Sam Delaney on

Pop stars have been trying on new personas since Ziggy first fell to Earth. But are Pearl, Mimi and Sasha Fierce trying hard enough? Sam Delaney finds out

Natasha Khan, aka Bat For Lashes, has got a new album out! Brilliant. I wonder what it sounds like?

Well, according to the press release, it's: "A very ambitious record, both musically and conceptually." Great!

"Two Suns delves into the philosophy of the self and duality," it continues. Hang on a minute, where's all this leading?

"Metaphysical ideas about the connectedness of existence are also close to the album's heart."


"Envisioning herself as two separate yet ultimately attached beings, we discover [Natasha's] inner character Pearl, the destructive blonde femme fatale that represents one extreme of her personality."

Oh no! She's only gone and invented herself an alter ego! On only her second album too! Why, Bat For Lashes, why? Couldn't you be content with your existing persona? You do, after all, already have a quite silly stage name and array of preposterous outfits to dress up in. Wasn't that enough for you? Apparently not. "Pearl's troubled obsession with childlike escapism and self-absorption opposes the wild and mystical desert being who represents Natasha's more spiritual self." Flippin' hell.

Natasha, Bat, Pearl or whatever the hell you want to call her, is not the first pop star to assume an alter ego and will not be the last. For years, it was the sort of thing that only experimental artists tended to come up with now and again. David Bowie lived through Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke; Prince went round calling himself Camille for a while, then Spooky Electric. These were artists who were recognised boundary-pushers. Sexual ambiguity and theatrical showmanship was as much a part of their acts as drums and guitars.

These days everyone's at it. Pop stars' careers aren't five minutes old before they suddenly unveil a new persona through which to channel some of their creative energies. Perhaps they think that they have too much creative energy for just one persona to adequately channel?

All too often it's just an excuse to talk about themselves in the third person and self-indulgently harp on about the tedious details of their own personalities. Listen to Beyoncé going on about Sasha Fierce, the character she conjured for last year's album I Am... Sasha Fierce. "Sasha Fierce is the fun, more sensual, more aggressive, more outspoken, more glamorous side that comes out when I'm on stage," she says. Only, let's be honest, she isn't. Sasha Fierce is just Beyoncé Knowles with a different name and a moderately tighter dress. Sasha Fierce was just about the laziest alter ego ever created. It'd be no different from me buying a hat and deciding to call myself Dave for a few days.

Sometimes, a simple name change can denote a more genuine change in creative direction. In 2004, Madonna announced that she would henceforth be known as Esther. "I wanted to attach myself to the energy of a different name," she explained.

"I did spend, you know, at least a decade taking my clothes off and being photographed, saying bad words on TV." In keeping with her devotion to Kabbalah, Madonna suggested that Esther would represent a calmer, purer, more traditionalist side to her personality. Which was a bit of a gamble really. People wanted Madonna being filthy and weird, not Esther being buttoned-up and boring. Clearly, this was something that dawned on her soon afterwards; we haven't heard much about Esther in recent years.

Other artists have designed alter egos to let them become more edgy and outrageous than they already were. With 2005's The Emancipation Of Mimi, Mariah Carey revived her flagging career with a new, moody R&B sound. It wasn't quite such a creative departure as to warrant a whole new name and persona but, as Mariah explained at the time: "It's not like Mimi is some alter ego or character, but really more the true person as opposed to the celebrity... It's very personal."

Some artists like the sound of having an alter ego but just can't get to grips with what it actually means. Britney Spears, for instance, cackhandedly came up with the idea of an alter ego called Mona Lisa in 2004. This is how she explained it: "Whenever I feel like being mean or ... bustin' people around to get stuff right... It's kinda easier to be called 'Mona Lisa' instead of Britney." That's not really an alter ego at all is it Britney? That's just trying to justify your own selfish behaviour by blaming it on an imaginary friend.

Of course, there are some alter egos that make perfect sense. Slim Shady was a well-realised exaggeration of Eminem's real personality. It was an exploration of his maddest, baddest, darkest thoughts; the sort we all have but don't act on. Eminem wasn't really going to kill his own wife and mother but Slim Shady allowed him to publicly fantasise about doing so. Which was both entertaining and cathartic. Who's the loser there?

If you're going to bother with an alter ego you've got to make an effort. Don't just think up a new name. Get a wig. Dream up a back-story, an inner narrative and perhaps a funny accent. And make sure it's far enough removed from your real personality; if not it'll just end up looking like an embarrassing piece of self-parody. Like when Bono dressed up as white-faced, red horned, embodiment of self-aggrandising rock star excess MacPhisto on U2's 1992/93 Zoo TV tour. Which was less of an alter ego, more of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

• Bat For Lashes' Two Suns is out 6 April


Sam Delaney

The GuardianTramp

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