Wednesday, August 08, 2012

The Edge of Identity

Today is the birthday of David Howell Evans, the guitarist of the band U2 better known simply as "The Edge." I've been thinking about pseudonyms lately because it was noted in a conversation recently how many fewer actors are taking stage names. It was a much more common practice in the 30s and 40s when performers with immigrant backgrounds wanted to hide them in order to seem more accessible to mainstream American audiences who would have negative associations with Jewish, Italian, Eastern European, or any other sort of name that seemed "hard to pronounce." But we've become much more accepting of celebrities from a wide range of backgrounds and so the use of a pseudonym to deceive audiences about cultural heritage or for privacy reasons has faded to almost nothing.

Since the 80s, we've seen it more prevalent in popular music -- The Edge, Sting, Flea, Prince, and Madonna are examples from rock music and the practice is almost ubiquitous in hip hop. Here, though, it is a nickname and not a pseudonym. No one thinks Mr. and Mrs. D decided to name their bouncing baby boy "Heavy." The name used is not meant to be thought of as an actual name. "Lady Gaga" is not the name of a person, but of a persona.

We use names to refer. The move from stage names to nicknames seems to indicate that we are not even supposed to think of the performer as a full person in any way. We are not naming the individual, but the stage role the individual plays.

But unlike actors who are explicitly portraying a fictional character, musicians try to lay claim in their art to a sense of authenticity. The music is supposed to come from someplace real and lived. Does the use of the nickname then undermine this or is it a further statement that the culture in some way has robbed the artist of his given identity and replaced it with a new one. It is our friends who usually call us by our nickname. It is only the people who really know us well that know how to refer to us informally. By using the nickname as a stage name is the artist trying to lay claim to an honesty usually only reserved for those intimately associated with us? Has the pseudonym therefore become its opposite, moving from a false image to hide one's actual identity behind to a door to the actual identity?