. A-list aspirants continue to lop “ethnic” surnames, use middle names, or invent stage names. Reinvention is intrinsic to constructing a persona. Often, a performer’s decision to adopt a stage name says a great deal about racial and ethnic identity and the politics of assimilation. In music, which is tied to fantasy and the imagination, it may also say something about artistic creativity, the desire for metamorphosis, and a need for creative release shared between performer and fan. Actors often use stage names to seem more relateable to an audience. Musicians often use them to trouble relatability, if not transcend human existence entirely.  

But what does it mean when female musicians use a moniker instead of their given names, especially white women associated with indie music? Is it a defense against being reduced to a chick musician or singer-songwriter? Do aliases subvert expectations and provide artists more space for play? Is it particular to female artists already prone to musical abstraction who eschew traditional instrumentation, or are we seeing it elsewhere? Can we apply these concerns to female MCs, deejays, and electronic artists, who usually go by nicknames and aliases as well? Does it obscure their individual efforts? Is it political? Is it anti-feminist? What do you think?

9 comments

  1. karen

    i don’t consider myself an authority on new music, but from what i know i think both men and women are doing the band name as solo artist thing more and more (bon iver, etc.). and yes, there may be a different significance there when it’s a woman. but i’m guessing there are real reasons behind it too. i think a lot of people see first name-last name they immediately think acoustic coffeeshop singer-songwriter. or they’re a bit more dismissive in a more general way. female artists can use whatever little edge they can get to avoid being dismissed, right? does it reflect something shitty that people might be less likely to investigate music by a solo female artist? of course it does, but ignoring it won’t change it. i wouldn’t have this attitude about something that i thought was actually bad for these women, but i don’t see pseudonyms as being bad for them at all. the only thing that could be distressing about this trend is the possibility than new female artists won’t feel comfortable using their own names if that’s what they really want to do. that would be a shame, but that’s not really the fault of the st. vincents and bats-for-lashes of the world. those of us who listen to music and talk and write about it should be making more room and trying to think differently to see if we can actually change the reception of female artists.

  2. guitareste

    I’m convinced using a pseudonym is a way of saying, “I am not a singer-songwriter.” When we hear one person’s name, we tend to think coffee houses and acoustic guitars.

    It’s interesting to think about how that might be a gendered move though. Is using a pseudonym a trend for all solo artists, or just women? I’m thinking specifically of Will Oldham working as Palace or Bonnie Prince Billy. And “The Magnetic Fields” is really Stephin Merritt. He collaborates with other artists, and performs live with the same people. But he has written most of it, and the early recordings were all him playing. It does seem more prevalent for women, though.

  3. Gina

    I am sorry, I accidentally left this comment on the hannah fury post by mistake….so here it is again, in the right spot.

    I have considered using a stage name primarily to avoid being reduced to a chick musician or a singer-songwriter. I didn’t want to focus the attention myself as a person or a woman. I wanted the focus to be on what I created. I’ve thought long and hard about what name or word I could use to describe what I do, and in realizing I just was not the right personality for a solo career (not enough of a ham) I went and joined a band instead.

    Being behind the name of a band does make me look more legitimate as a musician, but even with a psuedonym or a band name to soften the blow of borderline misogynist pigeon-holing, it still does not prevent most of the problems associated with being a female in the music business. Being a woman next to a bunch of men will always put me in the position of having my talent overestimated, expectations toward me lowered, and my success will be limited the less like a fashion model I appear to be.

    I shall also add that having a fake name doesn’t seem terribly political to me, at least not inherently. The person may want to make a political statement by doing so, in which case it would be political. I’m not sure what “political” means in this context anyway.

  4. Gina

    Oh I forgot something else. Because there is an unpleasant stereotype about women being self absorbed and craving attention, I also wanted to avoid seeming that way by attaching my music to my real name so I thought if I made up a name that obscured my gender AND my real identity that I’d be killing two birds with one stone.

    Men do use monikers, too. Bon Iver and Girl Talk come to mind. And also Nine Inch Nails, to be honest. But also that seems like a specifically indie music thing. The indie music world tends to like unconventional songwriting, vocal styles, and instrumentation so having an odd psuedonym might also be a marketing strategy to attract a market that associates odd pseudonyms with “good music.”

  5. scantron

    I think monikers are used because, although its usually one person writing, performing, etc, I think there are a lot of other people who come in and out throughout the “band”s lifecycle to collaborate on certain aspects. I think it also gives the artist freedom to experiment with different sounds and genres. I also think it is an added element to the creative process of the artist. Creating the music, creating the “Brand” or “Image” surrounding the music.

  6. stephanie cawley (@stephanieviii)

    I think I agree that it has a lot to do with declaring “I am not a singer songwriter,” a label that does carry with it some negative and definitely “un-hip” baggage, especially because, as others pointed out, some of the most high profile indie contemporary men who use monikers–Bon Iver and Iron and Wine and even The Mountain Goats–pretty much just straight up ARE singer-songwriters looking to side-step the label. The women you mentioned in this post who use monikers, tune-yards and St. Vincent especially, really don’t even SOUND like singer-songwriters in the softspoken acoustic guitar way that the similarly-monikered dudes do, but maybe they still feel the need to use monikers to avoid that label because its negative impact is worse for women.

    • Alyx Vesey

      Names always have meanings. Whether artists use their given names or elect stage names or what have you, all names have meaning. How do you spend your time?

  7. Pingback: Indelible Ink: Tori Amos as Comic Book Tattoo « Feminist Music Geek

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