In 1969, just before he became famous, David Bowie made a short film called The Mask. A parable about the dangers of having a performance persona, it tells the tale of a young man who finds a mask in a junk shop and is spurred to develop a mime act. His career takes off and he plays a triumphant show at the London Palladium. Onstage, however, he discovers he can’t remove the mask and dies writhing in horror under the spotlight.
Bowie studied mime and drew inspiration from ultra-stylized Japanese Noh theatre. But although he plastered on cosmetics, during his long career of image changes and bizarre costumes, Bowie never actually masked up — not even when playing the Elephant Man on Broadway. Why cover up his strange beauty? Bowie did ultimately introduce to rock the idea that the persona you project onstage needn’t have anything to do with your real-life personality. In performance and on record, you could be fantastically far from your everyday self — alien or otherworldly, a monster or a superhero.
Around the time the Crazy World of Arthur Brown first split, the Residents embarked on their own journey into audiovisual excess. The San Francisco outfit spent years making a never-completed surrealist movie called Vileness Fats and developed an enigmatic mystique by hiding their faces behind bizarre headgear. Initially, they used Klan-like headdresses made from newspaper, as seen in the short film for 1976’s satirical The Third Reich ’n Roll. Then, on the cover of 1979’s Eskimo, the group debuted the disguise that became the Residents’ enduring logo: giant eyeballs completely encasing their heads. The gaze of these eerily distended orbs seemed to mock the audience’s own fascinated voyeurism — as if to ask, who you looking at?
A group might have an artistically provocative reason for donning masks, or they could be looking for a gimmick to make the stageshow more compelling. They might even cover up their faces like feminist protest punks Pussy Riot, with their luridly colored balaclavas, in an attempt to evade reprisal from the government.
Often, though, you can’t help wondering if they’re hiding their faces because the faces are so unremarkable. Scrawny and haggard beyond his years, Alice Cooper couldn’t hope to make it as a sex god like Robert Plant. So instead of girl appeal, Cooper went for ghoul appeal: The thick black slashes of sinister makeup attracted an army of teenage boys into all things gory and gross. Too homely to be the New York Dolls, Kiss glooped on the greasepaint for the “evil clown” look that packed arenas and made them obscenely wealthy. Compensating not so much for plain looks as for the plain fare of their metal, Gwar went beyond masks and inserted themselves into latex and rubber constructions closer to the prosthetics in splatter movies than to stage costumes. Inspired by the wrestling world as much as by the circus, Insane Clown Posse similarly used makeup to, well, make up for the poor man’s Cypress Hill of their sound.
If metal and hard-rock performers like Slipknot or the Swedish band Ghost conceal and deform their natural appearance in ways that visually match the music’s aggression, for other artists the mask is purely defensive. Sia used her own hair — or, rather, an oversized wig that fell across her face like a platinum curtain — as a shield against the public eye. When she wrote an “Anti-Fame Manifesto” for Billboard, Sia appeared on the magazine cover with a paper bag over her head.
Daft Punk started wearing their trademark robot helmets to both preserve their privacy and extend their sci-fi glam aesthetic. Thomas Bangalter once told me that the futuristic kitsch of the headgear was a way of “playing with anonymity and showmanship at the same time.” The artwork for Daft Punk’s debut album, Homework, features a Kiss poster, but the duo’s biggest influence is Brian De Palma’s 1974 rock musical Phantom of the Paradise, whose protagonist is a vengeful musician who hides his deformed features behind a silver mask. “Phantom embodied everything we liked when we were 13 — rock, glam, horror, movies,” Bangalter said. “It’s the film we’ve watched the most number of times, and it’s about a guy with a leather wardrobe and a mask.” Daft Punk also see their helmets as akin to the superhero’s cape: “We love the idea of the person who has the powers, but no one knows who he is.”
Daft Punk’s spectacular “Pyramid” performance at Coachella in 2006 was a game-changer that inspired the next wave of EDM performers like Skrillex to amp up the visual side of their performance. But nobody went further than deadmau5. Everybody can recognize his gigantic mouse head, but I doubt anyone save his most fervent fans could pick the electronic musician and producer Joel Zimmerman out of a police lineup — which was precisely his desire.
At various times, hip-hop names like Flavor Flav, Busta Rhymes, Quavo and others have belonged more to cartoony hyper-reality than to the street-level backdrop of rap, and the late MF DOOM took this tendency to another plane altogether. Inspired by Marvel Comics’ armor-clad and hooded supervillain Doctor Doom, he started wearing a metal mask. A twist on his real surname Dumile, Doom is the ultimate extension of what the critic Ta-Nehisi Coates called “hip-hop’s obsession with facades”: the projection of a front of invincibility and inscrutable cool, in which the face itself hardens into a kind of mask. The roots of this tougher-than-tough alter ego, in Doom’s case, reside in a youth spent dreaming in a bedroom on Long Island — a throwback to his teen nerd years of loving comic books and fantasy/sci-fi movies.