Not all parents were created equal. There are parents who have no tact, parents who are too strict, parents who make out in front of their kids, and parents who simply have bad taste. Unfortunately, these parents still get to name their children, which is why it’s understandable that some kids can’t wait until legal age to change their names. Hey, Plato definitely has a better ring than Aristocles, son of Ariston, of the deem Cloytus. And Leon Trotsky probably realized early on that Lev Davidovich Bronshtein wouldn’t go over too well at the playground. God only knows what nom-de-plume Apple Paltrow will take on in years to come.
Of course, when you get to choose your name the first time around, you only have yourself to blame, which is why Mos Def’s recent announcement that he’ll be reborn as Yasiin come 2012 raises eyebrows. But the soon-to-be Yasiin is not the first artist to bring a stage name in for an upgrade–or an accidental downgrade. Read on for some artists whose name changes were also career changers, and decide for yourself whether Mos Def’s metamorphosis will usher in positive, new beginnings or just be the most confusing rechristening since the Triboro became the RFK.
The artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince — having now returned to plain, old Prince — is perhaps the most notorious name changer in the music world. Born Prince Rogers Nelson, the pop star experienced his most commercially successful years as an artist during the early ‘90s, when he debuted with his band, The New Power Generation, and regularly made it onto the top of Billboard’s music charts. But 1993 marks not only his rechristening as an unpronounceable image — a mashup of the male and female symbols — but also a downward spiral in his career. His next two albums hardly sold; although he blamed Warner Bros. for insufficient marketing, we think he might have done better on word-of-mouth publicity had he gone with a name people could actually say. In 2000, he finally re-entered the music world as Prince, but his popularity never returned to its previous levels. On the other hand, he will be forever be remembered as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince — even by people who would have never heard of him otherwise.
Was: Prince Became: Unpronounceable symbol above Decision-making skills: Bad. Unpronounceable is generally not a good way to go when it comes to names.
The celebrated 19th-century novelist adopted her famous pen name to make sure that the male-dominated writing world would take her work seriously. While she was able to rise to an editorial position at the Westminster Review as a woman, she was worried that the stereotypes common to female-written literature would distort her contrarily serious style. The male alter ego did allow her to publish her first works free of sexist assumptions, but after her first novel, Adam Bede, gained instant popularity and the literati grew curious about the mysterious George Eliot’s identity, Mary Anne Evans stepped forward as the real Eliot and continued writing under her pseudonym — openly female and stereotype-free.
Was: Mary Anne Evans Became: George Eliot Decision-making skills: Good. Who knows what would have become of her work if not for this move?
Sean Combs is rapidly disappearing. First he was Puff Daddy, then P. Diddy, then just Diddy. Why an artist would author his own erasure is inexplicable, but Diddy seems to think that at least the second change was a relationship saver, explaining, “the P was getting between me and my fans.” None of the changes have resulted in any detectable career plunges yet, but we’ll have to see what happens as he ventures into the monosyllables this year. In May, Diddy requested to be called “Swag” for a week via Twitter and even set up an additional Twitter account for his fleeting identity (crisis?).
Was: Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, Diddy Became: Diddy or Swag — we’re still not sure. Decision-making skills: Neutral. Whatever floats your boat, Diddy. Or Swag. Or Sean. Or…
The iconic pioneer of what is now known as the International Style of architecture, Le Corbusier went by Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris up until his mid-30s. He studied architecture throughout his childhood in Switzerland, later globetrotting from Paris to Vienna to Berlin, working under various big industry names. With his postbellum return to Paris, he officially became Le Corbusier, buying into the single-name trend then big within the Paris artist scene. Moreover, the name change, as Le Corbusier saw it, attested to the ability to reinvent oneself. And reinvent he did. He took a hiatus from architecture, venturing into other art forms, and later returned to the field to become one of the most historically significant and prolific urban planners.
Was: Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris Became: Le Corbusier Decision-making skills: Good. His philosophy about reinvention was not just all talk.
Before there was Blink-182, there was Blink. And before there was Blink, there was Duck Tape, the original name of the pop-punk band composed of Tom DeLonge, Travis Barker, and Mark Hoppus. Their graduation from Duck Tape to Blink coincided with their musical growth and popularity surge, but the adoption of the 182 was less a mark of career progress than an attempt not to get sued by an Irish band of the same name. The 182, according to urban legend, is to commemorate the number of time Pacino says “f—k” in Scarface.
Was: Duck Tape Became: Blink, Blink0-182 Decision-making skills: Good. Abbreviating to Duck couldn’t possibly evoke the same nostalgia that Blink does.
Joy Division (who changed their name from the even more depressing Warsaw before their rise to fame) became New Order after singer Ian Curtis’ suicide in 1980. While listeners of one band will likely enjoy the other’s tracks, their sound changed immensely with the loss of Curtis. New Order became one of the most celebrated electronic sounds of the ‘80s, and their “Blue Monday” was one of the best-selling tracks of the decade.
Was: Joy Division Became: New Order Decision-making skills: Good. Joy Division saw its success, but a new setup and a new sound called for a New Order.
The Dadaist and Surrealist modern artist Man Ray, most celebrated for his photography, was born Emmanuel Radnitzky and changed his name to Ray along with the rest of his family members to avoid the anti-Semitism rampant during the 20th century’s teen years. He later took on Man, an abbreviated version of a childhood nickname, and got so into his new moniker that he renamed the photogram, his craft of choice, the “rayograph.” It’s difficult to say whether his name had any direct effect on his prominence, but it was as Man Ray that the photographer produced most popular works.
Was: Emmanuel Radnitzky Became: Ray Man Decision-making skills: Neutral, but evading discrimination is always forgivable.
Lil Bow Wow
Back in 2002, the rapper (born Shad Gregory Moss) dropped the diminutive title “lil” at the ripe age of 15 to illustrate his entry into adulthood. We’re not sure why, but prior to his coming-of-age, Lil Bow Wow did experience a brief golden era, during which he was able to convince people to buy his albums. Some things grow better with age. Unfortunately for Bow Wow, with his maturation came cultural irrelevance.
Was: Lil Bow Wow Became: Bow Wow Decision-making skills: Neutral. Seems it’s the same hard-knock life even for bad rappers who are grown ups. Maybe being a kid isn’t so bad after all.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens was actually known to use various pen names throughout his writing career, but Mark Twain, author of Clemens’ greatest hits, stuck. His noms de guerre would vary depending on the genre of writing; Josh and Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, for example, were reserved for humor writing. Twain, meaning twin, seems to have been a particularly fitting pseudonym for the novelist, as many critics consider Twain to possess a personality distinct from his creator’s, a character of his own more than a mere moniker. By now, though, Twain has stolen the show, and the meta-writer has numerous awards and schools — and even an asteroid — named after him.
Was: Samuel Langhorne Clemens Became: Mark Twain Decision-making skills: Good. Twain penned Clemens’ top work.