Sure, we’ve all had a laugh when the ever-staid The New York Times has made second references to “Mr. Pop” and “Mr. Loaf” in its cultural reporting. But why, the Columbia Journalism Review wonders, are the stage names of hip-hop artists like Jay-Z, 50 Cent, and Diddy not given the same treatment? Instead, they frequently get their birth names swapped into stories right away–even though artists in other genres who hide behind aliases, from Alicia Keys (nee Alicia Augello-Cook) to Clay Aiken (nee Clayton Grissom), don’t get the same treatment. Is it because no one in the copy department wants to put a definitive entry in the stylebook on how to properly punctuate “Mr. Z,” or is there something more nefarious at work? CJR demands answers!
Sam Sifton, the Times’s culture editor, says that while such decisions are handled on a case-by-case basis, rap artists often get special treatment. “There’s a big difference between [Houston rapper] Bun B and Tony Bennett,” Sifton says, referring to Bernard Freeman and Anthony Dominick Benedetto, respectively. “Tony Bennett took a stage name, which I think is a little different from taking an alias. Someone like Jay-Z can be Mr. Carter, certainly, or he can just be Jay-Z, but he’s never going to be Mr. Z.”
But is there a meaningful distinction between a “stage name” and an “alias”? That Sifton made an example of Jay-Z–rather than someone like, say, Ghostface Killah, whose chosen moniker is further outside the mainstream nomenclature–suggests that at the Times, at least, there is, and that rappers are in a class by themselves. Why else would Alicia Keys, a performer from beyond the rap realm–who took a stage name (or devised an alias) based on the instrument she plays–have never been outed as Alicia Augello-Cook? In Kelefa Sanneh’s October 5, 2003, Times CD roundup, Outkast rappers André 3000 (André Benjamin) and Big Boi (Antwan Patton) got name-dropped, while Erykah Badu’s birth name (Erica Wright) was never mentioned.
Even more confusing are articles that seem to follow no logic whatsoever: a December 3, 2006, Times profile on celebrity Sirius Radio hosts refers to rap personality Ludacris as Christopher Bridges (and as “Mr. Bridges” in subsequent references), but allows Eminem (Marshall Mathers), Snoop Dogg (Calvin Broadus), and Bob Dylan (Robert Zimmerman) to use their stage names. On second reference, though, Bob Dylan is “Mr. Dylan,” while Eminem remains Eminem; Snoop is only mentioned once, but judging by former Times treatments he would have been called “Snoop” or “Snoop Dogg” had his name come up again.
I suspect that some of the reason Ludacris was referred to as “Mr. Bridges” was that there’s at least some precedent; his movie and TV credits frequently refer to him as Chris “Ludacris” Bridges. But what, pray tell, could be the difference between a “stage name” and an “alias”? Is it one of those “I know it when I see it” tests, where “Erykah Badu” can pass as a reasonable entry on a legal document while “Andre 3000″ couldn’t, at least not until we all start getting our official numeric aliases for easier bad-credit spotting?