Imaginary Friends of Popular Culture

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In a Rolling Stone video (interview), Donald Glover and Childish Gambino exploit the tension between comedian and rapper.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a music icon name an alter-ego to boost their popularity and intensify their reputation. Many of us remember (or try to forget) Jo Calderone, who Lady Gaga premiered on the cover of Vogue Homes Japan in 2010. Then there’s also Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce, Katy Perry’s Katy Beth Terry and Eminem’s Slim Shady. The list goes on.

How can we as viewers and fans understand the use of a named alternative persona as an identity re-configured in those of fame and fortune? Is it simply a publicity device or creative outlet?

Either way, these music and media icons are very cleverly playing it safe. They create a person of very extreme qualities to carry a message. This person serves as a buffer that guards them from public rejection. People who don’t like Childish Gambino or Jo Calderone, can still be fans of Donald Glover and Lady Gaga. Naming a different imaginary person is a method of portraying multi-dimensions of artistic talent while detaching the created /alter-ego from the creator/artist allows them to protect their own reputation.

Without this imaginary person, artists must adapt to a new identity and cannot return to a safe publicly accepted idea of their identity. Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera can never go back to their school-girl and bottled genie days. Donald Glover, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and Eminem alike all have a back-up plan for any explosive actions their imaginary counterparts pursue.

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