Lorde and the Age of Self-Branding

Dec 5th 2013

When teenager Ella Yelich-O'Connor set out to become a singer, she adopted a stage name. That should come as no surprise. For generations, young performers have tweaked or completely reinvented their names for marquee appeal. Just ask Judy Garland (Frances Gumm) or Tony Curtis (Bernard Schwartz).

But those performers of the past limited their stage-name search to the world of personal names. They chose a first name and a surname, most often familiar names of the English-speaking world. To a teenager today, that model must seem absurdly constricting. After all, Stefani Germanotta and Jayceon Taylor didn't waste their time fiddling with surnames. They called themselves "Lady Gaga" and "The Game," making their very names memorable statements of artistic identity.

So 21st-century teenager Yelich-O'Connor decided to call herself:


And nobody blinked an eye. How did we get to this point?

It was '80s hiphop artists who first blew the lid off of stage naming conventions. Early performers like Grandmaster Flash followed the self-branding approach of DJs, leading to a generation of artists like Ice Cube and Flavor Flav who blurred the lines between name and act, person and persona.

Around the same time, two wildly influential singers emerged who happened to have grand, meaning-laden given names. Prince and Madonna bridged the name/title gap on top-40 radio. By the time Lorde came along decades later, her chosen name -- a thematic offspring of those two star names -- was a non-story.

For the record, Lorde's stage name was inspired by her fascination with aristocracy, not by the religious meanings of "Lord." Nor is the spelling a tribute to writer Audre Lorde; the singer says she chose the spelling to "feminize" the highly masculine word. The name's stark, enigmatic, vaguely arrogant style is a perfect advertisement for Lorde's music, which is defiantly spare and unclassifiable.

I've talked before about the evolution of stage names into brands, notably with 2010's Name of the Year, "The Situation," which I described as "a stage name without an act." In that discussion, I made the point that this new wave of stage names, despite their un-namelike forms, are indeed names. That is, they fully represent the individual, onstage and off.

That separates them from past adopted personas, like David Bowie's "Thin White Duke." The man who rapped as Ice Cube with N.W.A. in the '80s remains Ice Cube as an actor in 21 Jump Street today. When a self-branded performer feels his brand no longer fits, he can't just change his act. He has to rename himself. Snoop Doggy Dogg now goes by Snoop Lion, and Sean Combs' many incarnations could be the subject of a PhD thesis in marketing.

I was intrigued, then, to hear Lorde establishing some distance between herself and her stage name. In Interview Magazine, she explained:

"My name is Ella, that's who I am at school, hanging out with friends, while I'm doing homework. But when I'm up on stage, Lorde is a character. My friends actually find that really difficult to digest, separating me from the theatrical character they see on stage [laughs]; but they're getting used to it."

That name-based separation between public and private spheres strikes me as a healthy impulse for a young performer. Our names, the true names we call ourselves, ARE our selves. If Ella remains Ella to herself, perhaps she'll be a little better equipped to cope with expectations and criticism leveled at Lorde. Perhaps she'll even choose to put Lorde aside, if she ultimately grows in a different direction. We usually think of stage names as tools or weapons wielded to attract attention, but they can also work as shields.


By Amy3
December 5, 2013 2:32 PM

The idea of having a stage persona and an individual ('real') persona with different names for each is one I like. I do think it could help keep a performer, maybe especially a young one, more grounded. (And with a 12-year-old in the house, we love Lorde!)

December 5, 2013 7:22 PM

This post reminds me of the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus double identity.  While Miley is off, um, "re-branding" herself, Disney could in theory create a new Hannah Montana, as they are distinct from one another.  Disney could keep running the re-runs for the same reason.

December 6, 2013 4:31 AM

This reminds me of the singer of the german band Unheilig: He calls himself simply "Der Graf" (the count).

December 12, 2013 9:51 AM

Interesting that she picked a male title, and mucked with the vowels to "feminize" it. That seems to be the way naming goes these days. 

December 12, 2013 11:19 PM

This use of nonstandard names for performers goes back further than the 80s. Remember that in the Jazz Age performers named (gentry, anyone?) Duke and Count emerged. Few people know Duke Ellington's real name, or Count Basie's. Then there's King Oliver, Nat "King" Cole, Earl Hines, and don't forget that Charles Mingus was semi-officially called the Baron. (That was more a nickname, though.) And all the non-gentry names that filled the world of jazz — let yourself revel in the pile of names: Slam Stewart, Cornbread, Baby Sweets, Hootie, Red Norvo, Cow Cow, Tricky Sam, Shake Keene, Kid Sheik, Jiggs Wigham, Shifty Henry, Cozy Cole, Jeep, Cootie Williams, Slide Hampton, Jelly Roll Morton, Dizzy Gillespie, Honeybear, Klook, Ziggy Elman, Django Rheinhardt, Hot Lips Page, Scrappy Lambert.... 


Something I'd love for you to trace sometime is the spotlight of the popular culture on (usually) black performers — as the spotlight shifts, the propensity for fanciful names shifts. Later, as jazz was no longer the popular music, more musicians were known by their given names: from Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, and Joe Henderson to ( in the 80s and 90s) Benny Green and Wynton Marsalis, even as performers of hip-hop and rap — the popular music of the day as jazz was in the 20s and 30s — took on fanciful names like Ice T and Grandmaster Flash.


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