Analyzing Anonymity

Staff Writer: Ian Clark

When it comes to the entertainment industry, vulnerability is a prized attribute of performers around the world. Artists subject themselves to public judgement, whether it’s degradation or praise. This quality of the consumption of media has plagued the industry for years, from people admiring the charm of The Beatles, to concerned parents reprimanding the iconography of metal bands in the 1980s. But what happens when an artist refuses to conform to the expectations of modern media? What happens when an artist decides to live off the grid, or not show their face, or simply lay low? 

In an age of social media, contemporary R&B singer Frank Ocean is a needle in the haystack. Over the years, the bulk of his social media usage was on the blogging website, Tumblr, periodically visiting the platform for a mind sprawl of sorts. Speaking his mind, posting mysterious pictures, and even the occasional unreleased song.  In an interview with New York TimesOcean says “Sometimes I’m fascinated with how famous my work could be while I’m not so famous. Super-envious of the fact that Daft Punk can wear robot helmets and be one of the most famous bands in the world, while also understanding that will never be my situation. It’s too late. It’s hard to articulate how I think about myself as a public figure.” 

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Frank Ocean posted this self-portrait to Tumblr in 2015, without context. Many people speculated an album release due to his prior silence regarding his presence combined with the posting of this photo. Photo courtesy of Frank Ocean.

Frank’s mention of Daft Punk raises a very interesting question: Does anonymity take away from an artist’s credibility? Daft Punk, in nearly every sense of the word is anonymous, or at least as anonymous as you could be as a celebrity duo. The electronic pairing has kept their faces concealed for the better part of their nearly 30year long career, performing shows and attending award shows, all while wearing their now iconic masks. Their crew does anything in their power to protect the mystery, says a write-up by Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal“This entire scene can seem deeply silly: a group of adults frantically trying to hide the image of two Frenchmen in their late 30s wearing costumes that make them look like C-3PO after a well-tailored disco makeover. But once you spend any time with Daft Punk…such protectiveness suddenly becomes understandable, even necessary. It’s an instinct to keep the idea of mystery alive at a time when it seems to be in historically short supply.” 

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Photo courtesy of Pitchfork. Photographed by Nabil.

This mysterious archetype was in a way birthed by MF DOOM, more of a cartoon essence personified than what most people would describe as a modern musician. Much of his developed personality comes from the use of cartoon samples, and the portrayal of himself as a villain. 

In much of his music, him and his co-producers interpolate clips from 1980s Spider-Man cartoons: featuring the infamous Marvel villain, Doctor Doom. The samples feature clips of protagonists trying to defeat Doom and often failing. These clips are responsible for much of what people associate with MF, a power-hungry pessimist fighting an internal struggle. But in all honestly, that’s all a listener will get from him. He documents his self-deprecating lows and over-confident highs, like many other artists. 

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The album cover for DOOM’s “Operation: Doomsday” depicts the rapper as Marvel villain Doctor Doom.

However, one thing you won’t see him document is his face. It’s nearly impossible to find a photo of DOOM online where he isn’t donning his masked face (which is what the “MF” in his stage name stands for) that has a striking resemblance to the veil worn by Doctor Doom in the cartoons. This type of all-around cohesivity is the way an artist who hides his visual identity can succeed while still being open about his internal identity.  

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The cover of MF DOOM’s album “Madvillain” in collaboration with producer Madlib. Photo courtesy of Stones Throw, Jeff Jank, and Eric Coleman.

According to Genius, fellow artist Blake ‘KEO’ Lethem says there’s a huge advantage to DOOM wearing this mask throughout so much of his career. “By DOOM keeping his face concealed, he’s able to have a life. For instance: if he walked through the park right now, nobody would say [anything] to him.”, he says. 

To answer the question, “Does anonymity take away from an artist’s credibility?” in short: No. It seems that artists who stray away from the spotlight have created their own bubble to juxtapose their disguise with music that is emotionally revealing enough to the point of a more personal connection with their audience. Artists like MF DOOM, Daft Punk, and even Frank Ocean (who only loosely represents what it means to be anonymous) are a unique group of people. They don’t do what celebrities “should” do. At the core of it all, they’re just people. They want privacy, and to make music, live well, all while not being bombarded with the stress of having people approach them in the streets. As music reviewer Anthony Fantano puts it, “You need something for the fans to connect to.” and for those artists, that “something” is the music. 

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Frank recently broke his seclusion for an interview for GAYLETTER in early April. Photo by Collier Schorr.

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