Protected by the mask: how remaining anonymous in music breathes new life into artistry

How does the rise of Orville Peck compare to Canada’s other elusive singer who rose in 2010?

Every so often, a new artist explodes overnight with the help of a viral single, but with little or no indication about who might have sung it. In 2017, a masked Canadian singer performing under the pseudonym Orville Peck released a single titled “Dead of Night,” a song that would eventually thrust the virtually unknown artist into country music stardom.

To this day, we still don’t know who Orville Peck actually is. We know a few things though. We know he’s older than 20 and younger than 40 and that he identifies as gay. Other than that, there’s only speculation about who he really is.

Really, though, it doesn’t matter. Once Peck released his debut album Pony in 2019 with the help of record label Sub Pop, the mystery that surrounded him made his music that much more enticing. With only a handful of official music videos up on YouTube, most are either over one million views or creeping up to it. These numbers aren’t stratospheric, but considering he’s an unknown Canadian gay country singer, it’s impressive that he’s garnered so much attention.

Though Orville Peck’s rise might seem either improbable or the likely result of a creative marketing team, his road to success is certainly precedented by other elusive singers. In 2010, a teenager whose identity was unknown at the time drew a lot of attention for the release of three different tracks on YouTube. These songs eventually fell on the ears of a certain Toronto legend who goes by the name of Drake and he then uploaded them on his October’s Very Own blog. By now, it’s probably obvious that this protégé is The Weeknd.

Unsurprisingly, the three songs took off. The tracks he posted, “The Morning,” “What You Need,” and “Loft Music” have now accumulated over one hundred million views combined, but when they were released, everyone became enamoured by this Michael Jackson-esque singer who doubled down on the drugged-out, hazy aesthetic he now knows all too well.

At this point, it’s common knowledge that The Weeknd’s real name is Abel Makkonen Tesfaye. And though he’s reached a new level of superstardom, there are still a handful of The Weeknd fans that won’t approach his new music with an open mind simply because he’s ditched the sound and look that he rose to fame with.

It’s true that The Weeknd’s music isn’t the same as his Trilogy days, but it’s also a sign of growth. Not every artist has to be a down-in-the-dumps-twenty-something that makes sad and dark music. But does this newfound happiness that sometimes appears in The Weeknd’s music make his work less palatable. The truth is, it depends.

For singers like Orville Peck, it’s possible that revealing his identity might not change much. His music doesn’t have the same pop sensibilities as The Weeknd, but his whole persona also revolves around the anonymity. It prevents the daily scrutiny that artists face about their personal lives.

Orville Peck and The Weeknd are, of course, not the only two artists to come up with anonymous personas. Daft Punk is notorious for always wearing their robotic helmets. Sia, SBTRKT, and MF Doom all perform with their own masks on. Slipknot’s latest addition to the band is a percussionist who masks himself with an attire not unlike Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow outfit from Batman Begins.

It’s clear that anonymity in music is more than just a commercial ploy. For relatively new artists, it allows them to bypass the media scrutiny that comes with a viral single. It allows the listener to fall in love with the music itself. That new fan will also become infatuated with the idea their new favourite singer might just be a common person like anyone else. They just so happen to make good music.

In an interview with the New York Times, Orville Peck explained that “[he understands] there is a temptation to try and unmask what [he does], but to do so would be to miss the point entirely.” He’s got a point. The whole idea behind Orville Peck is an artist who only wants to be known for his music and artistry. His anonymity is just a piece of the puzzle.

For some, anonymity is just a veil granted at the beginning of their career. A mask that lets them release music as they please. To others, the secrecy behind the music is just as important as the music itself. Given how obsessed fans have become in 2020 (see Nicki Minaj or Doja Cat’s rabid fanbases), it’s understandable why Orville Peck doesn’t want everyone to know who he is. He’s doing well as it is and he’s probably better off.


Graphic by Taylor Reddam

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