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Cause celebs: Why so many musicians once named their acts after famous people

Ringo Deathstarr, anyone? Remembering those pun-driven band names that ran rampant in the early 2010s
Cause celebs: Why so many musicians once named their acts after famous people
Graphic: Natalie Peeples
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Imagine the late Steven Paul Smith never produces music as “Elliott Smith.” Instead, he kicks off his career in 1994 under a different pseudonym—a pun inspired by a young actor then conquering Hollywood. Elliott Smith, songwriting legend, releases his first solo music as… Sad Pitt.

Despite claiming to be no “sadder than anybody else,” Smith and his lacerating, soul-baring music became inextricable from the most troubled elements of his personal life, penning him in as a poster boy for depression.

But what if he’d arrived with a name that downplayed the confessional quality of his work? Would mass audiences have embraced “Sad Pitt”’s music in the same way? Could they have appreciated its emotional intimacies without feeling compelled to project them onto Smith the man? Hard to say, but this is roughly the premise by which Mathew Lee Cothran began his career as Elvis Depressedly.

Cothran’s first musical project, Coma Cinema, started generating blog chatter back in 2010. Though excited to grow his audience, the North Carolina native became convinced that personal scrutiny would derail his art, his private life, or both.

But before those fears had a chance to become reality, they manifested creatively. Cothran’s anxiety destabilized the bedroom-pop sound that had defined Coma Cinema. As his songs turned more introspective, Cothran grew fearful the new music would not only alienate his fanbase but also trap him in the public imagination as a “sad singer.” Out of this artistic crisis, Cothran saw an opportunity.

“I realized if I came up with a funny moniker it could be a way to distance myself from my music,” he told The A.V. Club. “A buffer to keep me and any listeners from taking things too seriously.” Cothran settled upon Elvis Depressedly, a portmanteau he’d discovered while vying against coworkers at a local kitchen for the most obnoxious celebrity pun.

As it happens, the first Elvis Depressedly album, Save The Planet, Kill Yourself, arrived in August 2011 alongside a wave of indie musicians with names that were also styled after celebrities. The same year saw releases from Com Truise, Dale Earnhardt JR JR, Ringo Deathstarr, Chet Faker, Joanna Gruesome, and others.

“We knew all these bands who took themselves so seriously that they had a hard time naming themselves, forget making music,” says Elliott Frazier of sloppy shoegaze revivalists Ringo Deathstarr. “For us, laughing at yourself really became a kind of crucial attitude.”

“We’d begun as a songwriting exercise with no artistic identity in place as a starting point,” says Josh Epstein of pop craftsmen Dale Earnhardt JR JR. “At that time there were a lot of really serious indie bands, so having the levity of a ridiculous name allowed us to focus on our project as more of a creative outlet. The idea of even having a name was kind of a joke to us.”

These otherwise dissimilar bands, with diverse career ambitions and sonic agendas, came independently to goofy names through the same motivating anxiety as Cothran. Out of the fear that an all-encompassing persona would trap their indie artistry, they sought creative freedom through frivolity, distance, and an instinct for terrible celebrity humor.

But why all at once around the turn of decade? Perhaps it’s because, having come up alongside nascent streaming services and MP3 blogs, these musicians were the first indie generation for whom flippancy need not spell a career in the underground.

“As it became easier to make and release music, indie went from this passionate, ride-or-die thing built through touring to an internet game where anyone could get huge from their bedroom,” recalls Larry Fitzmaurice, who joined Pitchfork as a staff writer in early 2010. “In that climate, it was kind of just like, ‘Who cares? Just go for anything.’”

But for some music fans, the rapid saturation of artists with mock-celebrity names became evidence enough to label them all as trend-hopping opportunists.

“We had so many of those celebrity bands in rotation,” says a former college radio DJ in Minnesota, who prefers to go by his online handle “Mookid.” “And I remember just thinking, ‘Okay, what’s next? How are you gonna make a serious album with a name like Salvia Plath?’ It was like getting noticed with a crazy name was their only goal.”

Posting on RateYourMusic.com, Mookid sublimated that distaste into a list: “Artists from the late 2000s/2010s whose names are an ironic parody of the name of a celebrity.” Eight years and 116 entries later, it’s one of the most popular lists on the site—easily the biggest database of these artists on the internet.

The list embodies a fear many of its subjects have come to share: They will be remembered only as fad chasers. “I definitely have worried that my legacy will be that I have one of the many stupid band names on that list,” says Elliott Brabant, whose band Michael Cera Palin appears at entry 91.

Also preserved in amber are the frustrated captions Mookid wrote under each entry: “Mark Twain is not your cute little device for making people think you’re clever. Go die now.” And: “Why are you branding your art as a lame attempt at wordplay?” These comments mirror the vitriol many of the band members recall receiving online at the time.

“As the trend got bigger … people went from being like, ‘Hey your name sucks’ to ‘I want to kill every motherfucker that has a name like this,’” says Cothran. “People thought it wasn’t serious art because they were such tacky, cheeky names.”

Much quieter, though ultimately far more decisive, was the disdain from the music press. “I had colleagues who took celebrity names to be just cynical trend-chasing on the musician’s part, and I can tell you for a fact that it hurt coverage,” says Fitzmaurice. “Like, ‘This name’s dumb and what it’s trying to do is cheap, so it gets a slightly lower grade or I’m not even listening to it.’”

“I can’t help but wonder if being part of that trend inhibited us,” says Frazier, whose only Pitchfork coverage is a two-sentence track review that doesn’t discuss the music but does refer to his group as “absurdly named.” “The internet has a lot of power to keep people away from stuff that they think is lame.”

Fittingly, the only contemporaneous article to focus on these musicians as a group, a July 2011 piece in The Guardian, strained to put a positive spin on their perceived internet-age opportunism, clocking the “attention-grabbing names” as “good marketing sense” for an “information-glutted age.” When that’s your trend’s most flattering press clipping, it’s no surprise these artists felt singled out.

Of course, musicians with punny celebrity names were hardly the first to seize simultaneously upon the same kind of goofy moniker. One need only glance sideways for a contemporary (and far less contentious) trend: disem-voweled, all-capped names like MGMT, MSTRKRFT, and STRFKR.

What’s more, acts having fun with the names of famous people have roots in extreme music that go back to the 1980s. It’s tough to imagine anyone accusing ’90s pre-internet punk lifers like Urethra Franklin and Jon Cougar Concentration Camp of being unserious.

Yet, as The Guardian pointed out, those “willfully unpopular” predecessors had very different agenda than the “credible and commercial” bands of 2011. In a determinedly underground band such as Kathleen Turner Overdrive, the sonic abrasion of the music works in tandem with the commercially untenable name to make a fervent statement about commitment to music over popular acceptance. When a careerist indie-pop band calls themselves the Dolly Spartans, it can feel gimmicky by comparison—like an act is trading off the fame rather than subverting it. Some artists will admit to doing just that.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. at the 2012 CBGB Festival in New York City
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. at the 2012 CBGB Festival in New York City
Photo: Anna Webber (Getty Images)

Take Brabant, who wasn’t even in a band yet when he came up with the name Michael Cera Palin, which he debuted in 2015. He reverse-engineered the moniker after he concluded that “celebrity names were very algorithm-friendly” and his music would thus “reach a nonzero amount of ears.” The musician wasn’t even aware his creation also parodied comedian Michael Palin until a Monty Python Facebook page accidentally auto-tagged his group in a post.

But, like his fellow mock-celebrity artists, Brabant’s ultimate motivation was never gaming the algorithm. “My music is incredibly personal, but being an artist and being a human are two very separate spaces that I don’t want to mix, and my goofy name definitely helps me do that,” insists Brabant, who also recalls the influence of Matthew Lee Cothran and his conception of Elvis Depressedly as a buffer.

Of course, as Cothran would find out, there are some things a goofy name can’t protect you from. In April 2019 a Twitter thread by musician Sam Ray accused Cothran of emotionally abusive behavior and threats. It caught enough traction to inspire others to open up with similar stories on Reddit.

Though Cothran contests many of the allegations, none of which are legal in nature, and counters with his own accusation that Ray was trying to drive him to suicide, he says the incident “upturned” his musical career to the point where he doubts he’ll “ever recover.”

Yet, for all the fans who spoke of their sense of betrayal, nearly as many wondered why this uncomfortable personal affair had become a “matter of public interest.” Unlike his namesake, Elvis Depressedly was not at the level of celebrity that usually brought such granular revelation.

But as political commentator Chris Hayes recently pointed out in The New Yorker, “the previous limiting conditions on what’s private and what’s public have been lifted” throughout the past decade. “Fame has gone from a novelty to a core human experience.”

Thanks to the mounting likes and retweets of social media, sharing once-discreet political opinions, idle commentary, and personal drama has become inextricably associated with popular affection. As much as we’d like to deny it, when our worth pivots around disclosing these aspects of our private lives, we may begin to feel we have the same right to everybody else’s.

In 2021 we’re all celebrities, and it’s never been harder for artists—and, indeed, regular people—to gain attention without a persona connected to some socially acceptable idea of the “real them.”

“Social media has been really damning for the indie scene, to a point where it’s barely about the music anymore,” agrees Fitzmaurice, who published a Stereogum article on the phenomenon last year. “Increasingly artists have to sell ‘themselves’ as funny or woke online if they want any kind of audience growth for their music—music that may or may not be as funny or woke.”

Indeed, many indie artists worry that the social media celebrity they build will muddle their relationship with listeners and infringe upon their creative aims. When they look at their retweet numbers, how many represent fans of their work vs. fans of their Twitter persona?

To hear Fitzmaurice tell it, a lot of that pressure comes from the top down, behind the scenes. Inspired by the success of indie crossovers like Phoebe Bridgers and Car Seat Headrest—who invite an obsessive, empathetic fandom with a cohesive personal narrative traceable from their songs to their postings—social media managers and publicists work to foster a “genuine” persona, even for artists whose music might not welcome one in quite the same way. And at that point, it’s unlikely a goofy celebrity name would have much effect.

“I have gotten advice verbatim to use my band account as a personal account,” Brabant confirms. “If I’m expected to market my art, I don’t want the package I’m selling to be me as a person.”

While these cultural shifts affect all musicians, viewing them through the lens of artists with mock-celebrity names does lend their long struggle for acceptance a ruefully ironic shade. After nearly a decade facing accusations that they were more committed to making internet noise than making music, these artists find themselves in a world that rewards those who do exactly that.

Of course, there are still exceptions: Perhaps the most buzzed-about indie artist of fall 2021 is the outlandishly named Illuminati Hotties. Bandleader Sarah Tuzdin’s alternatively sarcastic and sincere music might as well be designed to flummox any listener searching for a consistent, “real” her (they’ll find no help from the band’s Twitter account, which mostly limits itself to promoting media engagements). And yet, perhaps assisted by their name, Tuzdin has translated her winky-face evasion to a growing audience.

Still, with so many artists looking to cultivate that same healthy distance between artistic persona and private life, one wishes that slapping a goofy moniker on all of them were not such an obviously futile proposition. It’s worth asking whether those acts from 2011 would use the same name if they were starting today.

“We would probably just go by our names,” says Epstein, whose band shortened their name to JR JR in 2015. “The easiest way to brand yourself today is to go by your actual name and hope that your name becomes a big brand, right?”

“I always thought of [Ringo Deathstarr]’s name as like asking [the audience], ‘Hey, trust us.’ Like, we all know it’s goofy, but the music isn’t, so just listen and don’t worry about anything else,” says Frazier. “But I’m not sure that trust exists as much anymore.”

At least one artist is left still asking for that trust, whether he wants to or not. With the first Google search suggestion following “Elvis Depressedly” forever locked at “abuse,” it’s not surprising to learn that Cothran initially lost faith in the moniker that he created to “shield himself.”

“There was a period right after [the allegations] where the name became a pariah in my mind, something that had turned bad, maybe had always been bad,” he says. Yet as Cothran kept working on new music, finding himself unable to create outside the lens of the project he’d built, he became reacquainted with the original appeal of Elvis Depressedly—the creative freedom it gave him from “the need to be liked.”

“I realized the people who care about my music don’t care about the internet drama, and those are probably the same people who never cared about the goofy celebrity thing,” he maintains. “And that really was the whole point of the name, finding that audience, even if it’s, like, three people.”

Julian Towers is a burgeoning writer currently based out of Austin. He is his own Wonderwall.