A few weeks ago at the South by Southwest festival in Texas, a duo performed sumptuous, pulsating dance tracks wearing African-style masks that obscured parts of their faces. Who were they?
After a few songs, the drummer in the black T-shirt said, “We’re SBTRKT.” His name is Aaron Jerome. But it doesn’t appear on the stellar album that SBTRKT -- pronounced “subtract” -- released last year. That’s because Jerome, a London-based musician, wants listeners to think of the group only as SBTRKT. He’d prefer to keep his name out of it.
“I can walk around my own gigs and no one recognizes me,” Jerome says over the phone from Atlanta a few days later. “It takes away that whole premise of you becoming more of a star than the music.”
As the hyper-connectivity of social media pulls our planet into a tighter huddle, Jerome is one in a growing number of vanguard pop artists flirting with the idea of anonymity. They often wear masks. Some conceal their names. A few refuse to perform in public altogether. Many make electronic music, including Deadmau5, the Bloody Beetroots, Redshape and Zomby.
And although artists and authors have worked under pseudonyms for centuries, protecting one’s anonymity today feels like an implicit protest against our increasingly Facebookish society. These artists are asserting their power by refusing to be identified, asking us to like them without clicking “Like.”
By that logic, anonymity might be the new fame -- or as the pseudonymous British graffiti artist Banksy once wrote: “In the future, everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes.”
Jerome says he isn’t guarding his privacy so much as trying to immerse listeners in his music. He decided on the name SBTRKT because it symbolized the idea of scrubbing his identity from his work. He says the approach affords him the psychic freedom to pursue music more directly -- something he describes as an intrinsically “faceless medium.”
In the past decade, however, many musicians have become stars with the help of the artificial faces they’ve adopted. The robot helmets worn by French dance duo Daft Punk have become iconic. Rapper MF Doom performs disguised in a hunk of metal. British art-rockers Clinic cover their faces as if preparing for surgery. Members of nu-metal band Slipknot are always ready for Halloween. Before that, avant-rockers the Residents donned eyeball helmets, Gwar embraced gore and members of Kiss painted their faces like demonic mimes.
And masks pre-date pop music, of course -- from ancient African masks worn in spiritual rituals to the Italian Bauta masks that allowed cheating hearts to gallivant anonymously around Venice.
“It’s a visual pseudonym,” said Aaron Cromie, a Philadelphia-based mask and puppet designer. “People often feel a lot of freedom when their identity is hidden in that way.”
On 21st-century stages, Cromie says, masks help amplify the dialogue between performer and audience by allowing both sides to divorce from reality. In pop music, he sees a potent example in Gorillaz, the aughties supergroup that chose to portray themselves on album covers and in music videos as a gang of cartoon characters. “Those guys totally had this animated persona that became this idea that was greater than just men onstage playing instruments,” Cromie said. “In terms of theater and pop music, it’s always about trying to translate a bigger, more fantastical world.”
But the journey to that fantastical world becomes more complex as our public lives continue to migrate onto the Internet. Ian Kerr, a professor of law, ethics and technology at Ottawa University, said the social media age has made anonymity scarce. “Previously, the default position was to be anonymous in society,” Kerr said. “You’re walking up the street and nobody necessarily knows who you are. … Now, more and more, as we move into electronic environments and network environments, we’re switching into a default of position of being identified.”
Today’s masked artists might be resonating with listeners who have become wary of that shift. “The idea of the vanguard trying to cling onto or maintain some space for the disconnect between identity and actions -- which is so important in creativity, and is so important in art -- doesn’t surprise me at all,” Kerr said.
That sentiment feels especially prevalent in electronic dance music, which, at its best, represents counterculture, sonic innovation and the unsupervised flow of music on the Internet -- or, piracy. Anonymity “is tied to the subversiveness that that culture starts with,” Kerr said.
The British electronic artist Burial creates music that does more than just feel subversive. His pioneering dubstep album, “Untrue,” is equally innovative, breathtaking and, originally, shrouded in mystery. When it was nominated for Britain’s prestigious Mercury Prize in 2008, the British media set out to identify the anonymous producer who made it. Turns out, the Independent newspaper had quietly reported some months earlier that Burial was a young Londoner named William Bevan. Outed, Bevan took to Burial’s MySpace page, where he typed, “for a while theres been some talk about who i am, but its not a big deal. i wanted to be unknown because i just want it to be all about the tunes. over the last year the unknown thing become an issue so im not into it any more.”
But Kerr thinks we’ll still see more artists adopting pseudonymity in the future -- and more of the “gotcha” moments that come with it. “The more they become famous through the persona, the more people want to try and unmask them,” he said. “And if you’re a recording artist working for a label, you’re very dependent on the intermediary to maintain your pseudonym. They know who you are. Somebody has to cut the check to you. So nobody is truly anonymous.”
Jerome understands that. “I never set out to hide myself completely,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with people knowing. It’s just if your whole point of reference is about who you are versus what it sounds like, that kind of defeats the point for me.”
Meanwhile, Jerome’s masks have been perceived as both brilliant branding and shallow shtick. But he doesn’t care. “There’s a lot of hang-ups that some people have with the mask thing, and it becomes a talking point,” he said. “But I suppose at the end of the day that the music is not far from that.”
And the sounds pouring from the speakers remain his paramount concern. “It’s this continuous fight to experiment with new music,” he said. “That’s always the first thought in my mind.” © The Washington Post 2012