There have been many memorable characters in the literary canon of alter-egos: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; Wonder Woman and Diana Prince; Gollum and Smeagol. The list continues, not least with authors themselves, including Lewis Carroll and George Eliot. Unfortunately, the formula hasn't worked so well in the music industry. Only a few artists have used an alternative personality and got away with it. Pop fans might remember Ziggy Stardust and Slim Shady, but few are likely to recall Garth Brooks's Chris Gaines, or Paul McCartney's Fireman.
The latest siren to succumb to the call of identity crisis is Beyoncé Knowles, whose latest "self-titled" CD, I Am... Sasha Fierce, debuts a new persona, one which the singer has said is "the fun, more sensual, more aggressive, more outspoken side and more glamorous side" that comes out when she's on stage. Beyoncé drives the point home with a two-disc album, the first containing songs by and images of "Beyoncé", the latter with high-octane tracks by and snaps of "Sasha Fierce".
The problem with this package is not that it is unconvincing; it is just something that we already know. There is nothing revelatory about a superstar who confesses to a privately shy, yet publicly brash personality. Michael Jackson laid claim to that years before the former Destiny's Child singer was even born. And while Beyoncé has laboured for well over a year to produce a new CD to showcase this new side to herself, the content seems to have taken a step backwards. No new collaborations or musical influences dent the steady stream of ballads on disc one. If I Were a Boy and Broken-Hearted Girl lament the downside of love, while Halo basks in the warmth of it, but the lush arrangements and strong vocals create nothing spectacular.
Likewise, while disc two revs up the energy with tracks made for the dance floor, there's not much that deviates from her past work. Diva makes plain what is already known ("I'm a diva/I'm a, I'm a, a, diva," goes the chorus). On Video Phone, meanwhile, the singer taunts gawkers to record her image in the street. However, on Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It), she gets it just right. Thanks to Beyoncé's impeccable moves and the song's catchy rhythm, which recalls the infectious vibe of Crazy in Love and Déjà Vu, the Bob Fossey-inspired video that accompanied the release of the song has now had over 20,000,000 views on YouTube. In fact, the fever for the video became so pronounced that even Justin Timberlake got into it, appearing in a parody sketch on the US comedy show Saturday Night Live as one of Beyonce's backing dancers.
She has pop stars satirising her and enjoys single-name status similar to such icons as Madonna and Cher. She gives her tours names like The Beyoncé Experience and walks around with a metal glove on one hand. That Beyoncé is a diva we already know. One just wishes she was less conscious of it. Most avatars are created to free people from their confines. With this alter-ego transformation, however, Beyoncé seems to have just boxed herself in.