TAKE IT TO THE LIMIT
Fictional musicians bend reality to suit their needs and artistic vision, but are they pushing the envelope far enough?
In the noisy jungle of pop music, many artists speak their truth by pretending to be somebody else. Singing from the perspective of an alter ego has become standard practice for the likes of Lana Del Rey, the Weeknd, Lady Gaga and every rapper whose stage name doesn’t match what’s printed inside their passport. A few exceptionally multitudinous souls have even gone to the trouble of assigning alter egos to their alter egos: Nicki Minaj becomes Roman Zolanski, Eminem transforms into Slim Shady, Kool Keith mutates into Dr. Octagon, and on and on.
Still, we rarely lose track of who’s who. Perhaps that’s because adopting an alias simply grants a pop star permission to explore different realms of the self — the more they can express from a pseudonymous point of view, the more they can tell us about who they really are. Or maybe it’s just that music itself is a kind of sonic fiction, so it feels natural when it comes flowing from the mouth of an imaginary character.
Either way, the possibilities begin to multiply when we’re listening to the work of fictional musicians — that is, when the musicians don’t exist in real life, but whose music does. Most of the time, these imaginary musos originate as characters in movies or television shows, and their music fundamentally exists to help advance a story being told on screen. Sometimes they’re human (the Partridge Family, Spinal Tap, the cast in most Broadway musicals), sometimes they’re not (the original animated Josie and the Pussycats, Kermit the Frog singing “Rainbow Connection,” the characters in most Disney cartoons).
And while fictional musicians are commonplace in pop culture, we rarely pay any mind to the spectacular fact that their music leaks out of a fictional space and becomes a part of reality. Why isn’t this more astonishing to us? Probably because most of the songs that survive this freaky metaphysical transition aren’t all that freaky in and of themselves. And that feels like a wasted opportunity.
So how should we measure the work of fictional musicians? We could start by weighing the music’s novelty against its artfulness, and its familiarity against its strangeness. I’ve chosen nine fictional acts to put to that test — not because they’re the greatest make-believe pop acts to ever (not) exist, but because certain aspects of their work initially made the line dividing fiction from reality go fizzier than usual. This is fictional music that might help us better understand the breadth of what’s already out there, and what could still be.
And yes, this graph could be plotted on a three-dimensional ball to better account for the zones where novelty becomes artful and familiarity becomes strange. A lot of great pop music reaches for those mysterious spaces. More fictional music should.