James Brown loomed larger than life, but not by accident. James Brown created James Brown. Born into poverty, by the late 1940s Brown was imprisoned for armed robbery. On parole, he started a gospel group and, with a rare eye for trends and a voracious appetite for success, successively turned himself into a star of R&B, soul, jazz, rock and pop, ultimately defining a distinctive “James Brown” style. The Godfather of Soul honed his persona throughout his career to its final days, from his conked hair to his pointy-toed footwear.
Dolly Parton, also born into southern poverty, created a persona too, from her teased platinum wig to her sexy spike heels—with a few manufactured bumps and curves along the route. Parton knew her calling early: by age 12 she was on local TV, and at 13 took the Grand Ole Opry stage. Her obvious intelligence and self-deprecating humor (“It costs a lot of money to look this cheap”) has helped sustain her popularity for 40 years. Singer, songwriter, actor, record producer and theme-park mogul, Parton demonstrates savvy and conspicuous talent in many lines of work, and has the platinum records and solid-gold bank account to prove it.
Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Boy George, Michael Jackson, Liberace, Madonna, David Johansen, David Bowie and Elton John (who wrote about the phenomenon in “Candle In The Wind”) have all reinvented themselves more than once, as their goals (or market conditions) changed.
Some performers take their personas and, like Spinal Tap, crank them up to “11.” Jimmy Buffett, who studied marketing in college, developed his laid-back “Alcohol + Beach + Guitar + Fattie = Paradise” image which not only works onstage, but insures a larger-than-life spot on the Fortune 500 list of top-earning entertainers. Keith Richards (probably in a less calculating fashion than Buffett) also lives Keith Richards to the Nth degree. Unlike Britney Spears, I bet Keith doesn’t stay up nights worrying that an episode of public intoxication is going to damage his image, but rather the reverse.
But at what point does the persona overshadow the person? Townes Van Zandt, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Gram Parsons and Jimi Hendrix died in attempts to bridge the gap between themselves and their public personas. Some performers zip themselves into a costume to become noticed, and get trapped inside. Like a garish tattoo, sometimes a brand is hard to undo.
In speaking with a country singer recently, she said how much she admired Dolly Parton…“Not the cartoon Dolly,” she clarified. I went to see Paul Revere and the Raiders at a county fair some years ago. And while they played a great show, I wondered if a band with as many hits still needed to be wearing Revolutionary War costumes and whether the public would take them more seriously if they weren’t putting on “an act.”
Young performers, take note: when you strap on that push-up bra or outsized Stetson, remember that—like it or not—you might be wearing that getup for the rest of your life. And audiences should take the hint, too. Next time you see an over-the-top act, try this: close your eyes and just listen. After all, it’s the music that matters. E