Pop loves a good alter ego. Nobody wants a mild-mannered pop star, and a dazzling character is both a powerful tool for self-expression and easy to idealise. In the past decade, there’s been a flurry of female solo artists with alter egos that personify strength, defiance and sex appeal.
Taylor Swift takes this to its logical conclusion in her latest video, “Bad Blood”. In it, she stars as Catastrophe, with a host of all her beautiful, famous girlfriends in dominatrix-esque bondage with oversized weapons and aggressively punning names like Slay-Z and Mother Chucker. They form a futuristic crime syndicate that see the London skyline burn.
It’s a great idea, in theory. But somehow, it doesn’t quite work. The alter egos on display are thoroughly unconvincing. Cara Delevingne may have eyebrows explicitly designed for aiming fierce side-eye at the camera, but the same cannot be said for all Taylor’s friends: Ellie Goulding, Lena Dunham and Hailee Steinfield all look a bit lost and confused in a sea of pleather and chrome. But even the most believably intense girls are cookie-cutter versions of empowerment: standardised femme fatales with no discernible personality, even if “each individual actor/actress chose their character’s name and persona”.
Alter-egos succeed when they are expressive, taking elements of a character we already feel we know to unapologetic extremes. Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce let her roll all her strength and all her sweetness up into one ball, allowing the boldly independent side to her character we saw in Destiny’s Child tracks and solo songs like “Irreplaceable” to flourish, while pushing the doubt, fear and vulnerability she equally explored musically to one side (quite literally, she dumped it on the other disc of her double LP, I am… Sasha Fierce). She uses a similar technique to bring her sexuality to the fore on her self-titled fifth album, creating slick, sensual Yoncé to conquer the embarrassment she felt about remaining sexy after becoming a mother. In an interview at the time, she explained:
In real life I was this woman, this mother, trying to get my focus and my dreams and myself back, and recording this album was such an outlet for me to escape, and create whatever world and whatever fantasy that definitely at the time was not happening. [Laughs]
I know finding my sensuality, getting back into my body, being proud of growing up, it was important to me that I expressed that in this music because I know there are so many women that feel the same thing after they give birth. You can have your child, and you can still have fun, and still be sexy.
Nicki Minaj uses her alter ego, Roman Zolanski, as a similar outlet: through him, she lets loose of her craziest faces, her most manic laugh, her rawest aggression, and her silliest self. It’s obviously significant that Minaj, a female rapper in a male-dominated industry, has a male alter ego – lest we forget the advent of pickle juice feminism after her 2010 documentary My Time Now:
When I am assertive, I’m a bitch. When a man is assertive, he’s a boss. He bossed up. No negative connotation behind ‘bossed up’. But lots of negative connotation behind being a bitch.
When you’re a girl, you have to be everything. You have to be dope at what you do but you have to be super sweet and you have to be sexy and you have to be this, you have to be that, and you have to be nice. It’s like, ‘I can’t be all those things at once. I’m a human being!’
Taylor usually works towards this same goal of self-expression using a different technique. Rather than creating a series of dramatically differing selves that reflect parts of her, Taylor’s fans often trace what they call her “character development”. She has moved gradually from being a country girl in torn blue jeans and ringlets, dreaming of love she’s heard about from fairytales, to one in high heels, red lips, more concerned with surrounding herself with intelligent women than chasing boys. She often accepts these contradictions in her lyrics, never rejecting that part of her that helped her to write her first album. She signs her foreword to 1989, “From the girl who said she would never cut her hair or move to New York or find happiness in a world where she is not in love… Taylor Swift”.
But even though Taylor surrounds herself with women she knows and loves for “Bad Blood” (its highlight is her power struggle with bestie Selena Gomez), the video is a stark departure from her usual efforts precisely because it seems artificial. It’s an unashamed PR stunt for her, and everyone involved, and despite the cast and context (“Bad Blood” was supposedly written after a feud with Katy Perry), the video says little about Taylor’s position as a woman in music.
In contrast, Beyoncé and Nicki’s alter egos come from a sincere and generous desire for an embodiment of a self that would otherwise be difficult to voice. It’s why their new video for “Feeling Myself” is so successful. I would sooner have the lyrics to “You Belong With Me” tattooed on my face than criticise Taylor as an artist (her songs are heartfelt and wonderful), or pit women in music against each other – but unlike “Bad Blood”, the “Feeling Myself” video works because Beyoncé and Nicki are doing something more radical. Their alter egos are stripped away here, because they’ve already done their work: forcing onlookers to accept their multitudes.