Mask Up: From Bowie to Daft Punk & Beyond

Inside pop and rock history’s obsession with disguise. 

by
Daft Punk at their landmark Coachella performance in 2006. Credit: Karl Walter/Getty Images.

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.

From this glam-rock idea of self-invention, the next step is hiding one’s actual face completely. One of the first prominent examples slightly predated Bowie’s own stardom: Arthur Brown, whose apocalyptic “Fire” topped the charts in 1968 and whose live performances hovered somewhere between circus and shamanic ritual. Brown’s shiny mask, grotesque black-and-white makeup — considered the prototype for the “corpse paint” later widely used in black metal — and flame-spewing headpiece served to disguise his normal appearance almost totally.

Arthur Brown ignites at a TV performance in 1968. Credit: Ron Howard/Redferns.

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.

But it’s probably Slipknot who’ve most successfully turned mask-wearing into a sustained shtick, a brand. For 25 years now, each member of this large group has worn a succession of hideous face-coverings whose look changes from album/tour to album/tour. Some resemble horror-movie psycho killers like Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hellraiser’s Pinhead or the muzzled cannibal Hannibal Lecter. Other inspirations include the black-leather “gimp mask” used in bondage, executioner hoods, hockey helmets and gas masks. Singer Corey Taylor felt that hiding their faces made people appreciate them as a “music first” band. Yeah, right….

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.

Writing about the Prodigy’s Keith Flint — rave’s own Alice Cooper — after his death, the critic Andrew Harrison argued that “the best pop stars are cartoons — instantly recognizable, bright, bold and primary-colored … in their simplicity far larger and more thrilling than life.” The logical extension of that idea is replacing the pop group with animation. Daft Punk dabbled with this idea in the anime videos for “One More Time” and “Aerodynamic” (both off 2001’s Discovery). But Gorillaz, the cartoon pop group invented by Damon Albarn and comic artist Jamie Hewlett, exist only in virtual form as the characters 2-D, Murdoc Niccals, Noodle and Russel Hobbs.

MF DOOM onstage in London in 2011. Credit: Jim Dyson/Redferns.

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. 

The Germans have a word for it: maskenfreiheit, the freedom conferred by wearing a mask. That was the idea behind the masquerade balls of olden times; you could say flirty things and take saucy liberties you couldn’t normally get away with. But for performers, what happens when the character you’ve created to mediate between yourself and the public becomes a role your adoring public demands you play offstage too? What started out feeling like the ultimate license becomes drudgery and duty; the escape route turns into a trap. In Party Down, the comedy series about a catering company staffed by aspiring actors, one episode involves a backstage party for Jackal Onassis, a cosmetics-caked shock-rocker transparently based on Marilyn Manson. Jackal can take any drug and have any girl he wishes, but all he really wants is to swap places with one of the catering crew and spend an evening as an anonymous peon. Free from the mask of his makeup, Jackal happily works the bar unrecognized by his fans. Afterwards, glumly getting into a limo with some groupies, he says the night was the most fun he’s had in years.

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