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Essay: The Funk of Forty Thousand Years
I Was Born with a Stage Name
By Fay Funk
"So, do you like to get down and/or do you know what that smell is?” the boy in my tenth grade science class asked, with a slight flicker of humor across his face. I sighed inwardly. I had known what was coming. I had just told him my full name. Faylani Rae Funk. This boy and I had been in the same classes for over a year, but he only knew me by my nickname, Fay. That was intentional. I could tell the moment I met him what he would do when he heard my name: make a bad joke about it. Years of experience backed up my prediction. It’s the kind of thing you learn fast if you have a weird name.
I was born with a stage name, given to me by a mother who insisted on giving both of her daughters creative names that no one else in had. My name has two sources: the first is the 1988 winner of the Miss America Pageant, Kaye Lani Rae Rafko. For reasons I’ll never understand, my mom loves beauty pageants, and she thought Kaye Lani was the most beautiful name she had ever heard. But she also wanted alliteration in my name, and with a last name of Funk that meant she needed an F. That’s where the second source of my name comes from: 1930's star of King Kong, actress Fay Wray. Fay gave my mom the alliteration she desired, and Wray fit poetically with the original inspiration for my name. So I became Faylani Rae.
Funk is a Dutch last name. My father is of Dutch-Irish descent. Like my sister and I, he endured plenty of jokes growing up. As a young man he almost changed his last name to Townshend, as in Pete Townshend from The Who. Perhaps realizing that changing his last name to that of a famous rock star’s would not stop the music jokes, he didn’t go through with it.
Anyone with an unusual name hears a lot of jokes. The frequent joking made me realize I had an unusual name in the first place, and is the first thing that comes to mind when anyone asks me about my name. The jokes about my name are mostly musical. References to Parliament/Funkadelic and James Brown are common, though the most obnoxious comes courtesy of Michael Jackson and Vincent Price. People will ask me, with a wicked glint in their eyes, if I know anything about “the funk of forty thousand years,” a line from the song “Thriller,” referring to the smell of a recently opened crypt. It was the same reference the boy from my science class was making and one that I didn’t get, having fastidiously avoided ever listening to anything from the album Thriller until Michael Jackson was dead. I recall a girl from my high school being absolutely shocked when I didn’t recognize “Billie Jean” playing on the radio. I chose not to explain why; I knew she was a joker, and I wasn’t about to give her any ammo. I can see the humor in my name, and made right I can sometimes find the jokes funny. I will always cringe a little when I hear that line from “Thriller” though.
Jokes are harmless, whether funny or irritating. But my weird name can affect people’s perception of me. I have the kind of name a flamboyant entertainer would choose for madcap performances. Many people assume I just made it up. It doesn’t help that I play bass guitar. Had I chosen my name it would be the clumsiest, most ham-handed stage name of all time, calling myself after the genre of music for which my instrument is most known. It’s easy to think I must be a contrived attention-seeker.
That’s what happened when I received my roommate assignment for college. I had two roommates, and excitedly sent Facebook friend requests to both of them. One did not respond right away, and seemed reserved at first. I learned later that she received my Facebook request long before the official housing letter from NYU. My name plus a profile picture of me playing bass led her to believe I was the kind of jerk who insists on going by a stage name in my daily life. She spent a few weeks afraid that she was going be living with an insufferable idiot for her first year of college, until the official letter arrived and she saw it was my real name. She’s one of my best friends now and I think it’s funny that she was so concerned, but it makes me wonder—have other people thought that about me?
Because I’m not the kind of person who would ever choose a stage name. I don’t like being the center of attention. I didn’t start playing bass guitar to live up to my name or out of an interest in funk music. I chose bass because it meant I could make music without having all eyes on me, and because the only women I saw in bands I liked played bass. Like pretty much all bass players I tried to learn funk bass to prove I was really, really good. Other than a few half-hearted attempts at slapping and popping, the distinctive technique of funk, I never got far. Funk bass really only sounds good in funk and funk inspired music, and when you don’t know what you’re doing it sounds bad, like the funk of forty thousand years bad. And playing that style put too much focus on me. So I play punk bass, a technically way more simple style that I find way more fun. Other than the occasional terrifying thrill of a bass solo I mostly blend into the background, and let the singer and guitar player soak up the attention.
First impressions matter, and names are a big part of that. I don’t want potential employers, business contacts, and new friends to believe I’m walking around thinking I’m the next Axl Rose. I started preemptively explaining my name in college when I was trying to date, because for the first time the dating pool was not made up of people I had known since kindergarten. I didn’t want my made-up sounding name to set off crazy girl alarm bells in some boy’s head, so I just told boys immediately. It’s effective in casual settings, but I’m still mildly concerned about the impression I make in more formal situations, like when I was applying for jobs, where I don’t have the opportunity to explain my name. I just have to hope that whoever reads my resume assumes I’m competent enough not to use a fake name.
Though much of this has been about the problems I have living with my name, I have grown to really like it. I didn’t much at first, probably until I was about seventeen. Then I started to see the benefits of having a weird name. Musicians love my name, whether they think it’s fake or know it’s real. And as someone who really likes playing in bands, that has been very helpful. Most creative-types love my name, for that matter, and they are the kinds of people I want to be around. And while plenty of people think my name is fake at first, the complete 180 they do when they learn it’s real is great to watch. Sometimes they come away with an even more positive impression of me than they would have otherwise. My name is unusual. It will always keep me from being completely normal, and I like that. I made the decision a few years ago to never change my name, even if I get married. Doing that would mess up the alliteration my mom so carefully planned. I would lose something that has shaped a lot of who I am, and it’s far too precious to let go.
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