Behind the mask of anonymous musicians

by Nina Corcoran / Music Columnist • February 5, 2014

Shortly after the 2014 Grammys, photos of the members of Daft Punk without their masks went viral. The two had just won a backpack’s worth of awards, casually walking up to accept them and thanking the crowd without uttering a word — you know, how robots do.

Turns out the French electronic duo, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, are pretty normal-looking dudes who play beer pong just like the rest of us. Weird? Weird.

As with nearly every artist, much of Daft Punk’s appeal comes from its image. The “faceless” look, two glittery helmets, gives them a distinct leg up on competitors. In an odd way, replacing a regular human face with a mask provides an image of the artist that is instantly recognizable and easier to categorize in a brain already filled with musicians’ human looks.

Is the effort put forward for anonymity actually worth the end result?

Often artists who do this are able to get more respect. The level of secrecy a mask provides them bumps them up to that level of cool only seen in the “popular” group of kids in school. Their private life is hush-hush, and an elusive personality like that does wonders, leaving fans left wondering what kind of magical lifestyle a musician leads that it’s too cool to be caught on camera.

It’s tough to tell the reason behind artists taking this route. Many, including Daft Punk, find there’s less pressure when they wear a mask. It’s easy to play music for a crowd when your personal life remains out of the spotlight. 

“I don’t have people constantly coming up to me and reminding me what I do,” Bangalter told Rolling Stone. “It’s nice to be able to forget.” For once, a fan can only connect so much to an act, their stalking halted by the musician’s refusal to show their real skin.

Then, of course, there are people like Burial. London electronic artist William Emmanuel Bevan has been hailed as one of the best electronic musicians of the 2000s, combining elements of dubstep, ambient, and house music to form a whirlwind of sounds that fit together in a dark and alluring way. This past week he broke out of his purposeful anonymity when he posted a selfie on his website along with a long thank-you note to fans and supporters. 

Burial originally released music entirely anonymously. He would distribute songs through label Hyperdub without a name or face for people to trace back to, hoping the focus would land on the music instead of the creator. How humble — and for art, too. No one’s sure how difficult a process it was to become a major name in the game without sharing personal facts, but Burial certainly proved it was possible.

Is it always that successful, though? Of course not.

Electronic DJ Deadmau5 is hard not to chuckle at when his giant mouse head glows and blinks to every beat. And still, with a costume like that, you’re bound to have house music lovers and rave kids obsessing over your look instead of the music. Granted, that costume is what drove so many new listeners to check out his music in the first place, but it has ended up becoming somewhat of a joke, with many teasing the look (despite the diehard fans who make a mouse head of their own to wear to concerts).

Then there are countless others, from the cartoon characters of Gorillaz to the chicken bucket hat of Buckethead, from rapper MF Doom’s silver mask to GWAR’s insane cosplay-esque getup. While some keep quiet about their reasoning for embracing such looks, most are willing to explain. That explanation is what keeps us from rolling our eyes at something that’s truly meant more for the listeners than for the artist. Without it, we never would have taken two robots hugging after winning Album of the Year seriously, much less given them the award. That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mask-kind.