The best proof available that Beyoncé Knowles is not a cyborg came in September of 2006. It was late, outside a club, when paparazzi caught the R&B titan slumped woozily in a Maybach sedan with her hair and dress disheveled—a party girl, it seemed, after one cosmo too many. On the spectrum of celebrity gotchas, this was no Amy Winehouse moment. But it involved a star famous for her impenetrable poise—it’s hard to imagine Beyoncé scratching an itch without undergoing a little media training first—so the photo dominated gossip blogs for a cycle. The picture is most revealing, though, for how unrevealing it is. Beyoncé’s hair is tousled, yes, but it also hides her face; her dress is mussed, but mostly because she’s tugging the hem downward, covering herself up. Beyoncé doesn’t speak in the contemporary celebrity vernacular of meltdowns, nip slips, and crotch shots. In the nothing-is-private era of TMZ, she still believes there’s such a thing as TMI.
Her third solo album, I Am … Sasha Fierce, is loosely built around the theme of public facades and private truths. The first half of the disc is devoted to songs by the “real” Beyoncé, a woman, promo materials inform us, we’ve never heard from before. The second half showcases songs by Sasha Fierce, the flamboyant alter ego Beyoncé says she employs to armor herself against the perils of fame. In her video for “Single Ladies,” a Sasha track, she dances Fosse-style while wearing a bionic hand. We aren’t watching Beyoncé, it turns out, but her fembot replica.
The pop doppelgänger is not, of course, Beyoncé’s innovation. Mariah Carey has Mimi, Eminem has Slim Shady, David Bowie had Ziggy Stardust, to name only a few. The impulse among musicians to create doubles—call them poppelgängers—is decades old, and it highlights one of pop music’s basic contradictions: the way every performer, to some degree, becomes another person in order to express something true about himself.
In 1950, Hank Williams, already an established country star, began recording music under the name Luke the Drifter. Luke was a rambling man who performed good deeds from town to town, spreading the Lord’s word as he went. In part, this split was therapeutic—Hank Williams sang about the travails of a lovelorn tippler with wandering eyes; in Luke the Drifter songs, he could reimagine himself as an upright Christian soldier. Another reason for the split was Williams’ uncertainty about how audiences and radio programmers, accustomed to a certain base line of grit in his music, would take to his Ned Flanders fantasies. (The persona didn’t damage his career, as he feared, but it never rivaled Hank-proper’s popularity, either.)
Luke the Drifter gets at something essential about musical alter egos. Williams was grappling with the disorienting experience of being watched by millions, of being subject to a clumsy, mass gaze that doesn’t see a person in full, but rather a distortion of him. When Beyoncé talks about Sasha, she’s trying to own this distortion rather than let it own her. (The case of the late Russell Jones, the brilliant, X-rated hip-hop jester better known as Ol’ Dirty Bastard, offers a poignant example of the latter. Friends interviewed before and after his 2004 drug overdose say that audiences expected insanity from the Ol’ Dirty Bastard persona and that Jones went around the bend trying to satisfy them.)
In hip-hop, most poppelgängers—as opposed to aliases, which abound—crop up on the genre’s weirdo margins: Kool Keith recording as Dr. Dooom and Dr. Octagon; RZA recording as Bobby Digital; MF Doom recording as Viktor Vaughn. Eminem and T.I., though, have taken the tradition into the mainstream. T.I.’s 2007 album, T.I. vs. T.I.P., contrasted the Atlanta MC’s pop-crossover and unreconstructed-gangsta sides, a duality that speaks to the fundamental paradox written into gangsta rap—namely, that real gangstas don’t rap.
Eminem is the most fascinating persona factory in recent pop history. The way he splinters himself into different characters suggests Peter Sellers or an angrier Andy Kaufman: His identity play is anarchic, screwball, infinitely slippery. Roughly, Marshall Mathers is the real guy, and Eminem and Slim Shady are different parts of his id. They allow him to rap about murdering his wife while claiming ironic distance from the fantasy, to revile his needy fans one moment and sympathize with their obsessions the next. Eminem provoked pop music’s last great parent-group outcry, and in part, his identity play explores the limits of artistic responsibility: I didn’t say it, an imaginary character did! On “Ass Like That,” one of the most dazzlingly layered songs on his last album, Marshall Mathers rapped as Eminem rapping as Robert Smigel rapping as Triumph the Insult Comic Dog rapping as a pedophiliac Michael Jackson rapping as Arnold Schwarzenegger. Exhilarating and destabilizing, it was a madcap, atomized vision of the self as puppet show.
There can be something self-indulgent, low-concept, or stuntlike about many pop alter egos. Garth Brooks will never live down his silly incarnation as rocker Chris Gaines. Mariah Carey’s Mimi helped her to move from the girly devotionals of her Rainbow- and Butterfly-era career to her current hot-pants hypersexuality—but her characterization of this as some great personal awakening was comically solipsistic. And Beyoncé’s poppelgänger move on I Am … Sasha Fierce is, in the end, a huckster’s feint: The so-called unguarded tracks offer us no deeper understanding of Beyoncé, unless you count the revelation, on the shivering power ballad “If I Were a Boy,” that this booty-shaking, beauty-shop feminist has feelings, too, and that they that can be hurt. Beyoncé’s personality split, at least as it’s explored here, comes off like a talking point.
Ultimately, the poppelgänger is redundant, because all pop artists present a persona to the world. Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan. Louise Ciccone became Madonna. These are two of pop’s biggest shape-shifters—different people, it can seem, from one album to the next—but the same principle holds true with the most transparent, reliable, and sincere of singer-songwriters. The moment John Mayer approaches a microphone, in other words, he becomes “John Mayer.” It was this tension between being and performing that Kurt Cobain—as sincere a voice as you’ll find in pop—found especially tough to reconcile. It contributed to his feelings of self-alienation, his fears he’d sold out. The catch is that, in pop, being is performing. Realizing this can be liberating (I’m anyone I say I am!) or something like getting lost in a hall of mirrors. So there’s a scary subtext to Beyoncé’s patently unrevealing “revealing” new album—is it that she won’t take off her mask or that, after so many years in the spotlight, she can’t?