In the early years of psychology, there was no hotter topic than multiple selves and their existence in the subconscious. Pioneering psychologists like Jean-Marie Charcot, William James, Frederic Myers, Theodore Flournoy, Pierre Janet and Sigmund Freud were all fascinated by how other selves could exist within the same personality, and come out in moments of trance or subliminal consciousness.
The more metaphysically-adventurous researchers, like James, Myers and Flournoy, studied psychic mediums like Leonora Piper, and wondered if discarnate spirits were somehow possessing the mediums through their subliminal mind. Other researchers, like Janet and Freud, put forward the theory that the personality ‘split’ or dissociated during trauma, and that the split-off aspects of the psyche could manifest as alternate selves, voices or identities. What all the researchers shared was the belief in a subliminal self in which multiple potential identities existed – our psyche is fluid, they believed, and can suddenly switch into new formations and constellations, even new personalities – this is why James was interested in religious conversions, in which people claimed their old self was dead and a new self born in a moment.
But this avenue of research, so dominant in the early years of psychology, was rapidly walled off as psychology became professionalized and the idea of the unconscious became discredited as too hard to prove and too associated with the occult. While Freud and Janet’s idea of dissociation continued to survive somewhat in studies of trauma and multiple identity disorder / dissociative identity disorder, this was not a mainstream area of research, and it was further discredited by the ‘false memory’ scandal in the 1980s – in which psychoanalysts inadvertently planted false memories of childhood sexual abuse in patients through hypnotic suggestion.
Today, in psychology, there is very little interest in the phenomenon of alter egos or multiple selves in psychology, and even less interest in mediums or psychics. Indeed, few psychologists are even interested in the idea of the subliminal self, although this was in some ways the foundational concept of psychology.
This seems to me a pity. The phenomenon of alter egos seems to me real and worthy of continued research, particularly in relation to creativity, the arts and performance. I want to talk about one aspect of that phenomena that is still alive, well, and part of our mainstream culture, and that’s the use of alter-egos by pop stars.
Many leading pop stars have alter-egos which they assume on stage or in different songs. The most famous is probably David Bowie’s various alter egos – the Thin White Duke, the Pierrot, and of course Ziggy Stardust. In fact, ‘Bowie’ himself is kind of an alter-ego (his real name is David Robert Jones). Beyonce also has an alter-ego, Sasha Fierce; Marshall Mathers has Eminem and Slim Shady; Lady Gaga has a male alter-ego, Jo Calderone (and Lady Gaga is itself something of an alter-ego); Prince has a female alter-ego, Camille; Bono invented three alter-egos for the Zoo TV tour; Tori Amos invented five for her ‘American Doll Posse’ tour, and so on.
What’s the point of these alter-egos? It often seems to give the artists permission to express an aspect of their personality which is somehow forbidden by their usual socially-constructed self. It is ecstatic – it enables them to step out of their usual self and put on someone else. Beyonce says ‘I’ve created an alter ego: things I do when performing that I would never do normally…I wouldn’t like Sasha if I met her off-stage’. Marshall Mathers invented Slim Shady to be ‘a monster freak who only knew how to say and do what no one was supposed to’. Shakira says of her alter-ego, ‘She-Wolf’, ‘it’s like a more animalistic side of you, a more primitive side … an animal person in a way. So when you understand these things you forgive yourself every time you screw up, you say, ‘It wasn’t me, that was the She-Wolf … that was the animal in me, that wasn’t me, I have nothing to do with that.” OK Shakira!
Rock stars’ alter-egos also let them explore different sides of their gender-identity and sexuality – women can embrace a more assertive and sexually aggressive side, men can embrace a more flamboyant or feminine side, or even different ethnic identities – the lead-singer in of Montreal has a black cross-gender alter-ego called Georgie Fruit. This could be seen as a harking back to blacked-up minstrel days, when performers ‘put on’ black identities to explore behaviour somewhat forbidden by their own white culture. Then again, Snoop Dogg has a white guy called Todd among his various alter-egos.
What these performers seem to have in common is a capacity for controlled dissociation. Their alter-egos enable them to go into trance or dissociative states while they’re performing, which in turn enables them to throw off their inhibitions and really go wild on stage, thereby getting the audience into a trance too. Beyonce has said: ‘I have out-of-body experiences [on stage]. If I cut my leg, if I fall, I don’t even feel it. I’m so fearless, I’m not aware of my face or body’. This dissociative capacity may be related to a sort of schizoid tendency – Bowie, who has this capacity in spades, says: ‘There’s a schizoid streak within the family anyway so I dare say that I’m affected by that. The majority of the people in my family have been in some kind of mental institution, as for my brother he doesn’t want to leave.’ Lady Gaga has said her multiple personalities are ‘how I deal with my insanity. Since I was younger I always had voices in my head, and for the longest time I was drinking and doing a lot of drugs, and it was the clothing and the artistry that saved me.’
The point is that, as with shamans, what could be pathological dissociation becomes controlled dissociation, or the art of trance, although there is always the risk that the artist’s main personality becomes taken over and permanently possessed by their alter ago, particularly if the public demands they play it all the time. That’s why artists like Bowie, Beyonce or Eminem talk about ‘killing off’ their alter egos at the right time.
This capacity for controlled dissociation – a capacity to enter the liquidity of trance and allow your self to assume new formations or personae – seems to me to be central to other performance arts as well. Actors also sometimes exhibit it – I remember John Le Carre saying that Alec Guinness spookily ‘became’ Smiley, which Le Carre described as ‘controlled schizophrenia’. We also read of actors saying they sometimes become ‘possessed’ by a part, and even have to do exorcism or burial rituals to get rid of personae. And many artists have also created alter-egos, either of different genders (as with Duchamp) or even animal alter-egos, as Max Ernst did.
This reminds us that the roots of culture (including pop culture) are in cult. We read of ecstatic cults in Bali, or India, or Thailand, or Haiti, where dancers and actors put on masks and feel themselves to be possessed by spirits and gods. And their performance takes their audience into trance states too, which brings the participants release and catharsis from emotional and psychosomatic disorders. The trance enables the release of physical, emotional and sexual energy which everyday civilization requires us to inhibit. Here’s a brief video about one such cult, the theyyam cult in India.
Pop culture still bears some of the functions of these older ecstatic cults. That’s why people in their 50s will still talk about that Ziggy Stardust gig at the Apollo with a faraway look in their eyes. Pop culture, and the arts in general, are a playful space in which we can take off our everyday masks and play with alternate expressions of identity, other selves, other energies.
I could say something about superhero comics, their elaborate exploration of the idea of alter-egos, and how that’s been another important site for 20th century exploration of this theme, but that deserves its own post. I’ll just end by saying that, as superhero comics show us, this creation of alter egos which enable us to express inhibited parts of us is not always a healthy or prosocial thing. Our alter-egos could easily be the dark or destructive aspect of us. Look, for example, at how James Eagan Holmes assumed the alter-ego of the Joker before shooting 82 people in a cinema, or just this month how a young arsonist says he was under the influence of Spiderman’s nemesis, Carnage, when he burned down his brother’s flat.
We need to remember there are good and bad energies down there in the subliminal self. Internet conspiracy theorists get very worked up about Beyonce’s alter-ego and apparent dissociative tendency, claiming she is an occultist literally possessed by a spirit. Well…unlikely. But it is true that many pop stars fond of alter-egos, like David Bowie or Lady Gaga, are also into the occult. This is the malign influence on pop of black magician Aleister Crowley, who had a real thing for alter-egos. The main point, though, is that the connection between spirit possession and cultural performance is very, very old (as old as shamanism, in fact), and Christian artists also talk about being ‘inspired’ or ‘possessed’ by the Holy Spirit.
I think it is possible (and perhaps desirable!) to have an integrated self in which one doesn’t feel one switches between separate constellations, which must be somewhat confusing for the people around you. I felt like two different people when I was traumatized at university – an extrovert and somewhat amoral ‘me’ and an introvert, neurotic ‘me’. I would involuntarily switch between them for days on end, with each self becoming more extreme. But eventually, they more or less coalesced into one relatively stable personality, which is probably a good thing!
For performers, while alter-egos are useful for exploring new aspects of oneself, there’s always a danger that you’re basically ‘giving the fans what they want’, as Beyonce put it. Perhaps it takes more courage to stand up on stage and show who you really are, without a mask.
I have a comedian friend, Pippa Evans, who always performed as an alter-ego, an American called Loretta Maine. Pippa has said: ‘I sometimes see Loretta as the explosion that happens when a young woman is told to keep her feelings to herself and always put her best face on (I was brought up in the 1930s). All the repressed feelings that I have ever felt towards anyone come out in this gruesome, volatile but, for some reason, endearing monster. And then I feel much calmer. It’s like drama-therapy, only it’s cathartic for all of us.’ But, after a sort of ascetic ritual where she wore no make up for a month, Pippa has now started performing as…Pippa! She unveiled her new show as herself at Edinburgh, which took guts, and it went down a storm.