“Some people — you’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free,” so said Bob Dylan on ’60 Minutes’ in a 2004 interview, and he should know. It’s over 54 years since Robert Zimmerman legally changed his name to Bob Dylan shortly before signing his first management contract in New York. While Dylan has deliberately clouded his reason for choosing his new surname – alternately confirming and denying that he took his inspiration from Dylan Thomas – his decision to reinvent himself with a catchier name seems more straight-forward. He was creating a persona for himself, one that came complete with a train-hopping troubadour backstory that was more fiction than fact. Dylan kept his real identity a closely guarded secret, and indeed he feared that the exposure of his real middle-class Jewish upbringing by Newsweek in November 1963 would undermine his career, but the story only bolstered his mythology.
If Dylan’s reinvention had been a clandestine one, David Bowie’s adoption of varied personalities was carried out much more publicly. Born David Jones, he changed his stage name (but not his legal one) to David Bowie on September 16 1965 due to the rising fame of Davy Jones, who would go on to become a member of The Monkees. As he joked in a letter to an American fan in 1967: “My real name is David Jones and I don’t have to tell you why I changed it. “Nobody’s going to make a monkey out of you” said my manager.” Even with his new surname – lifted from the Bowie knife – he struggled to find a persona that he was happy with. It was only with his invention of the Ziggy Stardust character that he really felt able to become a rock star. “I had no problem writing something for Iggy Pop, or working with Lou Reed or writing for Mott The Hoople. I can get into their mood and what they want to do, but I find it extremely hard to write for me,” he told interviewer Joe Smith in 1988, “so I found it quite easy to write for the artists that I would create. I did find it much easier, having created Ziggy, to then write for him… even though it’s me doing it!”
That idea of creating a character to write for, and which you yourself will grow to inhabit, is one that was more recently picked up by Lizzy Grant when explaining the origin of Lana Del Rey. In an interview with MTV Buzzworthy in 2012, she explained the creation of the name by saying: “My sister and I were spending a lot of time in Miami. We have a lot of friends there from Cuba, and we were going out at night. This was for a while, and I knew that I wanted a name that sounded sort of exotic and reminded me of the seaside on the Floridian coast. ‘Lana Del Rey’ sounded beautiful to me, and I just wanted a name for the music, that I could start shaping the music towards. Something beautiful.” Bizarrely, her early career was still dogged by criticism from those who found her persona ‘inauthentic’ despite music’s long history of reinvention and self-mythologising.
In hip-hop, it’s more common for artists to rename themselves than to perform under the name their mothers gave them. That covers everyone from Andre Romelle Young who restyled himself as Dr Dre but famously made more money from selling Beats headphones than he ever made from the medical profession, to William Leonard Roberts II, who changed his name to Rick Ross so that people would think he was a drug kingpin, much to the chagrin of real life drug kingpin Freeway Rick Ross.
In some cases, a new name allows a character to create a partly-fictional alter-ego. In others, it’s simply a name which allows them to be more honest about the truth of their own lives. When I interviewed Father John Misty, he introduced himself as: “Josh Tillman, I perform as Father John Misty.” However, he disagreed when I suggested that Misty was in some way ‘a character’. “It’s not a character,” he clarified. “It’s just a name. It’s just a sequence of phonetic sounds. He doesn’t exist. There’s no cartoon character, do you know what I mean?”
Tillman distances himself from Bowie, who agreed with Joe Smith’s assertion that Ziggy was a ‘surreal cartoon character brought to life’, saying: “I mean he was half out of sci-fi rock and half out of the Japanese theater. The clothes were, at that time, simply outrageous. Nobody had seen anything like them before.”
Cartoon characters or not, adopting a new persona can be a tool which allows an artist to create a distance between themselves and their performances. In the end though, whether they adopt a new name or not, the character any star finds themself playing can become inescapable. As John Updike once put it: “Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face. As soon as one is aware of being ‘somebody,’ to be watched and listened to with extra interest, input ceases, and the performer goes blind and deaf in his over-animation. One can either see or be seen.”