Throughout history, artists have been forced to master the art (no pun intended) of pinpointing the entertainment needs of the masses. During the Renaissance, many visual artists and architects assimilated their styles to match the aesthetics of the people. Thankfully during COVID-19, many intelligent artists have strayed from making art that revolves around the current situation. (I’m not looking at you, “Songbird,” the horror film about a fictitious pandemic called COVID-23.)
This feat is no easy one, not by a long shot. For many artists, it can feel suffocating. Finding what works, or these days, what sells, is like striking gold in the plains of Nowhere, Indiana. However, as the artist grows beyond that initial gold rush, the need to change and evolve that is formative for so many begins to feel impossible to reach.
The pressure of wanting to recreate the magic of an artist’s glory days mixed with the inherent ambition to change and try something new is overwhelming. Perhaps, music artists are the best examples of this, since their changes are so often overt to the ears of the many.
In 2019, the hit country group known as Zac Brown Band came out with an album called “The Owl,” which, despite the sounds, they categorized as country. While modern country includes electronic influences, this album is a conglomerate of rock, country, folk, EDM, and rap. Genre-jumping is not easy to accomplish, and “The Owl” was not well received.
Sounds Like Nashville critic Kelly Dearmore quotes Brown saying, “‘We are always pushing ourselves as musicians by blurring genre boundaries and incorporating all kinds of music we are personally inspired by, elevating what we are capable of as a group. This album will have something for everyone.’ Everyone, except most likely, someone who appreciates the traditional-leaning sounds of Brown’s earlier work.”
On the other hand, Taylor Swift has successfully jumped between genres seemingly effortlessly. With her 2012 album “Red” she officially began the process of leaving behind the country sound that started her fame, and by 2014 with “1989” she was fully into her pop phase. Now, with 2020’s “folklore” and “evermore” double feature, she has transitioned once again into an alternative-folk fusion.
The influence of Swift on pop culture and music is undeniable. “Folklore” alone has reaped her five Grammy nominations, and “evermore” was her eighth studio album to debut at number one on Billboard 200.
So, what is the difference between Zac Brown Band and Taylor Swift?
When Taylor Swift comes out with a new album, it is often regarded as “a new era” for the artist, and in some ways, her listeners as well. Her first three albums solidified her as America’s young country sweetheart. But quickly, as she grew as a person and in fame, her music changed.
Watching her pop phase go from “Red” to “Lover” is quite the journey. Within that, watching Swift create “Reputation” as a response to the dreaded “Kimye” drama and sexual assault court case with former producer David Mueller felt entirely different from the Swift we saw prior. It was darker, filled with clear EDM and electropop influences. However, jumping to 2020’s releases reminds listeners and critics that we are truly listening to Swift as she discovers herself as a person and an artist, rather than listening to an artist bumbling and hoping something sticks.
That’s not to say that the left field genre-jumping of Zac Brown Band is inherently a lucrative mess. As stated earlier, Brown is dealing with the constraints of genre, which only gets harder with every passing year.
Balancing who you are as a musician and who you are as an artist is like walking a tightrope. Even though “The Owl” isn’t my personal favorite of theirs or critics’ favorites either, doesn’t make it a bad step for the group. Figuring out whether you want to appease your fans versus creating something that makes you excited and proud to work on is a convoluted conclusion to reach. Either answer is okay and worth it.
At the end of the day, Swift is combining her newfound ambitions with the genuinity and ethereal lyricism that has been with her since day one. It’s that balance that makes it feel like something new while altogether still possessing a quality that is so inherently Swift that makes it so successful.
As an artist going through college trying things out to one day figure out where my style and true talents lie, I know the journey ahead of me is long. I’ve been making art my entire life and I don’t intend to stop any time soon. I’m sure you, reader, feel similarly if you’ve found yourself in the Arts section of our little newspaper.
The journey of someone who creates art in any capacity is naturally that tightrope. It’s not easy. It’s not all fun and games. It’s not always fulfilling. But it’s the passion, integrity and the will to create that keeps us going, even when it’s not simple to just grow as you go.
What phase are you in? Are you taking those initial baby steps like Swift’s first self-titled album or Zac Brown Band’s “You Get What You Give”? Maybe you’re on the hump of evolution like “The Owl” or “folklore.” Either way, stay true to yourself and make what makes you excited.