Posted by: Mark Nielsen | December 23, 2008

Wahlbergs, Kings of Pop, and Other Marks of Distinction

Am I the only one who thinks it’s funny that the host of the PBS staple Antiques Roadshow is named Mark Walberg, the same as the big-time movie actor (though spelled differently than the former Marky Mark) .

The question, though, is which performer hit it big first, and which is riding the other’s coattails?  The answer: the singer/movie actor — Wahlberg with an “h”– was just barely first on the national scene, getting in front of the camera around July 1991, with the debut of his album with the Funky Bunch, Music for the People. However, the tv host was apparently hot on his heels (in Sept. ’91?) as co-host of the game show Shop Till You Drop. So he can’t be accused of keeping his similar name to advance his career, because Marky Mark wasn’t a big deal yet.

I find that I often disagree with Shakespeare’s famous “What’s in a name?” line. I think there’s a lot about names that matter in the real world. Mark my words: as a Mark myself — using a play on words with my own name to title this very blog– I can attest to the fact that there’s actually a whole lot in a name, if you want there to be… and often even when you don’t want there to be.

If you put any stock in the Bible, for example, what somebody (or something) is called matters a whole lot, even if you don’t claim to take the Judeo-Christian scriptures as the literal word of God. [For the record, I don’t anymore… though I do take them as my highest authority. I won’t bore you with the theological and historical details, though.] Jacob became Israel, and the rest is, literally, history.

Also, when Adam is given the privelege of naming all the animals God brings to him (and I just adore Bob Dylan’s song that portrays this), I think the spirit of that story is true: that naming things and people gives us some authority, power, and/or responsibility for them.

Bob Dylan even changed his own name, both in tribute to poet Dylan Thomas and to de-ethnicize how he would be publicly perceived. His given name, Robert Zimmerman, might have been cause for some to dismiss him as an elitist East Coast Jew before even listening to his songs  — an elitist which he probably was at times, though Bob was and is sharp enough to want control over public perception of his identity, rather than ceding that control to a fickle audience or short-sighted critics.

It’s the essence of the post-modern or deconstructionist appproach to language and linguistics, applied to names. History, context and culture are essential ingredients in interpreting what we say and what we mean, and how others will perceive or misperceive what we just said. Yes, a rose by any other name still smells sweet (the other part of that Shakespearean equation), but if you invoke the name Axl Rose or Pete Rose, chances are people will “get the joke”– that you’re using the negative public perception of these two figures to make y0ur point.

So Marky Mark Wahlberg had to change his temporarily marketable, bubblegum badboy rapper name back to his given name, because:

  • a) he wasn’t trying to be a hip teen sensation anymore and needed to jettison the now embarrassing nickname
  • b) he wanted to be taken seriously, so going back to his given name was “mature” and non-flashy, even slightly ethnic and therefore authentic, in a Joe Six Pack, highly marketable kind of way
  • c) he wasn’t named Mark Stiechenkowski, or some other name too tough for a wide audience to remember or pronounce

I find that other performers and people in the arts also benefit from (or suffer through) this association of their name with others having the same name. For instance, I originally thought Randy Jackson, of American Idol fame, was one of the Jackson 5. I can’t possibly be the only person who thought this, because in fact there IS a Jackson 5 brother named Randy (the youngest, born five years later than the Idol Maker, and three years after big brother Michael, the Fallen Idol).

That the two Randys share a name and work in “the biz” makes it confusing for those with short attention spans like me. And while the bassist/American Idol host has never claimed to be part of pop’s “royal family”, he would probably admit he’s benefitted from the happy coincidence.

In my case, my birth name also happens to belong to a successful multi-term congressman from Connecticut. There’s also a Chicago radio and sound engineer named Mark Nielsen who works on most of WXRT’s offsite concerts and events, and gets his name on air at the end of those shows.(I’ve been tempted to tell casual acquaintances that’s me, but have never had the gall/guts to try pulling it off…)

So if one Googles me (googol = a mathematical concept, made into a name, then turned into a verb…), I would be far enough down the list as to be nearly un-findable. If I became an overnight sensation — with a publicist, an agent, a book tour, a movie credit, and lots of web-hits for the bots to find, all pointing toward formerly little old me — then that might change, and I’d unseat the current #1 Mark Nielsen. But I won’t count on this happening.

Instead, if I ever “hit it big”, I plan to have at least two other more distinctive names to choose from:

M. Sebastian Nielsen, a high-falutin’ sounding name for somebody with serious literary chops (plus I have the benefit of Sebastian being my actual middle name, after my maternal grandfather);

Mark Spiderhawk, after two tough, cool, highly marketable “bad boy” animals, which represent the kind of complicated, mythic persona I want out there in the marketplace. Or maybe some similar, highly symbolic, vaguely religious or Native American name that will have some accusing me of being a poser, and others calling me the next Bono or Madonna. (No such thing as bad press, right? And don’t even get me started on the Artist Formerly Known As An Unpronounceable Symbol But Now Known Again As Prince!)

I can always change my name back to the birth name later, when I’m seeking credibility, and honoring my parents, and chasing a Grammy/Oscar/Nobel Prize. It worked for John “Cougar” Mellencamp, so it ought to work for me, too.



  1. Feel free to be me. The more this happens, the more it will confuse the agents from INTERPOL.

    Speaking of names, a musician introduced himself as Bob, causing the following internalized reaction – “Bob? Bob?, You’re freaking ROBERT PLANT, man”, followed by the verbal “Hi Bob, nice to meet you”.

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