By The Landlord
“For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.” – Virginia Woolf
“Before the Beatles, songwriters were very anonymous people and nobody paid any attention to them.” – Björn Ulvaeus
“The only truly anonymous donor is the guy who knocks up your daughter.” – Lenny Bruce
“It's the diary that makes the man.” – Charles Pooter in The Diary of A Nobody
Anonymity is a fascinating carousel of perspective. Everybody can be both somebody and nobody. – it just depends on who’s talking and who’s listening. Some feel as if they are nobody despite immense success, wealth and fame. And the most anonymous of people can feel as fulfilled and important as the most famous can feel insignificant. So this week we’re looking at the conundrum and contradictions of anonymity in song lyrics, and what drives this feeling.
Many writers and performers are driven by a need to be heard and noticed, receive acclaim and credit, and yet also retain anonymity. That may be by choice, or by necessity. Mary Anne Evans wrote under the name George Eliot in order to get published in a climate of male prejudice. But others have mischievously used anonymity with pseudonyms to cover their fame. Prince prolifically wrote under many names, including Christopher, Alexander Nevermind, Jamie Starr, and Joey Coco. Paul McCartney has also been Bernard Webb and Clint Harrigan. The horror writer Stephen King also wrote as Richard Bachman. And within fiction of course, George and Weedon Grossmith's comic novel The Diary of a Nobody (1892) portrays as its main character, Charles Pooter, a middle-aged and clerk in the City of London, who is, to all purposes a nobody, but has an inflated self-importance, displaying 'Pooterism'. How many artists also have that?
But whether anonymous, somebody or nobody, this is not a simple word-search topic. For example, when Rufus and Chaka Khan sang “ain't nobody loves me better”, or Carly Simon sang “nobody does It better”, they were referring to a specific somebody. So the word nobody often means the opposite in lyrics, yet when being a nobody is implied it’s relevant. So for example, when Bessie Smith sang I Ain’t Got Nobody in 1925, written by Roger A. Graham and Spencer Williams 10 years earlier, the song is indeed about feeling like a nobody.
“Once I had a lovin' man, as good as many in this town
But now I'm sad and lonely, for he's gone and turned me down, now
I ain't got nobody and nobody cares for me.”
Of course Bessie Smith was anything but a nobody. But an even bigger twist of irony was that despite being big star with a golden voice, Bessie died a tragic death, that led to anonymity. It came from a car accident in 1937 when her lover Richard Morgan misjudged the speed of a truck on the road. Bessie lost her arm in the collision, but she actually died because she was refused admission to a whites-only hospital in Clarksdale, Tennessee. And if that wasn’t bad enough, she, like Mozart before her, was buried in an unmarked grave. That didn’t change until 1970, when a tombstone was made for her, paid for by Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, who as a child had done housework for Bessie in her heyday.
Here’s a song about Joplin doing this, by Dory Previn, revealing it to be not as simple as it sounds, and that “she forgot she had not paid for her own”:
And in a further twist of contradiction, a host of stars have crowded into the bar to talk about anonymity. The sharp-elbowed Madonna Ciccone has pushed her way to the front, and says: “Sometimes you want to go for a walk and you don't want to be watched. You just want to be anonymous and blend in. Especially when I travel, I feel that way, because I can't really go out and see a city the way other people can and I miss out on a lot.” But that's what you wanted wasn't it?
Cyndi Lauper, who clearly had a big influence on Madge in the 80s, values anonymity in a more creative way: “It's that anonymous person who meanders through the streets and feels what's happening there, feels the pulse of the people, who's able to create.” Sam Shepard is also here and agrees: “I think most writers, in a sense, have this desire to disappear, to be absolutely anonymous, to be removed in some way: that comes out of the need to be a writer.”
Wandering the streets anonymously is perhaps the most stimulating source of songwriting and other forms, but of course, once fame arrives, that becomes difficult, and which might explain why some artists’ work declines. In film, there are few more potent stories about anonymity than that of Travis Bickle, the cab driver nobody who wants to be somebody in Martin Scorsese’s fantastically scored film:
Anyone can be a hero, as the film shows us. Now here’s the singer-songwriter Benjamin Clementine giving anonymity the thumbs up:
“The greatest in heroes in life are the anonymous. That's what I believe. Your neighbours are heroes. People who, when you walk down the street, you see them feeding their little baby - these people are heroes because they are living under difficult situations, but they're still trying to save a life.”
Somehow doing something heroic can be even more so if you claim not credit for it. The person who pulls an accident victim from a car, the fireman who runs into a burning building, the charity donor, the NHS doctors and nurses, and so many more. Some people prefer anonymity. “There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy. By being happy we sow anonymous benefits upon the world,” as Robert Louis Stevenson put it.
But sometimes anonymity can go against you in an opposite direction. In the 2001 film by the Coen Brothers starring Billy Bob Thornton, we follow an anonymous barber who, the more he struggles to escape being noticed, gets sucked into being a central figure in a crime:
Actors are perhaps the most obvious people who must play with the anonymity conundrum: “I wanted a big career, a big man, and a big life. You have to think big - that's the only way to get it... I just couldn't stand being anonymous,” says Mia Farrow. “Well, I like being famous when it's convenient for me and completely anonymous when it's not,” Catherine Deneuve tells us. But it’s not that easy, is it?
The internet is the ultimate magnifier of anonymity - in all its good and evils. We at the Song Bar operate under a guise of anonymity because it’s fun, and behave in a way that’s convivial. But much of the world wide web is not like that. It's hostile. “You know, it's really strange now with the Internet, with everyone having an unsolicited, anonymous opinion," says Jeff Daniels. And Joe Klein is here too, talking about this in the context of journalism:
“Anonymous sources are a practice of American journalism in the 20th and 21st century, a relatively recent practice. The literary tradition of anonymity goes back to the Bible.” There’s many an argument and discussion to be started there about responsibility and authenticity.
I’ve personally been involved over the years in much, sometimes undercover journalism, helping others verify and identify sources of truth. Perhaps the biggest breaking news story of recent years was the US National Security Agency Prism mass surveillance program, built to spy on individuals on a massive scale, with Edward Snowden being a key figure as authentic whistleblower.
And then before that, WikiLeaks, coming in particular from Chelsea Manning. A fascinating figure, Manning explains that, outside of all the moral issues of whistleblowing, her skills were partly driven by trans gender problems and a need to escape them: “I spent a lot of time denying the idea that I could be gay or trans to myself. From the ages of 14 to 16, I was mostly convinced that I was just going through 'phases.' I ran away mentally, especially at night with access to the Internet and the labyrinth of anonymous communications.”
So the internet is a prime area where anonymity and exposure thereof are focused. Finnish cybersecurity expert Mikko Hyppönen tells us: “The two greatest tools of our time have been turned into government surveillance tools. I'm talking about the mobile phone and the internet. George Orwell was an optimist.”
And so a complex battle has gradually built up between anonymous government machinery and Anonymous hackers, organisations that can cause havoc as well as emancipation. Anonymous is a group that has attacked governments and their institutions, banks, corporations and the Church of Scientology, and there are other groups, such as LulzSec and AntiSec. Hyppönen, describes anonymous as “ike an amoeba: it's got too many different operations run by truly different people which might not share a single person with another operation, but they use the same branding - they are part of the Anonymous brand, just like al-Qaida.” That's a controversial statement in all sorts of ways.
Hackers then are double-edge sword, and a two-sided coin. On that metaphor, Jeff Berwick tells us that the “Bitcoin is a voluntary decentralised currency, anonymous. It can't be shut down by anyone; there are no central servers.” A market that is uncontrolled? Sounds familiar. So is all of this here to free us, or perhaps like mischievous Russian hackers, set to sway elections?
Facebook is central to the latest scandal on that score, with the data of millions mined, it seems, via the help of the company Cambridge Analytica, to help Donald Trump get elected. Ironically before all of his broke, Mark Zuckerberg said: “When Facebook was getting started, nothing used real identity – everything was anonymous or pseudonymous - and I thought that real identity should play a bigger part than it did.” In the end it has.
Finally to help make sense of this, I’d heartily recommend the TV series Mr. Robot, written by Sam Esmail with the help of many real hackers. It is centred on the character of Elliot Alderson, played fantastically well by actor Rami Malek, who portrays a cybersecurity engineer and hacker who has many personal problems, but finds himself in the thick of a plot of bring down massive corporations, destroying data and freeing many from debt. It's a fantasy, but it opens up a whole new world of anonymity, and still sheds much light on what is really happening.
And so then, over to you, anonymous (or otherwise) readers and friends, to nominate songs on this topic. But who is going to make playlists out of all of this? Will they emerge from the shadows? Who knows. In fact they are Anonymous. One thing is for sure, though, the deadline for nominations is Monday at 11pm UK time, and playlists are aimed to published on Wednesday. It’s all happening … anon.
New to comment? It is quick and easy. You just need to login to Disqus once. All is explained in About/FAQs ...
Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.