Artists Unfiltered: Musicians Take Control of Identity in 2019

Music Features Katie Toupin
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Artists Unfiltered: Musicians Take Control of Identity in 2019

Katie Toupin is ending the year with a breakup, which she caught on video.

After spending much of 2019 immersed in her solo debut, Magnetic Moves, Toupin is ready to start 2020 without the tagline that seemed to always accompany her over the preceding months: “formerly of Houndmouth.” In the video, which she posted this week, a piece of poster board that reads “Katie Toupin (formerly of Houndmouth)” goes with her everywhere—the grocery store, the tub, while doing kettlebell swings at the gym—as her song “Someone to You” plays. Finally, Toupin has had enough, and she rids herself of the unwanted appellation. By the end of the clip, the singer is beaming while she uses paint and glitter to decorate a much smaller sign that reads, simply, “Katie Toupin.”

“I don’t need that tagline anymore. At this point, it doesn’t have any value,” says Toupin, who left Houndmouth in 2016. “It’s not going to move any more tickets. The fans that wanted to stay with me are already with me. It’s time to move on and just be the person that I am.”

Toupin’s video is a fitting capper to a year when plenty of artists sought to take more active control over how they are viewed by audiences, critics and whoever else comes across them. Sometimes, like Toupin, musicians shaped their public identities in creative ways that entertained—or helped create—fans. Others lashed out on social media when they weren’t perceived as they wanted to be. Either way, pop musicians vocally defining how they want to interact with the world is a fairly new development, and one that runs contrary to the way things have worked in the past. It used to be that musicians made records, went on tour and did press to promote the record or tour. Though some of them had specific images—or reputations, in some cases—to maintain, they rarely engaged directly in a back-and-forth with their audience, or with critics. That sort of thing fell to publicists and managers until the rise of social media. When the president of the United States fulminates on Twitter all day, why shouldn’t musicians talk about what’s important to them?

“We get to have a voice that isn’t filtered, if we decide to,” says Toupin, who teased her video in advance as a “major announcement.”

Madonna sidestepped any filters in June when she objected to a lengthy profile of her in the New York Times Magazine that she felt focused on the wrong things, including her age. She wrote on Instagram that she felt “raped” by the result. And Lana Del Rey didn’t stifle herself in August when she clapped back on Twitter to a largely positive NPR review of her new album Norman Fucking Rockwell!. Writer Ann Powers made reference to “Del Rey’s persona as a bad girl to whom bad things are done,” and at one point called her lyrics “uncooked” when compared with Joni Mitchell’s. Neither observation conformed to the way Del Rey wants to be seen (or, maybe, sees herself), which she made clear in a response: “There’s nothing uncooked about me,” she wrote in part. “To write about me is nothing like it is to be with me. Never had a persona. Never needed one. Never will.”

That’s a bold claim, considering Del Rey made it under the cover of a stage name (she was still going by her given name, Lizzy Grant, on her first album in 2010). In a way, though, it’s all a persona. In a probing 2018 interview with Esquire, Bruce Springsteen talked about how depression can sometimes make him lose track of his sense of identity. From a fan’s perspective, the interviewer replied, “You’re Bruce fucking Springsteen! How do you not know who you are?” Springsteen laughed, and revealed a secret most entertainers don’t talk about: “Bruce fucking Springsteen is a creation.”

Some creations are simply more overt than others. Orville Peck, for example, went all out. The Canadian singer carefully crafted a stylized identity with a specific sound and aesthetic: pseudonym, fringed mask, sharp cowboy suits and a supple, multi-octave voice that he wraps around noir-ish songs with touches of vintage country. In the digital age, a performer with that persona has one chance to make an album like Pony, his 2019 debut, before his whole image gets picked apart, and sure enough, internet detectives soon came up with Peck’s real name and background. But whoever he is when he’s not Orville Peck is immaterial: the man behind the mask created exactly the character he wants to be in his music.

“What I do is no different than Dolly Parton wearing a crazy wig or Johnny Cash wearing a black suit, saying he’s an outlaw,” Peck told the Los Angeles Times in September.

What Peck does is not so different from what Del Rey does, either, or Toupin. Each of them is pursuing some creative goal, and building what they see as the necessary infrastructure to get there. For Peck, it’s the clean slate of a new character. For Del Rey, perhaps, it’s moving beyond the debates over persona and authenticity that surrounded 2012’s Born to Die, her first album as Lana Del Rey. Toupin just wanted to stand on her own, apart from the band she came up in. Making a video that laid to rest the “formerly of Houndmouth” tagline was a very intentional way of symbolizing a fresh start, and also a way of getting people to notice. Put another way, Toupin was essentially creating the character she wants to be, which is a version of herself.

“I did want to pique interest—maybe people would think, ‘she’s getting back in the band?’— and create a big question mark,” she says. “I mean, it’s entertainment, and we’re entertainers.”