What do David Bowie, Beyonce, and Garth Brooks have in common? They all stepped out of themselves to put on a new face and performance for the stage! While many performers have pulled similar stunts, here are our top five alter egos. Hold on to your butts, it’s gonna be a weird ride.
5) Chris Gaines
The late 1990s were an odd time. We were in the throes of a bull market, Britney Spears was a fresh-faced ingénue with all of her hair intact (and in pigtails), and country-pop was all the rage. We weren’t even at war with anyone. It was in this cultural climate of excess and sunny emotions that we were first introduced to the remarkable artiste Chris Gaines.
Though now couched in a “we-were-in-on-the-joke” wink, wink sort of explanation, those of us who lived through the experience of Garth Brooks’ alter ego would venture that wasn’t always the case. Chris Gaines was Brooks’ (mildly disturbing) attempt to break into alt-rock and film. With some hair extensions, an album of “Greatest Hits” – quite the feat for a completely fabricated individual – and a fictional biography, Brooks transformed himself into Gaines in the hopes of the character parlaying into a film career. Gaines, the creation of a generally adored and utterly innocuous country megastar, was not only a departure of his style and look, but came with a complex and oddly unsetting “biography” that included disfigurement in a car crash and an episode of the VH1 classic show, Behind the Music. Perhaps Brooks was setting himself up so as to avoid in-person interviews had the Gaines persona gotten any traction. Sadly, while the Chris Gaines album didn’t completely flop, the alter ego rather did, and he was retired shortly after his introduction. Garth, however, is still going strong and is currently on tour, so get your tickets now!
Irish rockstar/megalomaniac Bono took a hard left into WTF-ville during the early 1990s when he wanted to shake up the pristine and careening ethos of U2’s wildly successful Joshua Tree album during their Zoo tour. Outfitted in a gold suit, white stage makeup, and horns, Bono transformed into his devilish creation, MacPhisto, as a part of every set during the tour. Looking as though he was actually the lovechild of Tony Clifton and Liberace, MacPhisto would take the mic and give his audiences a dressing down regarding the moralities and current events of the day. No word on whether MacPhisto ever condescendingly introduced himself to a Sudanese refugee as a “rockstar,” as his creator once did. Though MacPhisto was a one-tour deal, U2 are currently on their iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE World Tour, and you can find tickets here.
3) Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Beatles took on new personae with the recording and tour of their 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. A departure from their previous work, which had been extremely radio-friendly and feel-good, Sgt. Pepper’s was fans’ increased exposure to a more experimental, far more psychedelic, and much more colorful Fab Four. The whole period was one of growth for the biggest band in history, and if you could read the tea leaves, you might see it as the beginning of their end. At the time, and indeed in the annals of music history, Sgt. Pepper’s has always been a critical favorite. It was hailed as an instant classic – and album that changed not only what audiences heard, but how they listened, as it was the first major album to ever include complete lyrics on the album cover. And, of course, the colorful cover was a time-stamp of history and the subject of much scrutiny. While the group returned to their actual incarnations after the album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band remains one of the more influential forays into alternative personae. And while we know only half the Beatles remain with us, you can see Paul McCartney worldwide this summer and at the Firefly Festival in Dover, Delaware in June, and check out Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band when they embark on their U.S. Tour this fall!
2) Sasha Fierce
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The Queen Bey worked her arse off to get to the top, but she took a slightly unexpected turn in 2008 when she released her third solo album I Am… Sasha Fierce. A double-album, the first disc, I Am…, featured Beyonce’s stable musical stylings of slow and midtempo pop and R&B tunes, while the Second, Sasha Fierce, brought out new forays into danceable, uptempo electro- and Euro-pop style songs. Though generally not well-received by critics, the album was a hit with fans, spawning one of her most memorable singles, Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It), and the “I Am… World Tour” that Beyonce embarked on to support it involved several incarnations of the songstress as well her alter ego, and was one of the most successful tours of 2009. Despite leaving the Sasha performance in her professional past, we can agree that Beyonce will likely forever be associated with her alter ego, so long as Mrs. Carter doesn’t become her dominant persona…
1) Ziggy Stardust
Sometimes, the originals are the best – and the most memorable. Though he wasn’t the first artist to adopt an alternate persona, one can probably make a sound argument that David Bowie did it best. (And in the interest of journalistic integrity or whatever, I am now and always have been a die-hard Bowie fan.) More a fully-realized and self-contained performance artist than standalone musician, when David Bowie adopted the character of Ziggy Stardust, he did so fully, going so far as to rename his backing band The Spiders from Mars and maintaining his persona onstage and off during both his “Ziggy Stardust” and “Aladdin Sane” Tours from 1972 to 1973. The concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars propelled Bowie to superstardom, not just in his glamrock genre, but across the board, and pulled his previous albums along with it onto the charts. Bowie so immersed himself in inhabiting the role of Ziggy – and years later, another alter ego, The Thin White Duke – that the persona overcame his own. Bowie once said that Ziggy “wouldn’t leave me alone for years… My whole personality was affected. It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity.” Sane or otherwise, Bowie’s complete commitment to his alter egos challenged everything about rock music of the early ‘70s, and though we take his glam and graphic stage shows for granted now (in fact, they seem downright tame in comparison to what many subsequent performers have attempted), Bowie singlehandedly created cultlike status for himself and for Ziggy, and lay down a path many have simulated, but none have come close to achieving. (I’m looking at you, Lady Gaga.) Though he’s not currently touring, you can catch him on the Are We Not Men? Devo documentary, and we can keep our fingers crossed that he might reprise a cameo for Zoolander 2, since, in addition to being one of rock’s most influential musicians, he also dabbles in a little acting.