Monday, June 10, 2013

Pseudonyms, part 2: Answers and Analysis

Quiz winner and answers

So, the Pseudonym game winner is one-time guest post writer Brian Tanner, who's currently doing an internship with Samuel Goldwyn films. He will receive a music download of his choice from Amazon and a guitar pick! (1) Thanks to everyone else those who participated (Bradley).

Here are the quiz answers, for those of you who haven't already looked them up:

  • Reginald Kenneth Dwight = Elton John
  • Norma Deloris Egstrom = Peggy Lee   
  • Declan Patrick MacManus = Elvis Costello
  • Alecia Beth Moore = P!nk
  • David Robert Jones = David Bowie
  • Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. = John Denver
  • Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner = Sting
  • Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta = Lady Gaga

Why all the fuss, just for show?

I hope at this point you are asking yourself: "Why? Why do artists adopt pseudonyms?"

The obvious answer is these artists thought their names were not appropriate enough for the presentation of their art. But let's dig a little deeper into this phenomenon, which happens not just in music, but in many arts.

When listening to music, especially solo vocal music, it is as difficult to separate a singer's persona from their music as it is an actor from their given role. While we watch Martin Sheen performing as President Josiah Bartlet, we are still aware that it is Martin Sheen. The cognitive tension of this dual personality usually adds to our enjoyment (though it could also detract). With pseudonyms, however, this symbol goes one step deeper—Martin Sheen is a stage name for Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez, a name which might (unfortunately) color our perception of who Josiah Bartlet might be. Similarly in music, a singer or performer's persona can either accentuate or detract from the message of the music. In cases where they believe it advantageous, artists have taken pseudonyms to control the persona-representation dynamic. While Henry Deutschendorf singing "Rocky Mountain High" is fine, changing the artist's name to John Denver somehow adds some level of authenticity, even if it's feigned.

Because adopting new names seems to have some effect on audiences, musicians (or their producers) have attempted to look like what they think their music sounds like. These expectations are especially in some genres such as country music, glam rock, and metal, where your character is almost as important as your sound. After all, these are performers—they aren't just singing, they are putting on a show.

Possible reactions to pseudonyms

But what about honesty? For someone like John Denver, who's persona was folksy earnestness, shouldn't his use of a pseudonym ruin our image? I think there is three possible reactions: one, we just don't know; and two, we just don't care; three, we feel betrayed. John Denver, Peggy Lee, and Elton John are examples of not knowing, as many people are unaware that these are not their real names.

For the second option, not caring about the pseudonyms, I think the best example, and perhaps the most adept at persona creation, is David Bowie. Besides his pseudonym, he has taken on many personas, such as Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke. Of course, he is no stranger to acting, having performed many roles on stage and screen. In the case of David Bowie, his prowess at adopting new personas is his appeal, we might not care that his "real" persona is also a fiction. (2)

On the other hand, pseudonyms might lead to feelings of betrayal just as perceived autobiography might add to feelings of authenticity. I think the reason why someone picks a pseudonym is just as important as the pseudonym itself. If we perceive their re-labeling as an important necessity, or they have produced art that we care about, then we might forgive them or even encourage them with a knowing smile. Perhaps in the case of John Denver and Sting, they truly become their character and it fits their real-life personality more than their real names. But if their real personality starkly contrasts with their performance, we are less likely to forgive. (3)

Perception important, but not the whole pie

So, how one perceives the delivery of a message can change the meaning of the message, especially in something as abstract as music that can easily be interpreted a number of ways.

While the listener's perception of the artist is important, however, I believe the music is really more important, just as a fancy envelope is not really going to make a difference on whether we think its contents are junk or genuine mail.

What do you think of pseudonyms? Are they a useful tool or a unnecessary, unproductive fiction? What about singers who only use one name (called a  mononym) – what does that mean, and why are they almost all women (Cher, Adele, Kesha, Rihana, Jewell, Elvis)?

Vocab: pseudonym, mononym

(1) This is a small operation here.
(2) Right now at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, there is a whole exhibition on the many facets of David Bowie called "David Bowie Is". I attempted to go, but the line was tremendously long.
(3) For more about fiction and songwriting, see this previous post.


  1. I win! Woohoo! Now here's a musician pseudonym quiz for you:

    Frances Ethel Gumm
    Paul Hewson
    William Michael Albert Broad
    Asa Yoelson
    Alfredo Arnold Cocozza
    Robert Allen Zimmerman
    Wladziu Lee Valentino
    Farok Pluto Bulsara
    James Newell Osterberg
    Robert Van Winkle

    I liked your point about Martin Sheen as Josiah Bartlet rather than Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez - it reminded me of this:

    P.S. - I believe you mean Ke$ha.

  2. Hmmm...I think your quiz is harder than my quiz. Maybe I should have you design these in the future. The only one I can guess off the top of my head is Frances Ethel Gumm is Ethel Merman. Which I just checked and found out I was totally wrong. So, 0 for 10 for me. Do you want to post the answers, or should I?