The basic concept of transmedia storytelling implies an ever presence across a multitude of spaces. This can appear daunting, especially to musicians who solely want to compose music or wish to maintain a low profile. Using social media or asserting oneself on other platforms is the antithesis of the private, elusive musician’s existence.
Yet at the very core of transmedia storytelling—or storytelling of any kind—is the need for narrative, content, and characters. Does this mean musicians who lack story are at a loss? No. The lack of narrative is a narrative. Crafting mythology through the controlled lack of information (or infusion of misinformation) is absolutely a storytelling method, and musicians are an excellent fit for it.
There are a number of artists who have leveraged this style to excite fans, drum up anticipation around their releases, and carry them through lulls in their careers. I believe the following musicians did this with varying degrees of conscious action, but I will operate under the assumption that each put some level of thought into this.
One method of fostering myth is by using evasion. Musicians agree to interviews or publicity, but end up turning questions around on the reporter, giving non sequitur answers, and going off on tangents or long-winded stories. Tom Waits is perhaps the most classic and long-running master of elusion. His early interviews are full of dodging, either avoiding the questions outright or giving outrageous, nonsensical replies.
Later in his career, interviews became more intermittent, yet still mystifying and intriguing. His public performances have also become sparse, and mere rumors of concerts spark heavy anticipation. An e-mail sent in July from Epitaph Records titled “Tom Waits: Permission to Come Aboard?” consisted solely of a photo of Waits wearing an eye patch and wielding a cutlass, with “Coming August 7” written across it. It whipped press and his fanbase into a frenzy: is it a new album? A tour announcement? (It was a music video.) Few artists command that kind of power that is born of sparsity.
Aphex Twin took a similar evasive approach, however he often weaved outrageous information into his early interviews. He boasted that he owned a military tank and lived in a converted bank, and in one interview he claimed to only sleep two to three hours a night, contradicting another interview where he stated that he loves sleeping a lot because of his mastery of lucid dreaming.
After a prolific run of releases, his last studio album was produced over ten years ago. Since then, he has only resurfaced to release one limited set of 11 records. Stories of his more unique performances became legends, such as a concert where he merely held a microphone up to a blender and played sandpaper on a record player, but he has wound down his touring, only appearing intermittently at music festivals.
One would imagine that keeping press and fans at a distance would hinder their careers, but it has actually helped. The unclear mixture of truth and fantasy fuels discussions of what is or isn’t real. The lack of disclosure of the meanings behind the music keeps fans pondering and occupied between releases, instead of wandering off to other music and never returning.
Even their physical presentations become mythic. Waits is rarely seen out of his standard outfit of over thirty years—pork pie hat, suit jacket, trousers—giving him a timeless, almost immortal impression. Meanwhile, Aphex Twin does not appear in any music videos, instead plastering his distorted face onto evil children and bikini-clad female dancers. Other variations of his smiling face are used in various album artwork. Recently, he used live facial recognition to map his face onto concert goers and display it above the stage.
Aphex Twin and Waits’ actions drive their images away from personal to iconic, symbols to build mythology around. This is ultimately their goal: getting on with their music, and allowing fans to create narrative around them.
Another method for this is cloaking, figuratively and sometimes even literally. A number of artists have taken on stage names, to the level of refusing to ever acknowledge their legal names. This base action already begins to fuel speculation and rumor, not only for who the person really is, but what is the meaning behind the name? Why did they decide to avoid the spotlight?
Many of these artists choose to wear masks or costumes to separate their on-stage and off-stage personas. Andrew Matson wrote an excellent history and dissection of musicians wearing masks, but I’ll briefly examine a few musicians here.
The Knife are a Swedish electronic music duo. Karin and Olof are siblings in real life, but you’d have a hard time visually deducing that. They never performed live for the first seven years of their career, and when they finally did, they often wore plague doctor-style masks. They have never appeared in person to receive any of the Grammis awards they have won, instead sending feminist protesters or an acceptance video in which their faces and voices are heavily distorted.
Karin has gone on to do the same with her project, Fever Ray. She designed elaborate headpieces and costumes for touring that evoked folkloric imagery and rendered her and her band mates unrecognizable. She also requested any interviews be done in disguise and with voice distortion, and accepted a music award wearing a facial prosthetic that prevented her from speaking.
One of hip hop’s most mysterious artists also hides behind a mask. MF DOOM hit mainstream after he had adopted his now iconic mask, a call-out to comic book character Doctor Doom. Much of his work has been related to comics or cartoons, including his collaboration with late night TV network Adult Swim, which further entrenched him as a character instead of an individual.
He kept fans on their toes by using his mask to cause mischief. DOOM has admitted to at least one instance of sending an impostor with the mask to perform a show. This not only increased the mask’s power of anonymity, but begged audience members to wonder how much they wanted just the performance and how much they really wanted him and his skill? While his repeated disappearances, including his current stint of absence, has made it difficult for DOOM to stay in the mainstream, his cult following has rallied around these silent periods, pondering where he has gone and what he is working on.
Possibly the most famous disguised musician, though, is Buckethead. While his real name is known, he has never been photographed without his signature white mask and KFC bucket hat on. He has bounced between solo work and collaborations, and is most publicly known for keeping his costume on during the failed revival tour of Guns N’ Roses.
Despite his reluctance to show his face, and therefore lose out on some gigs, his career has been consistently supported by an ever growing cult following. According to legend, he was raised in a chicken coop, but he broke free to become a musician. He has actively leveraged mythology to cover up real-life circumstances. In order to get around legal complications with Sony Music, he created an alter ego called Death Cube K for other music releases, a supposed photo-negative version of himself (black mask and all) that haunts his nightmares. He also blamed a recent absence due to unnamed health issues on his fictional nemesis Slip Disc causing havoc in his life.
All three musicians have explicitly stated the desire to separate their identities away from the music, so the music can be appreciated on its own. By doing this, they have succeeded in creating icons devoid of politics, language, and gender, that will never age or wither. Their reluctance to divulge information or be intimate has only given fans the space to fill with speculation, mystery, and theories.
While the fog of rumor and mythos surrounding these five musicians is not traditional narrative, there is still a wealth of story that has been constructed around them by the public. The artists may never choose to leverage this, however transmedia storytelling creates the opportunity to transpose this content onto other platforms with co-creators in a way that leaves the musician to their process and privacy.
I’ll be discussing Adult Swim’s history of music partnerships with Jason DeMarco, vice president of marketing and promotions for Cartoon Network and Adult Swim, at NYFF’s Convergence event. Saturday, September 29th, 11am, Lincoln Center