You know that getting older is getting old when you click a Spotify playlist labeled Pop Classics, innocently (as in naively) expecting to find Simon and Garfunkel or The Police, and instead wonder if you’ve been slipped a hallucinogen when, instead, you see indecipherable names like M.I.A., Daft Punk, and Fun.
I’m all in on that last one, by the way. Still, I had to confusedly wonder, who stole my decades? Aren’t what I call forever “classics” the only classics that truly matter? No, of course not.
After I collected myself, I said to that same self, “Of course our pop classics are not Gen X or Millennial pop classics. Why would they be? Time doesn’t stand still, silly.” (I have to presume that Gen Zers—roughly ages 8-23—have a few more miles to put on their tender treads before classifying as “classics” their earliest musical memories.)
That modest revelation set me on a journey of curiosity to survey the state of today’s musical artist brands.
FROM COLDPLAY TO WORDPLAY
From a myopic Boomer perspective, a lot of the monikers seem out there, but what do I know? It’s not to say I didn’t Spotify some fascinating uses of wordplay (no relation to Coldplay), along with expressions of self-identity that sound like they came out of a 50-minute session on the couch.
For instance, what’s one to make of the artist named Iamnotshane? How about the very dark $uicideBoy$.
Other musicians are ambitious enough to co-opt an entire sport. Ever listen to the band Tennis? They serve up indie pop that their fans love.
Some of the artist names could pass for Netflix titles, like 5 Seconds of Summer. Or Shotgun Willy.
TEST DRIVE A TESLA TUNE
Others appear to be efforts at identity theft writ large, such as Elon “EDM” Musk. At least that’s what I thought when I first came across it, only to discover it is the Tesla titan himself. In his spare time, he cut a track called “Don’t Doubt Ur Vibe.” (BTW, EDM is electronic dance music.)
Back in the day, drinking in cutting-edge rock-and-roll (and some beverages) in the frat house at Syracuse U., we thought band monikers like Led Zeppelin were, like, heavy, man. Too cool for school. Who would know one day there’d be group names worthy of a zombie movie title, like rap rock band Hollywood Undead.
I went to look for a throughline over the decades, harking back to what the musical artists I call classics called themselves.
One common characteristic of emergent music groups in 2020 is the absence of birth names. They’ll refer to themselves as anything other than who they really are.
The queen of nom de musique monikers for this generation is Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, aka Lady Gaga.
In the 50s, singers had real names, like one of my favorites, Bobby Darin. Oh, but wait one sec. His born name is Walden Robert Cassotto.
OK, there’s always an exception, but is there a more evocative real name than that of immortal country singer Patsy Cline? Oops again. Her actual name is Virginia Patterson Hensley.
Oh, well, so much for that crazy theory of mine.
As for one-word names today like CHIKA and COIN and Lizzo, long before Madonna (Ciccone) brought single-name performers back in vogue, I remember, as a high school student, hearing a radio DJ introduce a debut recording by a singer whose name I heard as “Dillon” (b. Robert Allen Zimmerman).
Apart from rarities, like singer and activist Odetta, I had never heard a singer on the radio who didn’t have both a first and last name, so I knew right then that the times were changing. (Yes, Elvis Presley came to be known by his first name alone, but
Dylan was organically singular, in both name and talent.)
WE USE LETTERS. U2?!
And whereas a lot of 2020 groups lean on just letters, like UMI or T.R.U., they should tip their high hat to Bono and U2.
Something that has no precedent is someone using their physical dimensions in their brand, as in Royce Da 5’9”, whose name is the height of self-awareness.
If I had to pick a favorite current group name, it would be the one that is an ingenious model of efficiency. The name of the group also is its email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, which is perfectly suited to one of its releases, titled “blah blah blah.”
That gives me an idea, so excuse me while I go off to start my own group. I’m calling it Reply All. Rest assured its music will be as annoying as the name implies.
Bruce Apar is a writer, actor, consultant, and community volunteer. He can be reached at email@example.com; 914.275.6887.