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.

Nominations, Please! What Was the Name of the Year for 2013?

Nov 27th 2013

Names are a window onto a society's style and psyche. Every December, BabyNameWizard.com honors the role of names in our culture by identifying a notable example that shaped -- and was shaped by -- the year that's been.

The Baby Name Wizard Name of the Year isn't necessarily the most popular baby name. It's a name that changed during the course of the year, and points to more changes around us. It's a one-name time capsule that reminds us of how names are woven into our lives, connecting to and reflecting everything that goes on in our culture.

Past honorees have come from Hollywood, politics and literature. They have included names of people real (Barack), fictional (Renesmee), and in-between (The Situation). They've included the names of specific individuals (Blue Ivy), but also names that suddenly popped up everywhere at once (ChuckJoe, in the year of Joe Six-Pack and Joe the Plumber). What they all had in common was zeitgeist...and your nominations. This is a group effort!

The criteria for the 2013 Name of the Year selection include:

- A dramatic change in the name's usage or social meaning

- A reflection of a broader cultural theme, or influence on broader style trends

- In the case of current events, "naminess" -- how essential the name is to the story

Your votes. The NOTY is selected from reader nominations. The number of nominations counts in the decision, and compelling arguments in support of your candidate count most of all.

Please post your nominations in comments here, and feel free to second others' suggestions. Then look for the official Name of the Year announcement in December!


The NameVoyager Goes Mobile (and Gets Bigger!)

Nov 21st 2013

Name trends don't stand still, and neither do web technologies. I'm happy to announce that the NameVoyager name popularity grapher has been rebuilt from the ground up in a smooth new format that's widely accepted by phones and tablets.

You'll still have to be patient with it on mobile -- The NameVoyager data is a big load a for phones to crunch through, bless their wee little hearts. But give it time, and it will do its name-graphing magic. That's good news when you're on the move and just have to know the top names beginning with X.

There's good news for full-size computer users, too. The Voyager has been feeling cramped in its little screen box, so a new "Enlarge" link lets you pop up a bigger version for easier clicking, clearer labels, and even more time irresistibly wasted discovering name trends like this one.

The new mobile-compatible technology extends to the Expert Edition NameVoyager as well. BNW Expert subscribers can sort names by combinations of letters anywhere in the name, by popularity level, and more. (And as a bonus, enjoy a faster, ad-free website.)

Happy name surfing!