When the stardust settles: the struggle for stage persona supremacy

written by André Poniewozik
Art by madeleine Babcock
Initially, this was to be an in depth research piece, examining the intricacies of the music industry’s most beloved and notorious stage personas. How did David Bowie’s numerous characters parallel his personal life, his identity both dictating the trajectory of, and becoming entangled with the likes of Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke? Why are the Spice Girls the perfect example of functional stage personas, a defense mechanism by which they could avoid exposing their true selves to the public?
And while these are definitely interesting article concepts that I should get massive brownie points for coming up with, the more I researched, the more I wondered if this was the right approach for a piece on the stage characters of musicians.

Stage personas come in many forms, but they share the same core features: they are theatrical, outlandish, fantastical escapes from the self through which the artist can say whatever they are trying to say. To me, although compelling, writing a straight-up musical history piece didn’t really capture the spirit of what makes stage personas so fun. 

An exploration into the fantastical characters of the music industry has to be just that: fantastical. Outlandish characters deserve their time in the spotlight in outlandish scenarios. 

And so, it’s time to answer the age-old question: in an all-out, free-for-all battle between music’s greatest stage personas and alter-egos, who would come out on top?

I think we can rule out a few of the most well known contenders pretty quickly. The Spice Girls, despite having a clear numbers-advantage over many of the solo act personas, have demonstrated their inability to stick together, and this lack of cohesion is sure to doom them.

The aforementioned Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie’s most iconic character, an androgynous, omnisexual, alien messiah, would certainly be a favorite of both fans and oddsmakers heading in. But, as we know, Bowie’s 1972 album is titled The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars–a tragic downfall is built into his lore. As it is fated, Ziggy’s hubris will be his ultimate downfall, buying into his own hype only to be torn apart by a group of cosmic beings called the infinites to the tune of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” (as Bowie described Ziggy’s death). 

There are some lesser-known, potential underdogs who need to be considered. The Cleverlys, Paul Harris’ bluegrass-comedy-fusion group featuring a rotating cast of characters in the ‘Cleverly Family,’ would be in contention; but, with members having left the band and their characters suffering unfortunate fates because of it (such as one being said to have been “arrested for running a bloody sloth-fighting ring”), they’ll be severely undermanned. Captain Bogg and Salty, an Oregonian pirate-based rock band, would thrive in any conflict that happened on the sea, but when you look at their roster featuring “Chucklehead Pete” the cabin boy and “Squeezy” the lime squeezer (as far as I know this isn’t some obscure pirate-y term – it’s just someone who squeezes limes), they become a little less threatening. The aptly named Band of Orcs (a death metal band made up of invented orc characters) would probably become early fodder as orcs tend to do in any fantasy novel or movie, but they wouldn’t go down without a show, with members like “Gronk!” and Cretos Filthgrinder, the self-proclaimed “sexiest orc.”

Some worthy competitors will be too tied up with their own ongoing conflicts and priorities to stand a chance. The Radioactive Chicken Heads, a Ska Punk band featuring a 7 foot tall carrot named Carrot Topp and his band of chickens (or, rather, chickens who’s heads have supposedly been sewn onto the bodies of humans following a violent outburst by their former bandmate) already have their hands full with mad scientist Dr. Baron Von Kluckinstein and the dangerous mutant-rabbit “Badd Bunny” (as detailed in their incredibly elaborate band backstory). Californian punk rock band Supernova will be too focused on searching for tin foil to fight–it is said that they are extraterrestrials whose sole goal on Earth is to amass a following so that their fans will give them tin foil, the most valuable thing on their native planet. 

It’s important to acknowledge the undeniable odds-on favorite heading into this stage persona battle royale: Kiss. They have it all: name recognition, experience, incredibly intimidating makeup, and – most importantly – superpowers. It’s hard to find a weakness in this 4-man team with the ability to teleport, manipulate human emotion, fly, use super strength, and control animals (it is unclear as to whether or not this applies to giant carrots and/or their half-chicken, half-human associates) that has already been inducted into Marvel Comicsin 1977. However, it’s this exact resumé that will prevent them from winning: the other personas will have no choice but to team up. They’re simply too big of threats for their own good.

For me, there is only one potential outcome in a hypothetical battle for stage persona supremacy. It’s not Eminem’s Slim Shady, or the mummies of Here Come the Mummies. It’s not the Phenomenauts or Paul McCartney’s pseudonym Percy “Thrills” Thrillington.

It is, of course, Dr. Funkenstein. 

Dr. Funkenstein, described as “an emperor of intergalactic funk,” is the titular star of funk band Parliament’s album ‘The Clones of Doctor Funkenstein.” He is a part of the greater P-Funk mythology, an expansive sci-fi universe created by musician George Clinton and his music collective Parliament-Funkadelic. Performed by Clinton, the mad scientist Dr. Funkenstein brings a lot to the table, not necessarily because of his own combat ability, but because of the resources available to him. The first of these is the P-Funk Mothership, a spaceship piloted by Dr. Funkenstein (and featured as a set piece in many of Parliament’s concerts). More important are the Children of Production, a group of clones created by the doctor said to have the ability to “funkatize” galaxies. It is undeniable: no other persona, character, or alter-ego will stand a chance once they are quickly funkatized; a decisive, and inherently peaceful victory for this cosmic icon. This is a battle of musical characters after all: it won’t be won through strength or strategy, but, rather, through the greatest power of them all: the power of funk.