My doctor wears a mask in public. Not a surgical mask, but what he calls his “regular guy” mask. I own the same model. More often than not, I wear it in public.
It’s apparently quite popular among us creative types and can’t be found at any costume store. Unfortunately, our masks are becoming too loose from wear—or too tight from fear. At the slightest provocation, they may fall off, revealing the true person behind the mask.
I’m speaking of a metaphorical mask. Nevertheless, it functions like a real mask in that every aspect of our public selves—what we wear, how we walk, the looks on our faces–is part of the costume.
Like me, the good doctor is an outlier, hiding in full view until he’s ready to attack—or until the distracted world is ready to pay attention. In the mean time, he refines his craft, shapes his message, and polishes his damn shoes. So when the time comes, there will be no holes in his garments or arguments.
While polishing, he tries to maintain a public image of utter indifference—toughness with just the right amount of passivity so that no one will either challenge or be threatened by him. It’s a matter of survival, he tells me. Keep your head down, maintain a low profile until such time as . . .
Maybe that’s why musical artists from Lady Gaga and David Bowie to Beyoncé dress up in costumes—to avoid being seen. Even classical musicians clad in staid formal wear dress up.The costumes, makeup, and personas they adopt highlight and protect their true selves..
Music, when it’s done the right way, is a direct connection to the soul, a heightened form of soul revelation. Wearing your soul in public can be dangerous. You need to do whatever is necessary to separate the you on display from the you in private.
I get what these artist are doing. I wish I could do it that way, but it doesn’t work for me. I work from a different model. My approach—the at-all-costs-appear-to-be-normal model—is derived from artists like John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, and Ella Fitzgerald: men who mostly dressed in business suits; women who dressed in evening gowns.
The idea is to look as normal as possible because what you are revealing in your art is a million miles from normal. The blandness of appearance is meant to counteract the transcendence of the art. It’s a strategy allowing you to keep you as an artist safe by making your audience think they are safe: “This music is kind of crazy, but look, he’s wearing a dark suit and tie! He must be all right, a businessman!”
You’d think that having grown up in the 1960s—i.e., the great era of rock, pop, and R&B—I’d have adopted the more heavily costumed model. But the truth is, almost all my heroes from that great era were largely un-costumed: The Beatles (for the most part), Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Carole King, etc. All pretty much bland dressers. Granted, they wore mostly jeans instead of suits and gowns, but the idea was the same: Project the idea of regular guy (gal). Don’t stand out.
No, it’s not a question of era, but of temperament. There were many fine artists dressing up before the advent of the likes of Elton John and his wacky glasses and cross-dressing costumes. There was Little Richard. And before that, there was singer-bandleader Cab Calloway and his a zoot suit. And more recently—and on a far higher artistic level—was Miles Davis, whose sartorial style was always a part of the artistic package. That was particularly true later in his career when he incorporated funk-and-rock grooves and instrumentation into his music. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4X3rAg6lhY)
These examples and many others prove the point: The choice to be costumed or not is a matter of temperament, not genre or era.
Which brings me back to me and my doctor and our costumes of choice: The costume that’s not a costume—but very much an act of theater, just the same. The danger of hiding behind a mask for too long may not be having the mask fall off and revealing your true self. The danger, instead, may be that the mask over time hardens, becoming one with the face so that you can never take it off. It becomes your permanent, public visage. In that case, you have a permanent, public self that always is completely at odds with your inner self. You’re simultaneously stuck in two opposing places. The tension can kill you.
Perhaps visits to my brilliant and mercurial doctor are rooted in this tension—as his ranting to me during those visits is rooted in his. But I also suspect that I know my own limits. I know when it’s time to take off the mask and reveal the true person behind it.
Like now for instance.