And so we come to the short, wondrous life of Chris Gaines, 1990s rock superstar who sort of was.
If there’s a weirder celebrity alter ego story than that of Chris Gaines, I’d love to hear it. Gaines, the creation of country superstar Garth Brooks, was intended to be the main character of The Lamb, a movie Brooks was developing, about an alt-rock pop star. As part of what I’m assuming was a marketing campaign to promote the film (which never actually got made), Brooks actually became Chris Gaines, recording a “greatest hits” album of Gaines songs, appearing in a VH1 Behind the Music mockumentary, and hosting SNL as himself with Gaines as the musical guest.
The reason this was weird was because Chris Gaines couldn’t have been more different from Garth Brooks. It would be one thing if Brooks had played some variation of a country star, but Gaines was conceived as a raven-haired, brooding, soul-patched alt-rocker who recorded “edgy” message anthems (such as”Right Now,” a reworking of the hippie classic “Get Together” by The Youngbloods) and smooth pop ballads like the album’s biggest hit, “Lost In You,” and came complete with a ridiculously detailed biography, which Klosterman summarizes:
Gaines was allegedly born in 1967 in Australia, the son of an Olympic swimmer. For some reason, the bio also mentions that this woman medaled in the Commonwealth Games. He is said to have completed his GED in 1987, which I’m guessing was included for inspirational reasons. A lot of people he knew throughout his life died violently, and Gaines almost perished in a 1992 one-car accident that forced him to get plastic surgery on his face, shoulder, and hands. I still have no idea why a doctor would do plastic surgery on somebody’s shoulder.
I’ll do my best to summarize Klosterman’s take on Chris Gaines. I disagree with his conclusions, but here we go.
Klosterman’s thesis is essentially that Garth Brooks tried to pull a “Richard Bachman.” Bachman, as any Stephen King fan knows, was King’s secret alter ego between 1977 and 1985, when Bachman’s true identity was exposed. As Richard Bachman, King published five novels before his cover was blown and he was forced to kill off his alter ego with a fatal case of “cancer of the pseudonym.” 1
King’s stated motivations for creating Richard Bachman: (1) King was cranking out too much material for the comfort of his publishers, who were afraid of saturating the market; (2) King, who by 1977 was already a literary star, wanted to know if his writing would be as well received if it were published by an unknown writer.2
Garth Brooks, Klosterman argues, was in about the same position in the country music world in the 1990s as Stephen King was in the literary world in the 70s and 80s:
No other nineties artist comes close to his dominance. For ten years, Brooks was twice as popular as U2 and REM combined.
The reason Brooks sold so many millions upon millions of records, according to Klosterman, is that selling millions upon millions of records was in fact what drove his career. It wasn’t even really about the money for Brooks, so much as the statistics and the volume. Brooks aspired to become the Walmart of country artists, and Chris Gaines provided Brooks with the ultimate test of his ability to sell records. If he could convince the public to embrace Chris Gaines, and buy Chris Gaines albums in the millions, he could sell anything. It would establish and validate his greatness as a commercial artist. He would be the Walmart of all music.
Unfortunately for Brooks, his bid for glory fizzled out when Chris Gaines failed to catch on with audiences. The Gaines album received sympathetic, if puzzled, reviews, but failed to impress critics. Garth Brooks fans were, for the most part, confused.
No one really knew what to make of Gaines. It was 1999, and this kind of thing just wasn’t done. Sure, Bono could go onstage as the Fly guy, but it was explicitly a stage act, and Fly guy was just an incrementally more douchey Bono anyway, so people accepted it. But Gaines? What was this shit?
I don’t think Stephen King is being dishonest about Bachman. When he says Bachman was an experiment to see if his work would be accepted if it weren’t a product of the Stephen King™ empire, that seems reasonable. 2 But if it was an experiment, it was a half-assed one.
If King really wanted to test himself, he would have published his work the way aspiring authors actually publish their work. He — or more precisely, Richard Bachman — would have submitted his manuscripts to publishing houses, written cover letters, and tried to get an agent to take him on. Because most aspiring authors don’t get to call up a publisher and simply arrange to have their book inserted into a designated stratum of the book market.
The reason King didn’t do this, and why he gave Bachman a shortcut that no unknown, unconnected author ever gets, is that the experiment was only half of Bachman’s purpose. The other half — the…dark half? — was that he just really wanted to get his stuff out there, and if putting a fake name on the cover was the only way to accomplish that, then so be it.
If we accept that Garth Brooks was attempting something along the lines of Richard Bachman, then he, like King, fudged his experiment, by creating Chris Gaines as a fully-formed rock star from inception, rather than making Gaines go through the tortuous process of climbing the ladder to stardom. But while King would likely have failed if he’d done it this way, I assert that Chris Gaines would have succeeded.
I can’t in good conscience recommend that anyone reading this listen to In the Life of Chris Gaines. Not because it’s a bad album, but because the music — basically what you imagine when you hear the words “Adult Contemporary,” — is not something I can unironically recommend to anyone.
Taken by itself, though, In the Life of Chris Gaines actually is a pretty decent example of earnest, middle-of-the-road pop music. I mean, sure, it’s schmaltzy, cheesy R&B-Lite, overproduced and polished to a bright anonymous sheen, but those are the features of the genre of music that a real-life Gaines would inhabit. Although I couldn’t bring myself to listen to the album more than a couple of times through, my reaction was pretty much exactly the same as it would be to any album in this style.
So, if the music itself wasn’t bad — inasmuch as it was a good example of the form — why did In the Life of Chris Gaines fail to catch on?
For Klosterman, the issue was authenticity:
This, oddly, is the one musical situation where authenticity does matter: If you want to adopt an unnatural persona, that persona needs to be an extension of the person you secretly feel like. You have to be “authentically pretending.”
While this is true enough (see Bono/the Fly guy), I’m not sure that it’s actually relevant to Garth Brooks/Chris Gaines.
Klosterman assumes the worst of Brooks, in taking as given that Brooks was attempting to build “Chris Gaines” into the superstar in reality that Gaines was in his fictional biography. He assumes Brooks was too stupid, or short-sighted, or egotistical, to understand the basic truth Klosterman describes above, and that Brooks sincerely believed that his millions of country fans, along with the millions of fans of the kind of flaccid pop music Gaines personified, would buy into this alter ego.
I don’t think that’s the case. Garth Brooks is and was a guy who, obviously, knows how to build a music career. Does Klosterman really believe Brooks would have been so un-savvy as to go about building a second career out of Chris Gaines in the manner that he did?
A digression before I finish this out.
I believe some people may be born with, or develop very early in their lives, a particular affinity for alter egos. I believe I am one of those people. I love disguises and pseudonyms. I have used them almost all my life, since childhood. I am using one now, in fact. But why?
Part of it, I suppose, is the fantasy element — the fun, imaginative exercise of creating and inhabiting a character. It’s a form of playacting. And, as with acting, it provides an opportunity to set parts of yourself free in ways you can’t get away with (or so one tends to imagine) within your “real” persona. For Stephen King, writing as Richard Bachman freed him to be nastier, darker, and more overtly misanthropic than he could as Stephen King™.
It can also function as a form of time travel. An alter ego can represent an optimized version of yourself, the fantasy you whose life went the way it ought to have. This optimized self can be confident where you are insecure, bold where you are timid, experimental where you are conventional. The alter ego gives you permission to be the person you want to be. This is fucked up and wrong, of course, because no one really needs permission to transform themselves, but people are often fucked up and wrong.
There’s another way in which alter egos are employed that I find bizarre and fascinating: the author who openly maintains multiple pen names. This is different from the typical pseudonym in that concealment of identity is not a goal. Generally, this open pseudonym is adopted by authors who normally publish books in one genre, but want to publish in a totally different genre. Nora Roberts (itself a pen name) writes romance novels, and also writes suspense novels, but as “J.D. Robb.” Literary author John Banville goes by “Benjamin Black” when he goes slumming in the mystery genre. Iain Banks: mainstream author. Iain M. Banks: science fiction author.
The reason I find this bizarre is because, like most other motivations for creating alter egos, it’s completely unnecessary. There’s no actual, good reason why Nora Roberts can’t write romance novels and mystery novels under one name. The actual, bad reason is, of course, marketing — “Nora Roberts” is a brand that represents a certain kind of novel, and readers are conditioned to a certain set of expectations when reading a “Nora Roberts” novel. John Banville doesn’t want to muck up his sterling literary reputation by putting his name on (sniff) “genre” fiction. Iain M. Banks fans don’t want to preorder a new “Iain M. Banks” novel only to find that it’s just about stupid old present-day Earth.
This is, in my view, kind of dumb. Authors should be able to put out whatever the hell books they want without having to channel them through pseudonyms. Readers should be aware enough to understand that one Nora Roberts book might not be like another. It’s dumb because it appeals to and accommodates faulty aspects of human nature that shouldn’t be appealed to or accommodated. Like readers who can’t handle not getting the same basic book all the time. Or publishers who don’t want to muddy the brand.
But you know what’s also dumb? Having to use an alter ego to behave or express yourself in ways you “can’t” as yourself. Because, obviously, you’re fully entitled to do those things. Nothing actually constrains you, physically or legally, from acting in ways that “aren’t like you,” or even from becoming a completely different kind of person. Nobody needs these disguises. Or they shouldn’t. Nobody should feel as if they need permission to be whatever kind of person they want to be.
The first time I saw Chris Gaines, in the music video for “Lost In You”, I was totally blown away. There were so many layers of things going on. It was Garth Brooks, but Brooks was also completely, convincingly Chris Gaines. The song itself was mildly compelling as a cheesy pop ballad, but at the same time I was aware of the fact that I was meant to be aware of the fact that “Lost In You” was constructed to be a “cheesy pop ballad.”
This was complicated and perverse in a way I found fascinating and brilliant. 3 Chris Gaines actually made me respect Garth Brooks for the first time ever. Which is, for me, the weirdest aspect of this whole thing.
Here’s why I believe Klosterman is wrong about Chris Gaines.
Klosterman is wrong about Chris Gaines because in 1999, he — along with most of the rest of the world — did not fully comprehend what Chris Gaines was. Gaines wasn’t a joke or hoax, but he also wasn’t meant to be taken at face value. Brooks didn’t try to disguise the fact that he was Gaines. But he also wasn’t trying to convince the world that Gaines was in fact the secret, true self that Brooks had been hiding underneath his good ol’ boy persona all this time.
There was a tongue-in-cheek, satirical aspect of “Chris Gaines” that almost no one recognized or acknowledged. If you don’t believe that, go read the liner notes to In the Life of Chris Gaines. (Do this even if you do believe.)
Chris Gaines on his song “Right Now”:
The idea came to me while watching the news…senseless acts of violence, the slaughtering of innocence, and the countless opportunities of the ’90s with the “give peace a chance” theme of the 60s. I don’t do anthems. I’m not a preacher, but people, this “win no matter what we lose” attitude is going to kill us all. Please, love one another.
Chris Gaines on his song “Driftin’ Away”:
“Driftin Away” was a revelation for me. After years and years of unsuccessful relationships, I found a woman who I would do more than die for. I had never felt more loved in my life and I had never been treated better. I will never forget how unusually quiet and cold it was the morning I left, and how orange the sunrise made everything. I grabbed my jacket and my guitar and left the rest. Driving away that morning, I realized I had been the problem all these years. Why to some does loneliness feel so good?
Chris Gaines on his song “White Flag”:
“White Flag” is the only good thing I got out of a bad relationship. We both were so intense, and when you put two intense people together, the highs are extremely high and the lows are extremely low. Sex was on a level I had never experienced before and the fighting was on a level I had never experienced before. One day I found myself in the middle of Matoya Valley, standing on the hood of my car, fists clenched and screaming to the heavens. The phenomenal rush of the highs could not compete with the constant drain of the lows…I broke. My will surrendered the girl of my dreams for the loneliness of freedom. On the way back into town that night, on the inside of the windshield, I wrote with my finger, “I say black, you say white…”
These liner notes are hilarious. And they’re meant to be hilarious. No one involved in the conception, creation, or execution of “Chris Gaines” was under any illusion about what they were creating. Chris Gaines is a masterful caricature of a self-involved, pompous, narcissistic pop star. His official presentation is only a few shades more serious than Chris Gaines fan fiction, which, by the way, is the most unspeakably awesome thing I’ve encountered in calendar year 2013.
I’m not saying that people didn’t realize Brooks was indulging in a bit of role-playing. Rather, they realized this, yet still apparently believed Brooks intended Chris Gaines to be a genuine expression of a heretofore untapped side of Garth Brooks’ musical soul, and judged Gaines and Brooks on that basis. Klosterman attributes the failure of Gaines to a failure to communicate authenticity. But that was never the goal.
Chris Gaines failed because the public did not realize Chris Gaines was not meant to be authentic in the first place. As with the other tragic figures in Eating the Dinosaur, Gaines/Brooks was punished for failing to be something he did not actually try to be.
I think the reason Klosterman draws the wrong conclusions from Chris Gaines is that, while he is ultra-sensitive to how people (himself especially) are perceived by others, the way he manages his image-anxiety is to strive for authenticity. When we think of Klosterman, we do not see multiple Klostermans, but a single, multi-faceted, authentic Klosterman. I believe that authenticity-seekers like Klosterman find it difficult to understand people who respond to their image-anxiety by generating personae. That’s why Klosterman, wrongly, views Chris Gaines as, not just a commercial and artistic failure, but a manifestation of the worst, most craven aspects of Garth Brooks’ character.
Closer to the truth, I think, is this: Chris Gaines was a project that allowed Garth Brooks to (a) flex his musical talents and previously untapped acting skills; and (b) subtly poke fun at the Top 40 musicians, and their fans, who disdain and ghettoize country music. Just as Stephen King is a talented enough writer that he can perform different literary styles as well as anyone who writes exclusively in that style, Garth Brooks is talented enough to walk into just about any musical genre and produce a fairly convincing example of that genre.
We were never meant to appreciate Chris Gaines in a totally earnest, one-dimensional way. We were always meant to be aware that Gaines was a construct. Chris Gaines failed because we failed Chris Gaines.