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‘Taylor can’t come to the phone right now’

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Posted on August 28, 2017 by Campus Communications.

Courtesy: Big Machine Records Art for Taylor Swift's upcoming album, Reputation.

With the release of her latest single "Look What You Made Me Do" singer-songwriter Taylor Swift has reinvented her look and sound. After time away from the spotlight, she has come back as a "new" Taylor. Stephen Tow, a Delaware Valley University history faculty member who is an expert on American popular music and culture, discusses artists from music history who went through similar rebirths in this blog interview. Tow is the author of "The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge." At DelVal, he teaches Classic Rock, an Honors elective. Students in the course listen to a selection of songs each week and discuss them. 

Who are some artists from popular music history who reinvented themselves?

Tow: Great question, and given the potentially enormous breadth of it, I will try to cut it down to size.

First, I will eliminate artists who "evolved" more than "reinvented themselves." Bands like the Beatles, the Who, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd all began somewhere and ended up in a completely different place, but they didn't reinvent themselves. They simply changed and experimented with their musical direction over a period of years.

Second, I will eliminate artists I can't stand. So Billy Joel and Madonna are out.

Third, I will not include people who are more let's say avant-garde, and who reinvented themselves on a daily basis, like Frank Zappa, Sparks, and Captain Beefheart.

These elimination rounds help, but I still have to narrow things down…So I will limit my discussion to five: Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, David Bowie, Alice in Chains, and ZZ Top. 

How did these rebirths impact those artists' careers?

Tow: 

Bob Dylan

Dylan emerged from the Greenwich Village folk/protest music scene of the early '60s as the standard bearer for a new generation. Then, in 1965, he abruptly abandoned his folk roots and began playing electric blues. While folk music purists derided him for selling out to the corporate behemoth, rock music fans flocked to Dylan's new sound, which skyrocketed him to even greater fame. Further, Dylan's folk-inspired lyrical sophistication dramatically changed rock music, influencing none other than the Beatles to delve into complex story lines and lyrics that moved beyond girls and cars.

In the late '60s, while many of his contemporaries ventured into psychedelia or heavy blues, Dylan went country, even recording a duet with Johnny Cash when it was not cool to do so. Dylan continued to change directions throughout his career, but his reputation and powerful songwriting kept him in the public eye.

Fleetwood Mac

I would bet 2 percent of the population knows anything about this band before Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. People forget Fleetwood Mac started out in the late '60s, at the forefront of the London "blues boom," which included such acts as Free, Led Zeppelin, Savoy Brown, and—believe it or not—Jethro Tull. The Fleetwood Mac of that era revolved around virtuoso guitarist Peter Green, who had succeeded Eric Clapton as the featured musician in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. In fact, Green was so good that BB King once commented he was the only white guitarist who could give him the chills.

Green's bluesy Fleetwood Mac became popular in London and the UK, but had a minor impact in the United States. With the addition of the powerful songwriting duo of Nicks and Buckingham (who also is no slouch in the guitar department), Fleetwood Mac took a hard left turn into pop in the mid-'70s. With the release of Fleetwood Mac (1975) and Rumours (1977), the band became international superstars.

David Bowie

Bowie was always more of an artist than let's say a "musician." Because of that, he regularly became restless and changed directions. He hit arguably the peak of his popularity in 1972 and 1973 with the Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane albums, where he championed glam rock with his Ziggy androgynous character. Then he moved on, first to soul and then to electronic music, neither of which was nearly as commercially successful. Critics questioned his vision since they believed he could have dominated the '70s the way the Beatles owned the '60s.

Alice In Chains

A lot of people don't know this, but in 1987, five years before AIC broke into the grunge genre with Dirt, the band was a spandex hair metal act known as Alice ‘N' Chains. To give you an idea, here is a review of a tape the band sent into the Rocket in 1987, then Seattle's monthly music magazine: "Alice ‘N' Chains play glam rock with a definite pop streak. Party highlights [include] ‘Lip Lock Rock' with an interesting use of horns to punch up the ending. Non-offensive hard rock with eyeliner."

The band changed its style dramatically when grunge began to catch hold in the early '90s with the initial success of Soundgarden and then Nirvana. DJ Scott Vanderpool knew about the band in its early days and interviewed AIC after their transition from glam to grunge. "This label rep is bringing in their new signee—Alice in Chains—and these dudes are looking exactly like Soundgarden, with the combat boots and the little cutoff pants. I was kind of like, ‘What the f--- is this all about?'"

With the band's second major label album, 1992's Dirt, the transformation was complete, and in the wake of Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam's successes, the record sold millions and made Alice in Chains incredibly rich.

ZZ Top

In the early '70s, Texas band ZZ Top garnered some commercial success with their heavy bluesy brand of riff-rock. Like many bands of that era, Top built its reputation by word of mouth and live performances and was rarely seen on TV. But by the '80s, '70s arena rock bands were out, and the MTV era was in full tilt. Presentation became more important than the substance of the music itself.

Recognizing the changing musical landscape, ZZ Top released Eliminator in 1983 which contained the enormously popular hit single, a synth-pop ditty called "Legs." The accompanying video turned ‘70s has-beens into stars, mostly because it featured beautiful young women with long legs, cool cars, and the band playing guitars covered in fur.  

What do you think motivated some of these artists to make major changes? 

Tow: In the case of Dylan, he was never comfortable as a protest singer. He was once asked if he was the proverbial "angry young man." He responded, "I'm not angry." Essentially boredom motivated him to escape the narrow confines of the New York folk music community.

With Fleetwood Mac, their motivation was more circumstance than anything else. Guitar phenom Peter Green ingested an industrial quantity of acid in 1970 and was never the same. Soon he was out of the band. Later, Fleetwood Mac relocated to California, and after going through some line-up changes discovered Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham by the middle of the decade. The addition of the pair had a dramatic impact on the band, with their combination of stellar pop songwriting, Nicks' distinctive vibrato, and Buckingham's virtuoso finger-picking guitar style. By then, keyboardist and vocalist Christine McVie would also bring her talented pop songwriting to the band. Oddly enough, the band's founding members and namesakes, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, contributed little to Fleetwood Mac's musical direction.

Bowie, as I mentioned, was always a restless artist, and as such could never remain in one place for too long. So I believe his motivation rested entirely from a curious artist sense. It cost him commercially in the short-term but added to his legacy when all was said and done.

Alice in Chains' change of direction was a calculated one, given the dramatic shift in the early '90s popular music landscape following the unexpected success of Nirvana's Nevermind. Funny, though, how the band escaped the wrath of the urban Seattle punk community, which roasted Pearl Jam for "selling out." AIC got a free pass because a) they were a suburban band that had little to do with Seattle's punk/grunge community and b) when AIC finally did play at a downtown venue, the local scenesters realized they were really good.

ZZ Top made a calculated, and I think crass, decision to reinvent themselves. They were four boys from Texas making southern style blues. Their decision to write the synth-pop single "Legs" and put out the accompanying video was clearly an appeal to the MTV generation and had little to do with legitimate artistic direction.