Fickle Reputations: Artists Changing Their Sounds Over Time
Signing a record contract is like accepting admission to college. Artists are forced to declare a major; a genre that will be the focus of their musical projects for at least the next four years. However, artists today are very fickle - not many have remained loyal to the genre of music that they began their careers with.
The release of Taylor Swift’s sixth studio album Reputation, got me thinking about artists who have changed musical genres over the years. Taylor’s transition from pure country music to bubblegum pop is perhaps the most dramatic change of gears in modern music today. She trashed her cowboy boots in favour of stilettos in 2014, following the release of her Red album.
Swift is not the only artists to swap genres. Fellow girl-power acts Lady Gaga and Paramore have shifted from pop to folk, and punk to pop respectively. How have Swift, Gaga and Paramore managed to “switch majors” over the years without losing any credibility?
Surprisingly, these shifts in musical styles have only made their music more marketable, more popular and perhaps most importantly, made them more profitable.
Professor of Popular Music Studies at the University of Western Ontario, Matt Stahl says that there is “a great deal of evidence of flexibility and wide interest [in artist’s changing their genres] for at least the last hundred years”. This trend most notably began in the 1960s when Bob Dylan shocked his fans by going electric when they were so used to his acoustic/folk sound.
This can also be seen with Fleetwood Mac’s music. In the late 1970s, Mic Fleetwood felt that the band’s sound was getting stale. His solution was the hiring of the dynamic duo of Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. All of a sudden, Fleetwood Mac was no longer a blues band. They reinvented themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the world of rock n’roll.
All of the artists mentioned thus far began their careers in niche genres and graduated to more mainstream sounds. It seems as though the further along in their careers they got, the more they wanted to adopt a neutral genre that would appeal to the broader masses.
Cassie Tari, Artist & Repertoire Intern at Sony Music says that changing their sound “allows artists to tap into different kinds of listeners and in turn, turn more of their occasional listeners into fans.”
All of Paramore’s songs that made top 10 on the charts had a slightly more pop sound, which sparked their transition to pop on their newest album, After Laughter. This genre change created a rift in the band; founding members, Jeremy Davis, and Josh Farro left because they felt as though the band was losing sight of who they were. These two members were unwilling to compromise their artistic integrity in order to conform and sell more records.
Tari has witnessed this struggle at Sony Music. She says, “What is popular goes in and out of style all the time our artists need to reflect that.”
According to Stahl, genre is a construct that is primarily meant to serve marketers of music. He says, “what companies like those who hired Swift and Gaga seek is a kind of certainty so that they can plan on selling music. As listeners we become accustomed to seeing these marketing-based choices as based in the performers’ personalities so that when the performer makes a change, we think this is a big deal.”
An artist’s change in genre is certainly an effective marketing strategy. The public’s uncertainty on whether or not this musical change in style will be a success, sparks speculation and creates buzz. The artist is doing something they have never done before and people are genuinely curious to hear the artist’s new sound. The line: “Old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Because she’s dead” from Swift’s new song “Look What You Made Me Do”, has become iconic. Everyone seems to know that new “edgy Taylor” has permanently replaced “country Taylor”.
Not only that, but seasoned artists like Swift, Gaga and Paramore who have been in the business for a long time (since the early 2000s to be exact) and played hundreds of shows must get sick of performing their own music. Changing genres allows artists to challenge themselves vocally and instrumentally by using talents and techniques they have not yet had the opportunity to do.
Essentially, changing genres can prevent creative burnout. Tari explains, “Like people, artists’ personalities are continuously advancing and if they are genuine and creative musicians, their music should do the same.”
Many kids coming from high school to first year university, feel the need re-invent themselves, and artists experience this too. Just like students who no longer have parental supervision, artists who are successful often feel like they can make major changes without consequences.
Not all genres appeal to everyone and performers certainly risk losing established fans who are not interested in listening to their new sounds. When artists change their genre, fans often find themselves in a situation similar to sitting through a course that they did not sign up for - confused and stuck.
If an artist believes it is time to move on from a specific point of their music, they are often times doing so to give people music what is in demand so that they can make more money on records.
Changing genres to reach more people can be comparable to a friend faking their personality so that they can make more friends. They can try to be someone they’re not, but their family and true friends will disappointingly see right through it.
The same goes for long-standing fans. For people like me, who prefer the original Swift, Gaga and Paramore, their current personas seem manufactured and disingenuous.
It also seems hypocritical that these artists preach individuality when they are abandoning what makes them distinct.
So for those of you who have faith that your favourite artists will hold on to their roots forever, I wouldn’t count on it.