“I can walk around my own gigs and no one recognizes me,” Jerome says over the phone from Atlanta a few days later. “It takes away that whole premise of you becoming more of a star than the music.”
As the hyper-connectivity of social media pulls our planet into a tighter huddle, Jerome is one in a growing number of vanguard pop artists flirting with the idea of anonymity. They often wear masks. Some conceal their names. A few refuse to perform in public altogether. Many make electronic music, including Deadmau5, the Bloody Beetroots, Redshape and Zomby.
And although artists and authors have worked under pseudonyms for centuries, protecting one’s anonymity today feels like an implicit protest against our increasingly Facebookish society. These artists are asserting their power by refusing to be identified, asking us to like them without clicking “Like.”
By that logic, anonymity might be the new fame — or as the pseudonymous British graffiti artist Banksy once wrote: “In the future, everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes.”
Jerome, who performs at the 9:30 Club on Friday, says he isn’t guarding his privacy so much as as trying to immerse listeners in his music. He decided on the name SBTRKT because it symbolized the idea of scrubbing his identity from his work. He says the approach affords him the psychic freedom to pursue music more directly — something he describes as an intrinsically “faceless medium.”
In the past decade, however, many musicians have become stars with the help of the artificial faces they’ve adopted. The robot helmets worn by French dance duo Daft Punk have become iconic. Rapper MF Doom performs disguised in a hunk of metal. British art-rockers Clinic cover their faces as if preparing for surgery. Members of nu-metal band Slipknot are always ready for Halloween. Before that, avant-rockers the Residents donned eyeball helmets, Gwar embraced gore and members of Kiss painted their faces like demonic mimes.
And masks pre-date pop music, of course — from ancient African masks worn in spiritual rituals to the Italian Bauta masks that allowed cheating hearts to gallivant anonymously around Venice.
“It’s a visual pseudonym,” said Aaron Cromie, a Philadelphia-based mask and puppet designer who has worked for Washington’s Studio, Folger and Shakespeare theaters. “People often feel a lot of freedom when their identity is hidden in that way.”
On 21st-century stages, Cromie says, masks help amplify the dialogue between performer and audience by allowing both sides to divorce from reality. In pop music, he sees a potent example in Gorillaz, the aughties supergroup that chose to portray themselves on album covers and in music videos as a gang of cartoon characters.