One of an artist’s only jobs, that the public knows about anyway, is to crank out fresh hits for their adoring fans. But the pressure to maintain familiarity while attempting to satisfy the urge to experiment with one’s sound has never been higher. Many artists have shown this battle between their past sound and their vision for the future of their music plays a significant role in the reception of this change, and whether they succeed or fail ultimately indicates the attitudes society holds for artists as mindless machines rather than ever-evolving, fully fledged humans with emotions.
No stranger to betraying convention, Lorde proved experimentation to be a great method for garnering massive support from dedicated fans. However, the release of her third studio album Solar Power seemed to be too much of a departure from the hard-hitting, club kid anthems her fanbase had come to know and love. Astounded by the no-miss, sophomore album Melodrama, her fans, and critics alike, felt conflicted about the new record.
While Melodrama felt like a life-changing winter defined by heartbreak and growing pains, fans were led to relish in the warmth of Solar Power’s cicada-backed tracks which coax a long- awaited nostalgic summer to the forefront of the listener’s mind. and this did not bode well for the then 25-year-old artist. As a reward for her unconventional creation, she earned her lowest Pitchfork score to date.
Critics can be brushed off artists’ shoulders, but the fans are their lifeblood. Used to yearning for relationships which could never sustain themselves and reminiscing on the pain of their childhood, the shift to self-discovery and healing brought forth in Solar Power was a total fake out for Lorde’s loyal fanbase. It had finally happened. Lorde had “flopped.”
It seems, in the year of 2021, a year oozing with acceptance of change, artists were still denied the privilege of having their innovative creations accepted by the people who claimed to love them the most.
However, a much more seasoned artist, accustomed to changing their sound much later in their career, set the precedent for a member of Pop royalty not receiving the recognition they had previously enjoyed just four years earlier.
Taylor Swift’s transition from country to pop was greeted with open arms. 1989, Swift’s fifth studio album, deviated from the path which she had carved for herself in the country sphere, but, unlike Lorde’s followers, “Swifties” loved it. The album cemented Swift as a Pop icon.
Gaining critical and commercial success, Swift enjoyed her recognition, at least until she released her next album in 2017.
Reputation, an album resembling a love letter at its core, scared fans with faux rap lyric delivery and a less bubbly sound. With topics such as spite and potential affairs, Swift revealed herself as a not-so-innocent protagonist in the story which she had laid out over the course of her career.
Critics tore this album to shreds. The sudden shift to an EDM influenced, hard hitting production style served to exclude Reputation from Grammy consideration all together.
“Swifties” experienced similar conflict to future Lorde fans. While some loved Swift leaning into her devious side, others missed the Swift who had created “1989” and could not recognize the Pop star they saw before them.
Yet again, fans could not handle an artist shape shifting into a new era if it did not align with their tastes.
Even after Lorde and Swift, another, more niche artist saw the same pushback after changing their sound.
Four years of relative silence from the Japanese American artist Mitski ended when she released her sixth album Laurel Hell in 2022. Exploring topics such as creative exhaustion, loneliness and love, angsty subject matter had long been cemented into Mitski’s unique sound, but the manner in which these ideas were conveyed are what threw fans for a loop.
Mitski delivers gut wrenching performances over 1980s electronic bass, slow, wave-like synthesizers, and even ABBA-esque piano and xylophone. Lyrically, this record held onto the Mitski who established herself as an Indie star in Be the Cowboy, but sonically fans could not help wondering where the old Mitski had gone.
Had Mitski finally sold out by conforming to a more pop sound?
The answer is not a simple yes or no, and it leads to many more questions. Should artists stay in the boxes their fans categorize them in? At what point are artists allowed to take the reigns of their creative freedom? Or, to put it frankly: When are artists allowed to change?
Reluctance to accepting an artist’s new sound is nothing new, but this voiced trepidation may have deeper roots than simply “not liking” the direction an artist has chosen to take.
On the heels of immense societal upheaval, resistance to change is understandable. In fact, a global pandemic shook the entire world in 2020. Having the rug ripped up from under one’s feet can be disorienting and can lead to speechlessness. Time and time again, people have turned to music in order to identify and process their emotions when they cannot find the right words to express themselves.
In short, fans likely view music as a sense of stability, one of their last lines of defense against the fluidity of the world around them. When the one thing they cling to for assurance and clarity slips from their grasp, it is no surprise that they retaliate and voice concerns.
However, there is one key sentiment which is often overlooked: artists’ humanity. They experience the same global tragedies. They are constantly evolving in every sense of the word. Denying them the freedom to reinvent and express themselves in unfamiliar ways becomes a double standard.
Artists are humans. Whether they reveal their devious side in the case of “Reputation,” suddenly find healing and happiness in the case of “Solar Power” or simply express they are becoming exhausted in the case of “Laurel Hell,” fans are forced to confront how they themselves handle change without even realizing it. They either accept or cut ties.
Those who accept the winds of change witness the blossoming of an artist’s character and can grow with them. Those who do not miss out on the opportunity to measure their bandwidth for change which they can carry into their real life, not just their listening habits.
Either way, Swift still broke the record for highest grossing tour ever with Reputation, Lorde still brought New Zealand summer everywhere she went on her Solar Power World Tour and Mitski’s fans realized their odds of winning a fight over whether she should go back to her old style were close to none at her Toronto show.
Either way, open-minded fans continue to show up for the artists they know and love.
Featured Image by Mert Alas.
Written by: Preethi Mangadu