Do masks hide the truth? Or just expose it?
Masked performers are a love-it or hate-it deal for most people. Despite that mixed reaction, the fact is, masked singers are hugely popular right now. Is it anonymity or identity that attracts us to the masked personae?
Orville Peck performed at the Palomino Festival in Pasadena CA in the summer of 2022. How great was he? Let’s just say he had people crying in their first beer. At noon! Never before has sorrow and regret been so exposed to the cleansing light of day.
It’s well known that artists, in general, live on a creative spectrum unknown to most. It’s also well known, due to unseen demons, they often go through very public and very embarrassing trials and tribulations. What is lesser known, or lesser celebrated, are those artists that seem to stop fighting their demons.
The artists I’ve interviewed all speak to the arc of life, where selling one’s soul early in life is common. What is also common is the downside of the arc, when all that check-writing comes due. You sign the check. Mephisto just cashes it.
Heaven and Hell. Love and Hate. One is impossible without the other. Personal demons hold the power to destroy us, but humans have the ability to harness those demons, and show us how they can save us. From ourselves.
Think of the phrase “follow your passion.” That innocent bromide becomes a closing tactic for the Devil’s chief negotiator, Mephistopheles. Created in the 14th Century by a German writer, Mephisto is synonymous with faustian bargain.
Melodic and musical mastery allows for unique songwriting and clever lyrics. Especially when singing about taboo subjects like original sin, corruption of souls and damnation to eternal hell. And the self-awareness to realize that most regrets are self-inflicted.
Ghost’s arena anthems deliver every gut-punch metal fans expect. Each whispering ballad maliciously mollifies the heavily populated crowd. Peck’s bordello baritone keeps cowboys coming, and his pansexual puns wave the rainbow flag next to the stars and bars.
Before humans could even write, we were donning masks for one reason or another. Entertainment is among the main reasons. Later, masks used in comedy and drama spoke truth to power. Indeed, performers paid dearly for those thespian declarations.
Two of the most popular musical acts today are Ghost mastermind Tobias Forge and masterman Orville Peck. Their mind-blowing music is preceded only by their ornate visuals. Your brain can’t focus enough time on each facet to fully comprehend the majesty of their allness.
As diametrically different as these two men appear, in terms of stage outfits, music genre (Swedish Satanic Heavy Metal vs. South African Kinda Country), and off-stage personalities (married father of two vs. flamboyant gay cowboy) on the outside, they are remarkably similar in mindset, approach and work ethic.
Comparing and contrasting their latest offerings, Peck with Bronco and Forge with Impera, forces one to examine the music to discover the meaning of the mask. Each artist earns immense commercial and critical success. They peddle drama and theatrics in their music, their shows and their videos. Yet they traffic in love and loneliness, desire and denial. They tease you with temptation and beckon you with regret.
You answer the call. Those sufferings and sorrows are different, but always present. How they describe it is heart-wrenching and delirious. Extensively using “love” and “freedom” when yell-telling their pain.
And suddenly, they’re yell-telling at you. And you’re screaming at the digital device in your hand as if it were alive and controlling your very essence. And then, a lilting sing-song lyric mocks your innocence. Or a booming falsetto warbles sweet nothings to suit your fancy.
Who’s wearing the mask now? The lyrics of each song melt and meld into the other’s, weaving an eccentric web of heaven and hell, joy and pain, love and hate. Questions are being asked of you that have never been considered. Like in “Griftwood”, Papa Emeritus IV asks
“Ask yourself, ooh/Are you righteous?/Yes/You wanna play with the sire?/Yes/You want a view from the spire?/Yes/You want a seat by the pyre?”
Peck ponders his past actions in the title track “Bronco”, questioning his judgment, knowing full well his choices gave him the hole he’s trying to mend. We’re left to wonder about our own past, and the bargains we’ve struck.
“Sick of waiting for the hole to mend/Play it out like it’s all pretend/Passing up a fight, you’re gonna lose in the end/And ooh see the cowboy sing, yeah/And ooh it’s just another scene/And ooh you’ve gotta live with what you said/Circling the drain/Wondering if the pain is the same.”
Think of all the masked characters that exist in the world. All cultures have masqueraded myths and masked martyrs. Most people wear a mask, especially for work. Doctors aren’t in scrubs and talking about symptoms at home. Business men aren’t crunching numbers 24/7 and talking investments with their babies. Bartenders aren’t shaking and stirring drinks for tips in their dining room.
Scanning the pop culture landscape these days, masked performers and masked TV competition shows proliferate like mushrooms. It is known that the ancient peoples of the Americas used masks in war, religion and entertainment, although the only surviving artifacts are the ones worn in death.
Today, searching “Masked Performers” brings up a ton of bands like Insane Clown Posse, Slipknot, Deadmau5, Buckethead, Pussy Riot. Hell, even Ye, jumped on the bandwagon and strapped a mask on.
What is it about the mask specifically that gives a performer the ability, or capability, to go beyond their personae to achieve a visionary quest few others share? Why are listeners drawn to that vision and does it have a subliminal effect on us?
Most of social media is a masquerade, and all humans wear a mask of one kind or another, all the time, depending on the audience. What Peck and Forge appear to have done is tie together the visions of temptations and the eternity of regrets that follow.
In Psychology Today Forge said, “But I also need to be clear in saying that the concept of anonymity as opposed to masked, that was something that I gave up very early. That’s why I always said in interviews there’s a clear distinction about being anonymous and about being masked versus unmasked. And some people picked up on that, [and] some people did not.”
Orville Peck told Distractify, “I think another misconception is that I can be really candid and open because I’m somehow remaining anonymous, but it’s not really like that,” he went on to add. “If anything, I think that my mask helps eliminate pretense, and this idea of having to go onstage and perform as someone or something I’m not.”
Exploring every sub-set of country music, and country opera and drama too, Peck bends notes around corners to where you’d never expect to be dragged. His take on Fancy is over the top. His double entendre expresses heartbreak unlike any other, like in “Outta Time” from a prior effort.
“Don’t be a drag, just be a queen.”
Papa Emeritus IV, speaks in cryptic allusions as well, with this description of perhaps the holiest pregnant virgin in history from “Mary on a Cross” from the EP Seven Inches of Satanic Panic.
“You go down just like Holy Mary, Mary on a, Mary on a cross/Not just another bloody Mary, Mary on a, Mary on a cross/If you choose to run away with me, I will tickle you internally/And I see nothing wrong with that.”
Both dropped new albums in 2022. Stacking tracks 1/1, 2/2, 3/3 . . from each record (digital workaround for lack of analog mix tape) creates a sonic melodic cacophonic kaleidoscope, complete with foreshadows and flashbacks. But fittingly, no forgiveness.
Ghost’s “Call Me Little Sunshine” proselytizes for Mephistopheles, A careful listen and an inkling of mythical demonology reveals Mephistopheles is not Lucifer’s advocate. He’s more like Bob Barker asking if the price is right for selling your soul. If it is, he knows a guy. And gets a cut.
The official video leads off with this Biblical reference:
I loathe my very life; therefore I will give free rein to my complaint and speak out in the bitterness of my soul.
That’s the key to Forge’s music. In almost every interview, he discusses how religion affected his childhood. And how his early bad experiences with overtly religious people, including his stepmother and a teacher, set a foundation against religious indoctrination for him. His mother’s love of art, especially architectural art, i.e., medieval cathedrals, fascinated the young Forge and imprinted on his mind a vision that Papa Emeritus IV fully exudes.
In a 2018 interview with Revolver Magazine, Forge explains, “As a young teen, Satan, and the idea of some sort of world that you could be in touch with that could empower you was very much the symbol for freedom.”
Peck, crooning “Cry, Cowboy, Cry” in his turn as Mephisto, is not satisfied with imagining his desires. The beauty of his dark art is living the regrets of his results—song after song, the masked cowboy shares every failed heartbreak after each heartbreaking failure. Souls are cheap. The cost of selling is high.
Perhaps the mask Peck wears symbolizes his origin story, mysterious and susceptible to many and varied interpretations. His myriad masqueraded escapades, mostly about men and failure, comport nicely with fantasy and fetish. Now out, the once safely hidden feels familiar for all.
“Spillways” and “Trample Out the Days” both incorporate mask or masquerade into the lyrics, in an equally fascinating and eerily freaky fashion.
“You keep a casket buried deep within/You try to mask it, but fall back in sin/You want to shake it off, but you’re stuck inside/When stripped of rags of skin and spine/Human decay, Corpus Dei, terminally dispelled/And it’s such a ride.”
“And I hate to say I spent it all on masquerades/Oh and I, I’d forgotten how it goes/Flash a smile while the traffic slows/Take a seat while I trample out the days/And I hate to say I spent it all on masquerades/Oh and I, watch me waving as I go/Bury my heart at the rodeo/Take a seat while I trample out the days.”
One could be easily forgiven for thinking that those lyrics all lived in the same song. Or the same album. Even their album cover art is fantastically freaky. Two Rhinestone Cowboys killing themselves to live. Like we haven’t seen this before. We have. And yet, we have no idea.
Perhaps chasing the Faustian temptation leads to the exposing of each other. Wearing a mask then hides one’s face and side-steps the ultimate sacrifice – selling one’s soul. A person could essentially gain the power without selling their own soul.
Forge sounds like a young lover pleading for reciprocation in the balladic “Darkness At The Heart Of My Love”:
“Remember always/That love is all you need/Tell me who you wanna be/And I will set you free/There’s a darkness at the heart of my love.”
And Peck brings reality to bear, detailing the cost of the bargain for his soul.
“Softly you whisper, you hope it ain’t gone/Sit in bars, sit on sidewalks, sit down and just cry where you’re standing/I sit alone anyway, every night in your arms/And now I know that this time tomorrow I gotta go/And I, I know that love don’t live here anymore.”
Drama, theatrics and authentic storytelling have propelled two masked singers to personal and professional heights they previously only imagined. It’s not hard to wonder how genuine their tales of soul-selling are. Riding demons to unknown success is a feat rarely accomplished.
Both men, each harnessing their own demons, are using their talents to weave cautionary tales, to warn the masses of the actual cost of bargaining with the devil. Maybe the masks make them authentic.
And maybe, just maybe, once you pay the price, your soul is free.