At 10:34am, on August 5th 2008, anonymous dubstep producer Burial posted a message on his MySpace blog entitled ‘tunes’. “My name’s Will Bevan,” it declared, accompanied by a single portrait photo, replicating the illustrated face of his Untrue album cover. It had the effect of a drawing becoming animated, converting the unreal into the real in the hyper-speed of a refresh button. But, almost instantly, it became just a static picture on a computer screen – a virtual tableau with a sole subject. That subject being “Will Bevan, from South London”.
Burial’s decision to reveal his name was sparked by an investigation by The Sun. Started by the newspaper’s Bizarre column editor Gordon Smart a few weeks after Burial’s Mercury Prize nomination, Smart called to “unmask” the producer, asking for a “manhunt” and offering a reward for his true identity. In the same way that Alex Turner is like Batman, the lexicon Smart used made Burial appear as a superhero, something which Burial once described himself as – – albeit preluded by “rubbish”. After all, there’s Burial’s obsession with the night-time, his efforts to keep his secret identity and his ability to save lives like my own.
Maybe I’ve read too many comics, but the unmasking of Burial reminds me of Spiderman. In the same way that the obnoxious newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson continually tries to unmask Spiderman’s alter ego, for the sake of his own ego, Smart tried to unveil Burial with no care for what he actually stood for: making bleak cityscapes beautiful. Plus, like Jameson – who was ignorant enough to not notice he actually employed Spiderman – Smart missed the fact the Independent had hinted at the Bevan/Burial connection half a year earlier. Or, when he wrote his 6th August column, that Burial had actually revealed his identity the day before. It doesn’t take Spidey senses to work that one out.
Ten years ago, when Burial was unmasked, The Sun’s smart-ass exposee of him was a turning point. From that point on, being enigmatic became problematic. Social media’s rise marked a new era in music: of digging up dirt on artists, uncovering personal information and exhuming pasts thought to have long been buried. The internet suddenly had information in spades, shovelling the findings onto Reddit or RapGenius. Since then, it seems to be an unknown is truly unknown.
It’s not a stretch of the imagination to label Burial as the last of the anonymous artists. Others have tried to overcome the surveillance culture we’ve induced, with varying levels of success. Back in 2013, neo-funk collective Jungle created a frenzy of interest with their hidden identities and secret shows. Going by the initials ‘T’ and ‘J’, they made a name for themselves without unveiling their own names. But while the core focus on Burial is his tunes, the focus on Jungle became the fact that they were anonymous. Maybe I’m a cynic, but it felt like a PR gimmick, contrived to create hype. Without a genuine reason behind anonymity, it’s pointless.
Instead of hiding information, other musicians have used literal masks to attempt anonymity. Most famously, Daft Punk have been wearing helmets since their inception, creating a distance between their identity and their musical one. But after Burial’s rise to fame, EDM culture (like everything) took idea of the mask to the extreme. From Deadmau5, to gelatinous nightmare Marshmello, masks have become overblown and overused, turning a symbol of anonymity into a symbol of fame. They’re used to create an identity more interesting (and saleable) than the person behind the mask, appropriating something artistic into the future trap version of The Stig. Aside from the fact that the internet’s long digged-up the men behind the masks, it does little to create any real enigma: the only mystery being why people are interested in them in the first place.
If complete anonymity now seems impossible, then perhaps the only possibility is concealment. Not through dodgy press releases or Hamleys masks, but trying to control what you share. Of course, it’s pretty tough to do that with the sleuthing gravediggers of the web. But Frank Ocean, for example, has managed it pretty well. He may be a megastar, but he still maintains a distance from the public, teasing tunes and putting on occasional shows but giving little away. It’s through a control of his social media that he’s able to filter what is seen of him. Though he inevitably can’t have total control, he still can choose when to sing, speak, or perform. If artists are able to do away with the ventriloquism of the press and speak for themselves, they can be as enigmatic as they want. Perhaps this is the only viable option for modern pop artists: being distanced, but never completely detached. Blurred, but still seen.
What sets Burial apart from these other artists though, and makes his reclusiveness more successful, is his lack of a single live performance. The closest he came was nothing more than a rumour, when false whisperings spread about him playing a set at Unsound Festival (he didn’t) in 2015. Sure, ten years ago his mask may have slipped, but we still only have a couple of images, a few blog posts and a handful of interviews. We’re not any closer to knowing about his personal life or seeing him in the flesh, and, to be honest, we don’t need to. All we know is that he’s “Will Bevan, from South London.” And that he’s a fucking superhero.
You can find Kyle on Twitter.