In a year when three of the most talked-about releases were made by musicians who are notoriously camera shy, it stands to reason that the easiest path to overexposure is stubborn anonymity. Electronic legends Daft Punk, avant-pop duo the Knife and newcomer metal band Ghost B.C. all have anticipated releases to promote, yet all of them refuse to appear unmasked in public. They each have their reasons — be it shyness, myth-making or deliberate detachment from celebrity-obsessed culture — and around them debate rages over whether the whole maneuver is a cleverly-conceived art piece or just a cheap gimmick. But the truth is that these three are just the latest in a long line of masked and anonymous hitmakers who found great success by staying hidden.
Real names: Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, Thomas Bangalter
Backstory:: Even though, in retrospect, the futuristic android aesthetic seems inseparable from the Daft Punk identity, it was actually only upon the release of the duo's second album, Discovery, that they became "the Robots." Before that, Homem-Christo and Bangalter wore a variety of analog masks because, as they told reporters, they were shy.
Success level:: The Parisian electro-funksters have achieved the impossible, maintaining relevance so adroitly throughout their 20-year career that everyone from Kanye to Disney to Saint Lauren wants to be associated with them.
Real names: The frontman identifies as Papa Emeritus II, and his backing band is simply known as a Group of Nameless Ghouls.
Backstory:: Not much is known about the origin of the Swedish metal band, aside from the fact that Emeritus's supporting quintet represents the five elements: water, fire, wind, earth and ether. One Nameless Ghoul, however, admitted during an interview that the decision to maintain anonymity was simply inspired by the desire to live day-to-day as regular people, and not as "rock stars."
Success level:: So far, no one knows who the Ghouls are or what they look like, but after some Internet sleuthing, Ghost B.C.'s frontman has been identified as Tobias Forge, a Swedish musician who's played in the bands Subvision and Repugnant. On stage, Forge transforms into Papa Emeritus — which is really all that matters.
Real names: Sister and brother Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer
Backstory:: According to the duo's official bio, "We feel like that if we had been there with our plain faces that would destroy the illusion of music. So we tried to dress up as the music. Occult and dark but at the same time, funny." While the Knife was known for wearing black Venetian carnival masks with long bird beaks, recently they asked young children to represent them in photo shoots wearing masks the duo produced based on portraits of themselves from 2003.
Success level:: The Knife netted considerable critical acclaim with its sophomore release Silent Shout, which landed near the top of multiple 2007 year-end lists. Its current provocation/art piece Shaking the Habitual is already outpacing its predecessor in effusive hosannas.
Real name: Aaron Jerome
Backstory:: The London DJ who has remixed Radiohead and M.I.A. hides behind tribal masks because, as he believes, wearing a mask during a celebration evokes the spirit of an ancestor or animal. Or it could just be, as he told Clash magazine, he just isn't very social.
Success level:: With only one critically-acclaimed album under his belt, and despite a coveted Drake endorsement, it's still too early to tell if Jerome is conjuring up the kind of ancestors who can shepherd him to a successful career.
Real names: Admirably unknown. The art-rock collective has existed in anonymity for more than 40 years.
Backstory:: With more than 60 albums to their name, the Residents have retained the mystery by performing in giant eyeball helmets and by refusing to participate in interviews (although its management team known as Cryptic Corporation speaks on the Residents' behalf). Why eyeballs? That's just one of the many mysteries surrounding this avant-garde rock collective.
Success level:: Maintaining cult fandom for nearly half a century is no small feat. And, as if to offer proof of its rabid following, the band recently offered an "Ultimate Box Set," which included a first pressing of its complete catalog along with rarities like an eyeball mask all stored in a functioning refrigerator for $100,000. There are only 10 in existence yet — shockingly — it's unknown whether even a single one was sold.
Real name: Joel Zimmerman
Backstory:: Legend has it that after a teenaged Zimmerman opened his broken computer in search of the cause of a minor malfunction, he discovered a dead mouse. And so, with this mythological tale, his DJ name was born. The mask, however, represents nothing more than the Canadian musician's marketing savvy: it's distinctive, instantly recognizable and fans (or Mau5heads) can either buy one or make one to wear to shows.
Success level:: While many initially laughed at his shtick, Deadmau5 is one of the highest-paid EDM performers in the exploding dance genre, and his artistry has even been recognized by the National Academy of the Arts and Sciences with Grammy nominations five times over.
Real name: Daniel Dumile
Backstory:: According to graffiti artist Blake "KEO" Lethem, in the early days Dumile wore a Darth Maul mask which Lethem painted aluminum, cut out square eyes and made room for a rapper's mouth to flow with ease. Eventually, the pair bought a replica gladiator helmet and removed the faceplate. The influential rapper sought anonymity so he could walk freely, even in a venue he would later that night perform in, without being recognized. Although, as recent as two years back, the mask inspired controversy, as many suspected that the Doom on stage for some live performances was not Dumile himself, but an imposter lip-syncing to a recording.
Success level:: Nike devoted a pair of Dunks to him, and Kid Robot made an MF Doom vinyl collectible. Both fetch some pretty impressive numbers on the resale market, indicating the fanbase is there, and it is rabid.
Real name: The now-defunct black metal act revolved around core member Scott Conner, who went by the pseudonym Malefic.
Backstory:: Malefic wore black-and-white corpse paint with a hooded Grim Reaper cowl, which he said is intended as "an expression of hatred, death or a transformation into another spirit." The black-metal musician also didn't perform live, nor did he conduct interviews in person, so it's no surprise that demand was so high for rabid fans to see his true appearance — so much so that a YouTube video which repurposes still photos from a magazine shoot with self-titled magazine currently has 22,000 views.
Success level:: An avant-garde black metal band that has never toured will have a limited audience, but that audience was passionate and devoted.
Real names: Justin Pearson, Gabe Serbian, Bobby Bray, Joey Karam
Backstory:: It's only appropriate that a band attributed with creating the genre known as "powerviolence" wear insect costumes complete with netted eyes, featureless masks and uniforms that aren't distinct from one another.
Success level:: In a recent interview, Pearson said, "I tend to not give a shit about where marketable culture is heading. Maybe I should, but I'll leave that to the fools. Anyone can polish a turd and sell it to the masses if you have the conglomerates backing you." However, it should also be noted that Dave Lombardo of Slayer is a fan — which in most quarters qualifies as a success.
Real names: Johan Agebjörn is the producer behind the Italian disco revivalist duo called Sally Shapiro, yet the woman who also performs vocals as "Sally Shapiro" has yet to reveal her real name.
Backstory:: It's a strange thing to cooperate with the press by doing photo shoots and interviews, and all the while withholding any or all personal information. But, the blonde Swedish vocalist suffers from shyness so crippling it prevents her from even considering touring. Oh, and in case you think this is just a gimmick: Agebjörn himself is banned from the studio whenever "Shapiro" records her vocals. When asked about this in an interview with Vice magazine, she said, "It's a character. I enhance certain aspects of my personality and leave a lot behind. As Sally Shapiro, I dance all night long in small disco clubs and walk in the moonshine thinking about my love affairs. As myself I'm also free to do other stuff." Such as…?
Success level:: It's an incredible thing — perhaps this is one instance in which I admire the Internet for its restraint — but no matter how many times Shapiro insists on anonymity, no one from a little village in Sweden says, "Oh yeah. That girl. I went to high school with her. Her name is…"