The Allure of Artist Anonymity in the Internet Age
There’s a natural, human attraction to mystery. We are all drawn to the unknown. The man with the mask is more alluring than the man without, and I used to look at even unmasked rappers through the lens of super hero alter-egos. Shawn Carter/Jay Z was no different than Bruce Wayne/Batman. I saw his lifestyle through music videos and lyrics, learned his story through magazine articles and interviews, and these Lego blocks built an image that was unrealistic but sacred. The famous felt mythical, in a different universe, beyond our reach. I prefer this form of connection actually, enthralled by the persona and art without feeling an attachment to the person.
Times change. The connection has been altered. The persona and person have become one, oversaturating our lives with filtered snapshots, 140 characters of emojis, and behind the scene videos for the behind the scene videos. The allure of the unknown died when the journal of everyone’s daily lives became a best seller. All these open books, their life and times painting the town red, are supposed to give us a glimpse into an artist's "real" life, and it's boring me to death. It's no surprise then that some of the biggest excitement in music of the last few years have come from the allure of anonymity and deception.
Earl Sweatshirt was the first rap artist in the digitaly driven age to open my eyes to the power of anonymity. Free Earl was bigger than a hashtag or hoodie graphic, it created a movement and a myth during the rise of Odd Future. They went from ripples in a lake to a tidal wave, while their most prominent member was missing. Earl became a, “Without a Trace” episode, journalists became private eye detectives, and fans used all knowledge learned from CSI and Scooby Doo to uncover clues. For two long years Earl survived through this method of madness. Some say he never existed, another OF troll, their pre-fame antics were absolutely absurd enough for this to be plausible. His mom was even harassed for information; all kinds of unethical lines were crossed in search of Earl. The day of his return from the Coral Reef Academy reform school, a song snippet on YouTube surfaced requesting 50,000 followers on Twitter before the release of the full song. Within three hours he'd acquired the aforementioned amount of followers and stepped into the spotlight too, catapulting the emcee into a level of stardom he didn’t foresee. The Odd Future collective was resurged, their mythical prodigy returned to a world that wanted nothing but raps.
"I’m a known advocate of the 'take your time and create something great' mentality - which is why the longer I wait my restlessness creates an unpleasable expectation. When I think of Act II I assume it’s greater than opening a Nintendo 64 for Christmas in 1996. It’ll be Ready to Die doing the Doggystyle with Illmatic in the 36th Chamber. It will inspire an uncontrollable change like a President Obama speech or being inside Erykah Badu."
I wrote that last year in an article about Jay Electronica, the most obnoxious talent in hip-hop. “Coming soon” has been his favorite phrase since 2009; we’ve had our tongues hanging and tails wagging awaiting a masterpiece all that time, and every year is another disappointing blank canvas. That’s the magic of Electronica, he isn’t at the mercy of the consumer, he gives music sporadically, teasing, and creating a demand that only grows larger and more anxious. For most, this would be career suicide - the microwave attention span isn’t built to wait this long. Yet, we continue to anticipate, await, desire this album shrouded in secrecy by an artist equally as private.
I can’t dive into mystery and masks without mentioning MF DOOM. I won’t perpetuate as if I’ve been playing Madvilliany since 2004, but the album was in my iTunes way before Drake tweeted, “When he got the mic you don’t go next”. DOOM is a true phoenix from the '90s, before donning the mask, Daniel Dumile (as Zev Love X) has been rapping since 1988. So old-school he played Oregon Trail as an adult. To think his name is prevalent in 2014 without any internet presence is astounding. A Twitter does exist with only one tweet, “DOOM IS NOT ON TWITTER”, his Facebook is a wall of updates for upcoming events and NehruvianDOOM album pre-orders. DOOM is completely off the grid in a social sense; he is such a fabled phenomenon, there are even accusations that look-alikes are hired for performances. This unconventional approach has generated a following unlike any I’ve ever seen, I dare you to tweet his name without the caps and watch your mentions explode. He is the blueprint of perfect artistic conduct in my ideal utopia, behind the mic he's giving us reasons to keep his name alive. Behind the mask he's keeping us separated from the person and engrossed in the persona.
Last year Beyonce proved how golden silence can be. The self-entitled secret project came like a thief in the night, stealing ears and eyes the moment of its liberation. I remember sitting at work, and girls were bringing their iPads to watch the videos, iPhones to play the album; purchased, not pirated. There was an excitement in their experience, one you couldn’t escape, the seemingly illogical no-marketing approach successfully achieving domination. Imagine if we got Watch the Throne without Jay Z and Kanye campaigning (minus “Lift Off”)?
There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t see someone requesting new music from Frank Ocean, who has completely disappeared except for a Tumblr that goes largely neglected. I wish Flying Lotus milked the Captain Murphy cow dry before unveiling; he had the entire blogosphere in the palm of his cartoon hands. One of 2014's most exciting rap acts, Your Old Droog, has benefited from rumors that he is Nas. To be compared to God Son is an honor, but for people to assume you are him, that is the highest of high praise. Ideas like that couldn’t spread if he was busy gallivanting around studios taking selfies with Bobby Shmurda.
Maybe I’m the only one that feels drained by the overflow of nonsense news and poor attempts at social media conquering; the fun has been sucked away by the overbearing presence of content. As I type this, someone becomes a “Vine celebrity.” As I type this, some kid sends a derogatory message to their favorite artist in hopes of a response, my generation’s form of hero-worship. As I type this, some blogger makes news out of Kanye’s sandwich selection. Instead of hanging posters on the walls, we pester for follow-backs and retweets. Instead of fan letters we abuse comment sections; while the hidden artists create the next big boom, surviving the wrath of our thumbs.
The pillars separating the famous and their audience continue to fall; soon we will be keeping up with the Average Joes and calling everyone by their government names. Every day we walk closer to the Andy Warhol predicted future, where everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes. Won’t that be boring? There’s a lot of power in anonymity, giving only enough to entice, wielding secrets to be uncovered. Use that power. Be anything but another brick in the wall.
[By Yoh, aka Mediatakeout Ghost Writer, aka @Yoh31]