What’s In A Name?

Language is no longer free, for time will allow the social forces at work on it to carry out their effects. This brings us back to the principle of continuity, which cancels freedom. But continuity necessarily implies change, varying degrees of shifts in the relationship between the signified and the signifier.

Ferdinand de Saussure Course in General Linguistics. 1916.

Joel Thomas Zimmerman

Joel Thomas Zimmerman

For decades The Pseudonym has been a tool to enhance, modify, and market the identity of a musician and quite prevalent in hip-hop and electronic music genres. The list is endless from KRS-One to Eminem and from Cybotron to Deadmau5. All these entities have real names, Lawrence Krisna Parker, Marshall Mathers, Juan Atkins and Joel Thomas Zimmerman respectively. To take from Saussure these MCs and DJs are breaking down and playing with the relationship between the signifier and signified, or what is the actual physical object (person) and the name we use to describe it. All good if you want to be a revolutionary change agent in the music world. If we wanted to go even deeper we could trace the start of all this to 1970s Jamaica and Zion Dub a la William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

What are the reasons for the Musician/DJ Pseudonym?

  • Conveys an identity and aspiration above oneself, shifts the focus to the music
  • Adds to musical and thematic narrative
  • Aspirational
  • Power
  • Anonymity
  • Leaves an impression, memorability, marketing
  • It’s what everyone else is doing

The Pseudonym continues to evolve in our connected culture.

We first saw it with the email address and then with the Twitter handle (a10 @ hogpath.com or @hogpath to use a personal example). When @aol email addresses came out almost twenty years ago there was a mad dash for people to claim their names and we saw the rise of numbers and nicknames like timaten73@aol.com or tim-aten-champ@aol.com. Often this was not by choice as tim atensomeone’s common name was already taken like JoeSmith. We also had a generational gap with many youth emulating the DJs and MCs of their time with a new moniker and sticking with it. Looking back this has a lot to do with my name from that era – a10. It was the way my grandfather etched his name on tractors and chainsaws. I think as this practice evolved, as we had to come up with names, we were in some ways emulating these DJs, MCs, and artists trying to portray and emulate a higher self, something or someone we aspired to be. We (i) were trying to be cool. The nature of internet early days made this all to easy as anonymity was shielded by simple text and a network of crude websites and search engines that tried to crawl them.

Then Came The Social Networks

Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ have changed everything. As the internet and our networks mature hiding behind these pseudonyms becomes inauthentic and potentially lame. Personally I find it more work.

Of interest is Google’s somewhat firm stance on identity for it’s Google+ network –

Your profile and name must represent you as an individual.
Personal profiles on Google+ are meant to represent you, not someone or something else with which you are associated. Therefore, your name may not represent a family, business, avatar, gaming handle, or other group of people.

…aka Pseudonyms not aloud.

Most internet social media experts teach you to be authentic. Seth Godin. Gary Vaynerchuk. Guy Kawasaki. All of them will tell you to register a domain name in your name. Myself included duh…. this website, I see my colleagues and peers doing the same thing – Lians Jadan and Jake Sigal are some recent ones I’ve seen.

A shift and an evolution has happened, the pseudonym is beginning to lose some of its luster. Ironically as this has happened those who still do use the pseudonym on the net, aka Anonymous, their mystery and power continues to lure and intrigue us.

Everything written here are the views of Tim Aten and Tim Aten only. They have no relation, nor are they the views of any of my employers past or present.


  1. […] I need to maintain and continue that facet. Need to document voice. Need to come to grips with identity as I did in last year’s post “What’s in a Name“. […]

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