What Happens To Musical Performing Artists Who Change Their Style Or Genre Of Music?
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Changing styles, be it hair styles, clothing, points of view, sports teams or even political parties happens every day. It happens in music, more often than you may think. I am certain of this, people start out with a fan base; in each of these categories these fans are loyal, faithful and will follow their idols to the ends of the earth. But let the artist, musician, athletic superstar, or politician tread lightly. The fanatical fan may tolerate a shift but these folks will abandon their idols if the idol strays too far from what brought them to the dance. Some examples in the non-musical world that I found interesting and worthy of note.
Sports Fans. LeBron James comes to mind. Born and raised in Ohio and closely identified with the Cleveland Cavaliers. James was the home town hero. A superstar basketball player embodied the rust belt city of Akron and later Cleveland, Ohio. He was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003 and led the franchise to their first Finals appearance in 2007. Then the switch. In 2010 LeBron left Cleveland for the Miami Heat – ESPN called it The Decision. He won back to back NBA Championships for Miami and was burned in effigy back in Cleveland. The owner of the Cavaliers and the fans called him a traitor. But memories for superstar athlete’s transgressions are short. In 2015 LeBron returned to the Cavaliers, led the team to 3 consecutive Finals and in 2016 won the sports title, ending a 52-year drought. But you note LeBron’s change was of his team and not his sport. While he drew intense criticism from sports analysts, executives, fans, and players LeBron followed his own muse. But like I said, memories are short and LeBron was welcomed back with open arms.
A Politician changing political parties goes way back. John Tyler became our 10th President after William Henry Harrison’s (who caught a cold at his inauguration, so the story goes) death in office. Tyler was disowned by his own party, the Whigs and expelled from the party while in office. Donald J. take note. This was a change not of Tyler’s own choice, but it made headlines back in the day. Tyler didn’t join the Democrats though, he was a president without any party affiliation.
Hannibal Hamlin, Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president, was a lifelong Democrat who switched parties in 1856. His defection to the Republicans made headlines.
Two more modern defections. Democrat Ronald Regan switched in 1962 to the Republican Party and his defection left him no worse for wear. Hillary Clinton was a Goldwater Girl and campaigned for the Republican Goldwater. She changed sides after attending the 1968 GOP convention and became a Democrat. And you can chose for yourself if that worked out well for Clinton.
Okay, the history lesson ends and here’s what I came to write about, the change of genres and sometimes defections of musicians and performers. Do fans forgive a change in musical style? Can a musician defect and bring his old fans along and gain new ones (like Ronald Regan)? And if the musician returns to their old style or genre is all forgiven and the artist is more popular than ever (like LeBron)? Or, the change doesn’t hurt or help the artist, it is just a change (like Hillary Clinton).
Sometimes an artist’s change of genres is reviled at first but later accepted. A case in point is when Bob Dylan “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Before that he was an acoustic guitar playing folk singer, after that he was a rock musician.
On occasion a musician will try to branch out and try something different with disastrous results. Case in point, Garth Brooks and his alter ego Chris Gaines. By 1999 Garth Brooks was a very successful country artist and decided to release a rock album under the nom de plume Chris Gaines. It was ridiculed and quickly sank into the depths of history. Garth is back in his old, comfortable role of country singer now.
A few notable ‘genre switches’ include an opening act for Ozzy Osbourne and Krokus. Bolton Rules. Yup that Michael Bolton opened for these metal bands as the lead singer of Blackjack. Bolton enjoy little stardom as a metal head singer. In 1982 he starts writing pop ballads and offered his audience an ‘adult contemporary’ style and viola his leonine hair brought millions of women under his spell.
James Osterberg, a fully clothed drummer for the blues band Prime Movers worked the Chicago blues joints in the mid 1960’s. Osterberg shed his shirts and fronted his own band in a new musical genre – Punk Rock – and thus Iggy Stooge (later Iggy Pop) launched the seminal punk rock band The Stooges. At over 70 years’ young, he still stands out not wearing a shirt.
So these artists are more like Reagan – they switch genres and found great great success in their newly clothed musical (well shirtless in Iggy’s case) genre. In the new style is where they found and built their fan base and achieved stardom and notoriety.
And the list of these artists who started out as embracing one genre only to jettison it for a genre that clicked and propelled them to stardom is actually a dominant theme among a large number of musical artists: The Bee Gees started out as a Beatles act, folk rock and then in the mid-seventies launch a huge disco career. The Byrds started in folk, and psychedelic rock and morphed into country rock stars. Katy Perry, a Christian singer later went mainstream and crossed over to pure pop. Taylor Swift started out country and went pop. The Beastie Boys started out punkers and with Def Jam founders Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons they became white rappers and hip-hop artists.
In all these cases, there was no loss of a fan base, no cries of traitor ala LeBron, these artists started with one genre, learned their craft and followed their artistic chops, often motivated by failure the first go round, or finding new producers choose a different style and finding greater success than when the artist started out on their nascent musical careers.
I want to close with two artists, Charles Eugene "Pat" Boone and Robert Anthony Plant, lead singer of Led Zeppelin. Pat Boone, a Pop Singer, A Gospel Singer, Actor, TV personality, a singer that time will not forgot.
Pat Boone, was a hugely successful pop singer in the US during the 1950s and early 1960s. He sold more than 45 million records, had 38 top-40 hits and appeared in 12 Hollywood films. Billboard charts Boone as the 2nd biggest charting artist of the late 1950s and ranked at No. 9 in the Top 100 Artists from 1955 to 1995. And Boone is a record holder, with 220 consecutive weeks on the charts.
And like so many of the early pioneers of rock and roll, Caucasian singers’ appropriated black R&B artist’s music. Boone’s early hit was Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame”! And believe it or not Boone was a 2 to 1 favorite over Elvis Presley among boys and 3 to 1 by girls. And Boone built this career on the songs of Crazy Little Mama, Joe Hunter, the Flamingos and Charles Singleton. Boone covers Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and was highly critical of more traditional rock and roll especially the demonic heavy metal bands. Boone was a campaigner for Ronald Regan and supported the Vietnam War. He was a fundamentalist Christian and was a vocal critic of gay rights. He chastised the Dixie Chicks for not ‘respecting their elders!” over their controversial comments about George W. Bush. And the wheels really came off when Boone in 2009 stated his belief that President Obama is fluent in Arabic, read the Koran as a child and didn’t celebrate Christian holidays in the White house.
But all this didn’t stop Pat Boone in 1997 from releasing “In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy” a collection of heavy metal covers. His clothing was less white cotton suits and more black leather. Now what of Boone’s fans? Well they had a LeBron reaction. His fan base rejected Boone with a vengeance - Trinity Broadcasting dismissed Boone from Gospel America. And like LeBron, when Boone returned to wholesome, Christian valued, Gospel music he earned back his fans – most happily (for him) he was reinstated by Trinity. And I for one sleep better knowing Pat is back amongst his flock.
Robert Plant has been in the news lately with the release of a new LP, “Carry Fire”. Now no one would doubt that Plant, the golden-haired, wailing, howling lead singer of Led Zeppelin defined arena rock stardom. His fan base is legion, and growing as he continues as the quintessential rock god lead singer of a rock and roll band. Plant was recently quoted as stating “I’ve been very lucky to be attached to, and in love with so many different genres”. And the interesting thing is Plant’s musical journeys, following his musical instincts and impulses and not just commercial paths, doesn’t lose his core fan base. He gains new fans as they discover Plant through his ever changing genres, from world music, banjo, synthesizers, one string fiddles, haunting Americana (a duet album with Alison Krauss, his own American groups Band of Joy and Sensational Space Shifters. And these forays have returned Plant to the Top 10 and won him Grammy Awards. For Plant the many different grooves, and styles grows what looks like a never ending fan base. Fans from the Led Zeppelin days continue to buy his new material and go to his concerts. Plant is ever onward. Robert Plant is the rarest of artists, comfortable in his voice, in his musicianship and forever exploring and finding new expressions of his art and his fans from the old days to the now follow the Rock God, appreciating his present (Presence?) as much as his past.