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|Written by Christine Seabrook|
|Tuesday, 30 September 2008 19:00|
Music can function as a disguise, masking emotions, attitudes, stories, and messages so completely that only the composer knows the true origin of any given song. Many musicians have chosen to take the concept even further by physically disguising themselves.
Popular 1920s jazz singer Al Jolson, for example, used the power of disguise to achieve massive fame. Born Asa Yoelson in 1886, he often sang with his father in the synagogue, but yearned to be a professional stage performer. Yoelson decided to follow in the footsteps of the black musicians who were, at the time, driving jazz towards mass popularity. With his signature blackface look and his new stage name, Jolson helped introduce black jazz to mainstream white audiences. Largely thanks to his disguise, he became one of the most renowned jazz singers in the world and, in 1927, starred in the first non-silent Hollywood film, The Jazz Singer.
When glam rock debuted in the 1970s, musicians adopted even more radical disguises. Hard rock had already startled conservative listeners, but the wild - and in some cases obscene - costumes worn by KISS, David Bowie, T-Rex, and Alice Cooper caused even more of an uproar. (Today, some of these artists still don’t leave home without their make-up kit and pleather pants).
KISS frontman Paul Stanley’s bare chest, spiked choker, face paint, and platform shoes ensured that if the band’s music didn’t grab your attention, his appearance sure did. Considered horrific and satanic by conservative adults, and attractively defiant and irregular by teens and rebellious rock fans, KISS was able to gain the exposure needed to become one of the top-selling rock groups of all time.
More recently, The Gorillaz have taken the concept to the extreme by never actually appearing on stage - or anywhere for that matter. Damon Albarn, a former member of the pop band Blur, and comic book artist Jamie Hewlett - the masterminds behind the "band" - combined their talents in 1998 to create a phenomenon immune to paparazzi photos or tabloid culture, because the band’s members do not actually exist. In music videos and album covers, The Gorillaz are portrayed as four cartoon characters, named 2D, Russell Hobbs, Murdoc Niccals and Noodle. Each character has a fictional biography and residence that can be viewed via the internet.
In a 2005 interview, Albarn suggested that the goal behind the elaborate disguise was to allow the music to speak for itself, saying, "It just seems to me, having done the whole kind of celebrity thing… after a while people become kind of enveloped in their own image and can’t really escape from it."
Thus, when The Gorillaz perform hit songs like "Clint Eastwood" and "Feel Good Inc.", the listener is able to think about the songs themselves, rather than get caught up in Albarn and Hewlett’s latest celebrity exploits. Of course, this form of disguise also helps make Albarn and Hewlett mysteriously attractive.
The disguises musicians take on can be just as memorable as the music they perform. In many cases, even if we don’t like the music itself, we can’t help but be curious about the people performing it. We all use disguises, but most of us do not base our careers around them, which is perhaps why we can’t help but be irresistibly fascinated by the surreal nature of showbiz.