We talk a lot, here at Flavorpill, about our favorite characters from books, film, and TV. And, although we’ve made a habit of compiling mixtapes for everyone from Nancy Drew to Josef K, it isn’t often that we consider the music world’s own fictional creations. After the jump, we attempt to right that oversight with an incredibly subjective roundup of music’s most memorable characters. Add your suggestions in the comments; if we get enough great ones, we might just publish a follow-up post of reader picks.
Rock was a fairly macho domain in 1970, which makes it all the more impressive that The Kinks scored an international top-ten hit with “Lola.” The song is, of course, a four-minute celebration of the narrator’s romantic encounter with a transvestite who turns out to be the perfect, dominant counterpart to his somewhat meek sexual persona. “Lola” is based on Kinks manager Robert Wace’s drunken night of dancing with a cross-dresser, although to our knowledge, his encounter didn’t go further than that. Either way, who wants to bet that the single was many ’60s suburban teens’ first introduction to the wonderful world of gender non-conformity?
Plenty of rappers take on an alter ego, but Eminem has always told us that there are three sides to him: Eminem is the public face of private citizen Marshall Mathers, and both those guys are distinct from Slim Shady. The most fascinating character of the bunch, Slim is a twisted, horror-comedy mastermind, an extreme and disturbing distillation of Mathers’ darkest impulses — the one, according to Eminem, “who is saying the most ridiculous stuff you can think of — stuff you can’t even imagine somebody saying.” On his own, Slim Shady wouldn’t be much different from any number of obscene rap characters; it’s Eminem’s understanding that the persona is only one aspect of his personality that makes it powerful.
Originally a creation of Charles Webb, from his 1963 novel The Graduate, Mrs. Robinson went on to become one of film’s most vivid and unique characters. But she may also be rock’s most famous adulteress. Simon & Garfunkel, who didn’t originally intend to write the song about the movie vixen, transform her story into a tale of anxiety over growing old and losing your grip on reality.
No, not the pop singer — the protagonist of Pink Floyd’s career-defining double-album/rock opera The Wall. Although many have opined that Pink is based on original Floyd member Syd Barrett’s descent into madness, he’s actually modeled after Roger Waters, who lost his father in World War II. As anyone who’s ever been a moody teen will surely remember, Pink is suffocated by his mother and stifled at school, scarring experiences that will terrorize him throughout his adult life as a rock star and eventual crazy person.
The Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says” (another great, early song of gender fuckery) is a sonic portrait of transgender Warhol Superstar Candy Darling. But the inspiration for “Stephanie Says,” a rarity that remained unreleased until 1985, isn’t so clear. While it’s at least partially based on Stephen Sesnick, VU’s manager, it’s curious that Lou Reed chose to switch the character’s sex. We’ve always found Stephanie an empathetic character — a big dreamer who’s also resentful and isolated. The refrain “She’s not afraid to die/ The people all call her Alaska/ Between worlds, so the people ask her/ ‘Cause it’s all in her mind” is one of the most vivid and imaginative character descriptions in the history of music.
Patti Smith was a poet before she was a musician, and that’s always been reflected in her character-rich lyrics. The protagonist of “Horses,” the first of three sections in Smith’s nine-minute “Land,” is Johnny, a young boy who, in the course of being beaten and raped, is transported to a magical plain of “white, shining, silver studs with their nose in flames.” As with many of her characters, he attains spiritual transcendence only through bodily suffering.
Lovely Rita. Julia. Lady Madonna. All of the little sketches in “Penny Lane.” Maxwell, of silver hammer fame. The Beatles loved creating characters so much that they famously turned themselves into Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band when the pressures of being themselves proved too trying. And yet, it’s the eponymous protagonist of “Eleanor Rigby” who is sticks out most in our memory. To this day, she is provincial loneliness personified.
One of Michael Jackson’s biggest hits, “Billie Jean” was also among the weirder pop singles of the ’80s. Billie Jean, basically, is a girl who says that Jackson is the father of her son and, according to the King of Pop himself, an amalgamation of the many groupies who try to insinuate themselves into the lives of stars. As Justin Bieber can attest, this is still kind of an issue. Almost 30 years after the song’s debut, we’re going to go on record with our sincere belief that the kid was not, in fact, his son.
The Alpha Couple
The Mountain Goats may not be as famous as the other acts on this list, but John Darnielle’s characters easily stand up to Smith’s and Reed’s. He, too, has given us a lot of creations to choose from, but it’s the Alpha Couple — who dominate the album Tallahassee — who we see in our nightmares. This poor, married pair are full of hatred for themselves and each other. Instead of just getting a divorce, they enter into their own, personal No Exit in a crumbling Florida home that becomes the stage for alcohol-fueled battles that include such self-destructive refrains as, “I hope you die! I hope we both die!” What makes them so terrifyingly memorable is that they are what even the happiest couples fear devolving into.
Major Tom may also deserve a spot on this list, but he can’t beat Ziggy Stardust. David Bowie’s greatest transformation, into an omnisexual musician from outer space, isn’t just a classic rock ‘n’ roll character — he is rock ‘n’ roll in its in purest form.