SBP column 9/03/08

Halfway through last season’s surprisingly addictive series of America’s Next Top Model, presenter Tyra Banks sat her wannabe top models down and told them it was high time they made up a pseudonym for themselves. “You’ve got to be memorable,” Tyra sternly instructed her doe-like charges. “Give yourself a name that nobody else has – a
name that people will recall easily.”

Listening to her, it struck me pretty forcibly that what the Irish singer-songwriting fraternity require right now is the arrival of one Ms. Tyra Banks into their midst, to henpeck them into realising that in addition to creating great songs, it can also be vital to create an imaginative, artful stage-name with which to midwife those songs into the world.

While some artists – the perfect example being Madonna Ciccone – have the good fortune to be bestowed with an arresting birth name, more often than not, the opposite is true. A quick rifle through my album collection reveals a host of Irish singer-songwriters of varying talents but with names uniformly and hobblingly dull. Truth be told, Tadhg Cooke, Declan O’Rourke, Emmet Tinley, Mick Flannery, Dave Geraghty and Mark Geary are the kind of names you’d most expect to see in the phone book under the heading ‘plumbers’.

It seems unimaginable that such singer-songwriters would spend so much time crafting gorgeous songs and then stand up on stage and introduce themselves with names that, with apologies to their parents, don’t so much go in one ear and out the other as never enter the brain at all.

To be fair, it’s not just the Irish singer-songwriters who are shrinking back from showbiz glamour, it’s the indie fraternity as a whole. While rappers embrace stage-names with total enthusiasm, these days, most fey, skinny-jeaned indie rockers shy away from the whole concept with more disgust on their faces than if you’d just compared them to Coldplay.

When the website Spinner.com recently reported on the history behind pseudonyms of famous artists, it was interesting to note that the bulk of their featured artists made their names in generations past. For every surviving contemporary icon like Bono (apparently named after a Dublin hearing-aid shop called Bono Vox – Latin for ‘good voice’), there were five more who had their biggest successes in another age altogether, like Sid Vicious (named after a particularly vicious hamster) and Billy Idol (named after a school report which said “William is idle”).

What that generation’s artists appeared to understand was that no matter what type of music you play, you’re still involved in show business. You may or may not like Gavin Friday’s music, but you’ll remember his name. Brand Bono, meanwhile, is about as subtle as a sledgehammer – and it’s equally difficult to ignore. Yes, there’s something about a stage name that screams cabaret, chicanery and outrageous ambition, but that doesn’t mean you’d be better off retaining the moniker that’s on your passport.

As Robert Zimmerman – also known as Bob Dylan – understood only too well, concerns like pseudonyms are simply irrelevant when you’re singing songs that have so much heart and truth to them. A name-change isn’t a decision you make for self-glorification purposes; it’s just about the practicalities of the world we live in.

Ultimately, Tyra’s advice remains rock-solid, whether she’s doling it out to fashion models or aspiring musicians. If you want your songs to slink out into the world and make you a living, you’ve got to make choices that will help those songs. Otherwise your career will likely remain as dull and unmemorable as your name.


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One thought on “SBP column 9/03/08

  1. This is an area to which I’ve given much thought over the past months and about which I’ve written a couple of times recently. Gavin Friday’s one of the examples I’ve been quoting, but in England, at least, there are plenty of contemporary examples too. For every Frank Turner or Stuart James, there’s a Lupen Crook or a Kid Harpoon.

    Yes, there’s definitely a branding aspect to it, but I think it goes deeper. Popular music seems to be almost unique in being an art form in which it’s common for performers to take on a new identity (as encapsulated by their name) in order to express who they “really” are. As well as being part of the act, a new name is part of the art too.

    Maybe, for some singer-songwriters, that’s the problem. They don’t want to see their output as either “art” or “show business”. Authenticity is a key cultural concept at the moment and maybe they’re aiming for something purer – “soul” music in its non-genre sense. Not a bad aspiration, I guess, but nothing exists in a vacuum.

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