A pop persona can work wonders – but pity those who attempt to shake off the schtick

As Billie Eilish expresses discomfort at her self-invention, columnist Mark Beaumont casts an eye back at the stars who got stuck in character

In a buzzing club, embattled folk singer Ralf McTell finishes a rendition of his most famous song ‘Streets Of London’ to enthused applause from his fans. When the whooping finally subsides he announces, “Okay, I’d like to try a new song now…”

Someone drops a pint, open-mouthed in shock. Others hold their hands to their faces, confused and perplexed. When he starts the new song, they yell for his another rendition of his best-loved tune. Things are about to turn ugly when he finally relents and plays that golden oldie.

This was, of course, a sketch from late ‘90s comedy series Big Train, featuring Simon Pegg a shocked fan and Kevin Eldon as the beleaguered McTell. Yet Eldon’s pained look to the sky as he slid the albatross around his neck one more time – the look of the lifer on the ‘70s folk chain gang – spoke a thousand words on the agonies of the musician trapped within their own legend.

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It was Kiss in 1996, wearily slapping on the make-up and strapping on the silver stack-heels again after 10 years without it because fans objected to their glitter metal being played to them not by intergalactic star-demons but by four colourfully attired plasterers. It’s Johnny Marr every time he’s asked if The Smiths are going to reform, Bez giving up his run for political office and dusting off his maracas and Alice Cooper staring up from yet another guillotine basket.

It was every pop star who’s ever felt stuck – with a song, in a scene or with a cumbersome persona that doesn’t suit them. Just last week Billie Eilish told an interviewer: “sometimes I feel trapped by this persona that I have created”.

History tells her that she’d best change it sharpish, or she’s liable to get lumbered with it for good. Imagine Marilyn Manson losing the pan stick and haunted doll contact lenses and doing a crooner album in a tuxedo this late in the day. Biffy Clyro doing an entire gig in their shirts. A skinhead Robert Smith. Or someone in a Rammstein meeting going, “You know what I’m sick to death of, guys? Fucking flamethrowers”.

If Slipknot drummer Jay Weinberg suddenly developed a debilitating allergy to gimp gear and nail wigs, they wouldn’t ditch the masks in solidarity – they’d be taking forehead measurements for a new drummer.

The Ziggy Mandate clearly states that if you stick with any one image or persona for more than three albums, chances are you’re stuck with it forever. Four albums in it becomes too engrained to shake off, and any major image changes look too cynical.

Rock history is awash with examples. Because we’d become so accustomed to U2’s sleeve-free Dublin cowboy look for most of the ‘80s, their reinvention as ironic futuristic cyborg rockers was about as convincing as Donald Trump tweeting pictures of 10 albums that changed his life, starting with Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’. And Prince was never going to get away with changing his name to a hieroglyph 15 years into his career, particularly since you needed three tongues to pronounce it.

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On the other hand, by reinventing yourself within the Ziggy Mandate’s three-album timeframe – particularly if your initial incarnation is doing spectacularly well actually – you not only sidestep the transparent PR stunt element of any mid-career transformation, but gain access to the huge advantages of being classed a ‘pop chameleon’. Suddenly your early successes are just part of your learning curve, your fans can grow with you, your every move is studied and celebrated and your possibilities are unlimited.

Bowie, of course, was the epitome, but the likes of PJ Harvey, The Pet Shop Boys, Primal Scream, Kate Bush and Lady Gaga have kept us constantly on our toes, playing catch-up. You pick up a more open-minded and accommodating audience too – no-one’s going to drop a pint in shock if Bjork doesn’t play ‘Big Time Sensuality’.

In the pop realm, you have rather more leeway – it’s tacitly acknowledged that the likes of Eilish should play out the standard four or five album pop act shelf life before she needs to ‘mature’ alongside her fanbase. But the dangers of aesthetic stagnation are stark. The dressing rooms of every Butlins glam weekender are full of 60-something divorcees struggling to zip their corseted bellies into 1973’s straining spandex and wishing – irony of ironies – that they had more safety pins.

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