SOUND CULTURES

Invisible touch: the challenges of anonymity in an age of ubiquity

Sebastiaan Stam / Unsplash
Photo cover by: Sebastiaan Stam / Unsplash
Written by: Eamonn Forde
Published Nov 25, 2021
8 min read

The logic many apply to the creative arts is that all artists want their art to be seen. This, however, is often conflated with the presumption that the artists themselves also wish to be seen.

While much of the power of popular music is tied to the notion of celebrity and personality, it does not follow that musicians want to be as famous, as known and as studied as their music. 

Musicians try – and occasionally – succeed at being anonymous, where their faces and their private lives are shielded from public scrutiny. The burning irony underpinning all this is that a desire to not market the person behind the music can end up being the marketing angle itself: your choice of anonymity as a form of anti-marketing just becomes the headline marketing. 

Unseen scene: the early adopters of anonymity 

There is a long and rich history of acts responding to the mass media glare (widespread access to TV and pop magazines from the 1950s onwards, the boom of MTV in the 1980s, the ubiquity of social media in the 2000s) by deliberately positioning themselves as anonymous.

That often meant covering their faces with masks or giant eyeballs, as in the case of The Residents; or wearing kabuki-style makeup, like Kiss, although the band claimed it never gave them total anonymity but it did afford them the luxury of being able to change members without the look of the band being compromised too much.

Sometimes anonymity can have unintended consequences as in the case of Klaatu where rumors began circulating in early 1977 that the band was actually a reformed Beatles recording under a pseudonym. It helped give the band a profile but, by not quashing the rumors quickly by revealing their true identity, their anonymity actually became a millstone.

By the late 1990s, perhaps presciently reading where things were going and also mocking the criticisms of dance music as “faceless”, Daft Punk became enormous despite hiding their faces behind makeshift masks (for the most part, apart from some early shows) that eventually became their iconic robot masks. It has been a trick adopted by others in the mainstream EDM world, notably deadmau5 and Marshmello, as well as more experimental artists like SBTRKT.

 It is also incredibly common in the metal world, notably deployed by acts like GWAR, Slipknot, Lordi and Sleep Token as well as Buckethead, erstwhile guitarist in Guns N’ Roses.

It is also something that happens in indie rock, although to a much lesser extent than in EDM and metal. Glasgow’s The Phantom Band initially kept changing their name for every show and performed with bags over their heads but soon abandoned that, while London’s Black Midi attempted to build mystique around themselves by not uploading videos or music online until it became simply impractical to try and hide their identities.

What have you got to hide? Suspicious of the anonymous 

Indie rock also seems to be a genre that finds the notion of anonymity as undermining the perceived authenticity of the acts and, after using their anti-image as a marketing hook to gain initial interest, it eventually gets packed away. Here anonymity is a short-term strategy rather than a long-term goal.

While the moves to be anonymous can be read as a reaction to – or an explicit critique of – saturation marketing around music, the ironic consequence is that anti-marketing gets twisted by fans and the media to the point where it becomes treated as a cynical marketing gimmick.

Acts might argue they want to be anonymous so that people do not focus on them as people but rather concentrate completely on the music and let it do all the heavy lifting. But the more you don’t want people to focus on the creators of the music, the more the public want to know not only who these people are but also why they do not want anyone to know who they are. This is the great paradox of anonymity in music.

It is something that has faced dubstep producer Burial in the past before he outed himself as William Bevan (with Pitchfork even suggesting his anonymity had become appropriated as a meme) and is also something that neo-soul collective SAULT have to grapple with now even though they have managed to release five albums without anyone revealing their identities.

Accepting there will be public backlash as well as detective work by journalists and fans, one of the Nameless Ghouls (as members are termed) from Swedish metal band Ghost suggested that being anonymous is not necessarily the end goal here, but rather being enigmatic is.

“The thing everybody keeps ranting about is the anonymity, which I have a comment on the side, but I also think that you don't have to be anonymous or masked in order to have somewhat of a clandestine image,” they said in an interview. “I mean, there are many artists that I know exactly where they are born and what their names are and where they live, which are still very, sort of, hidden."

Hidden values: protecting against criticism or disapproval 

In an age of social media ubiquity, there is an argument that aiming for anonymity is the last line of defense for an artist. A member of Drag Step – a “super-super-secret hip-hop side-project” hip-hop group – explained of the reason behind their wish to remain anonymous, “Essentially, [it is] to protect ourselves from personal criticism,” they said. “The reason it could be potentially subject to criticism is because of the genre of music we are pursuing. It’s a genre which is synonymous with the concept of ‘authenticity.’ We are not ‘authentic.’”

In the case of French rapper Kekra, the reason behind his wearing of a mask is down to fear of parental disapproval rather than anything more profound or philosophical. He says he would have preferred to have been a doctor or a lawyer but he chose hip-hop and so wanted to conceal his career path from his mother as “she would be disappointed” as rap is not viewed as “a real job” by her. 

Social media footprints will lead back to you 

It is next to impossible to wipe all traces of yourself from the internet if you have started to make music but have not yet chosen to wear the cloak of anonymity. Country singer Orville Peck was outed as the drummer of Nu Sensae as well as the singer of Eating Out because people recognized his tattoos.

Similar breadcrumbs are inevitably left by everyone online so the decision to be anonymous has to be made from the off just in case a clue is left somewhere online that, eventually, someone will unearth to burst the carefully inflated bubble around the unknown musician.

As one of the Nameless Ghouls from Ghost says, social media is a trap for musicians. If you do not feed it, the algorithm works against you and a form of anonymity because less of a reward and more of a punishment. So you are caught having to feed it with new posts on a regular basis. Much better, they say, to opt out completely and have zero social media presence.

The scale of the forensics that journalists and fans can undertake today makes it increasingly harder, if not completely impossible, to maintain anonymity. 

In the case of Italian musician Liberato, he is managing to keep a lid on it, but that has only caused the rumor mill to go into overdrive. He is presumed to be everything from a poet from a poor suburb to an entire team of electronic producers or even “a kid incarcerated in a juvenile hall on an island near Naples”.. 

Perhaps this is a better way to do it – having so many extreme and contradictory back stories around you that the myth becomes confusing and impenetrable. Each story about your past becomes even more fantastical and even more powerful as a means of deflecting away from the real (and almost certainly less interesting) truth about your past. 

Solo show: why going it alone is the safest option 

Because anonymous acts are rarely completely alone – they will often have collaborators, producers or record label people to deal with – the chances of leaked information about them increases exponentially the more people there are around that they have to deal with. 

The ideal situation for a musician here wanting to maintain total secrecy is to be a sole operator, like graffiti artist Banksy. He works alone so only he can slip up and reveal his true identity. 

Almost like a secret agent, the artist wanting to conceal their identity from the public has no other option really but to work as much alone as possible. Artists are the one who can direct how their (anonymous) image is presented to the world and only they can ensure that all the safeguards are in place to guarantee that no leaks can happen which might expose who they are. 

The logic here would appear to be this: being completely anonymous is entirely contingent on being completely autonomous and independent.