Multiple Personality Disorder

Written by Bill Leebens

A few years ago I spotted a bizarre trend in popular music. I’m not sure if it’s “blue car syndrome”—how if you talk about blue cars, suddenly it seems as though they’re freaking everywhere— or if it really is spreading like a virulent bug at CES.

On second thought, I think it’s spreading. And I’m a little scared.

Not to get all new-agey think-globally yadda yadda, but the modern world has issues with boundaries. Not just geographic ones: I’m talking about the respect of interpersonal boundaries. More accurately, the lack of respect of interpersonal boundaries. We all know that different cultures observe different distances between individuals when talking. That’s a given, and can be dealt with, even though it may make for some squeamish moments. That’s not what I mean.

The lack of boundaries that concern me are of the “we’re all one, all drones in the hive mind” kind of BS. The kind where twenty-something sales clerks think it’s appropriate to call sixty-something me by my first name. The kind where total strangers repeatedly touch you while talking to you. The kind where pep-rally rah-rah migrates into the workplace with trite aphorisms for every occasion.

Yes, we’re all in this together—but in spite of the Beatles’ babble, I am not he; you are not he; and you are not me. We are separate, individual, distinct.  And while there are undoubtedly multiple aspects to our personalities, most of us do not have multiple separate personalities. We don’t think of ourselves as a group of people, or present ourselves as such.

And that’s what’s happening in pop music: individual performers bill themselves with group names. It makes me crazy.

The first one I encountered was Iron & Wine. It turns out that it’s a guy named Sam Beam. As you might expect—if you were a judgmental old fart like me—Sam sports a beard that would look right at home in a tintype of Gold Rush miners in bowler hats holding pick-axes. Or on Garth Hudson, on the cover of The Band.

Then I came upon Bon Iver. —And no, it’s not “bahn EYEver”; it’s ‘bohn  ee-VAIR”, a corruption of the French “bon hiver”, “good winter”. Turns out that’s a guy named Justin Vernon, who encountered the phrase in a Northern Exposure rerun.

The confusing part is that these group/guys largely record on their own, singing/playing everything by themselves under their multiple-moniker….but when they play gigs, he/they/whatever transform into a real band. Iron & Wine often plays with 10 musicians.

So, Leebs—you’re getting bent out of shape because there are two guys who refer to themselves by tribe names?  Seriously??

If those two were the sum total, I wouldn’t even refer to this as a trend. It’d just be a couple of outlier blips on the graph of life. But consider:

Aphex Twin
Five For Fighting
Of Montreal
Nine Inch Nails
LCD Soundsystem
Tame Impala

—all those are basically names used by one person, who then assembles groups of musicians for live performances. Some of these are more clear-cut than others; some,like Nine Inch Nails, seemed to start out as a Real Band, and then morphed into a plural cover for one artist (Trent Reznor, in this case). There are dozens more of these multiple personalties running around there, or holed up in some twee artisanal cabin, recording on their iPhone, courtesy of solar power.

It’s all very confusing. Having grown up with bands with names like The Fugs and The Electric Prunes and Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company, I have a hard time thinking of myself as a stickler for conventional nomenclature. It’s not like I’m sitting on the front porch in a wife-beater screaming, “we had Glenn Miller And His Orchestra. THAT was a GOOD NAME, damnit!”

And yet: I guess I do require some order in my musical universe. Who knew?

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