After a year that featured Taylor Swift getting burned by Kim Kardashian’s receipts and being accused of setting up a fake relationship with the internet’s boyfriend, Tom Hiddleston, Swift took a long break from music in 2016. Her absence was so complete she even skipped Tay-Merica, the blonde songstress’s annual 4th of July social media event. When a radio host sued her after she alleged he grabbed her backside during an event in Colorado, Swift countersued for the assault and then plotted to win the trial – and reset her career in 2017. The results of the trial were exactly what Swift wanted: the man’s case was thrown out, and Swift won a $1 dollar verdict (the amount she asked for) in the countersuit. The results of her career reboot are less clear: reviews of the new album are mixed, and while everyone seems certain that Swift is trying a new persona, New Taylor doesn’t seem dramatically different than Old Taylor. This wasn’t Swift’s first attempt at reinvention. She hit a homerun in 2014 by backing swiftly out of country music and sailing into the world of pop. Swift accurately predicted that her appeal to pop audiences was growing and the album she released, 1989, sold 1.27 million copies in its first week.
Swift isn’t the only artist who has had to reinvent themselves. Lady Gaga rode into the world of music riding a unicorn and wearing a dress made out of meat, and her intent to shock had the desired result: it earned her millions of adoring fans and garnered her plenty of attention and hits. Many observers felt like they knew exactly what was coming next, and indeed they did, since Gaga’s early moves were eerily similar to another pop diva who was a master of reinvention, Madonna. While she disclaimed any link to Madonna whatsoever, Gaga’s predilection for performance-art certainly tracked Madonna’s early efforts to shock and awe fans with ever-more risque music and videos. However, Gaga was also aware of the fact that in today’s era of Kardashian sex tapes and bisexual, bangin’, nearly naked former child star Miley Cyrus, just doubling down on the sex factor would not be enough to sustain an audience. Then there was the matter of her 2013 album Artpop, which was not a commercial or a critical hit. Artpop’s flop included a SXSW performance with artist Millie Brown, who vomited paint onto Gaga while on stage. (Madonna sees your vomit-artist and raises you a pair of boob-cones!)
Once Artpop was behind her, Gaga took a decidedly conservative turn, determined to show the world that there was a classical voice behind the rhinestone-and-meat facade. Gaga’s first evolution came in 2014 when she released a duets album with Tony Bennett, Cheek to Cheek. For the duets album, Gaga donned her evening gown and revealed that she had some great pipes that audiences weren’t hearing on her pop oeuvre. Suitably impressed, Hollywood opened its doors to Gaga and she quickly earned a role on Ryan Murphy’s TV series, American Horror Story. Suddenly, Lady Gaga was the winner of a Golden Globe for acting and was nominated for an Academy Award as a songwriter.
Now Gaga is poised to make her film debut in a major way, as the lead role in Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star is Born. Although many are suggesting Gaga will be known primarily as an actress starting in 2018, we might want to slow down her coronation as the next Barbra Streisand. While Streisand can act, direct, and sing, the jury is still out on Gaga’s acting chops. Before we anoint her the second coming of Meryl Streep, it’s best to remember that Madonna also won a Best Actress Golden Globe for 1997’s Evita. But Madonna’s forays into acting were pretty disappointing and her early success in the medium seemed to evaporate. The studio, Cooper and Gaga have a lot riding on this film, which should settle the debate over whether Gaga is really an actor outside the crazy confines of a Ryan Murphy show. No pressure or anything.
The ladies aren’t the only ones who have reinvented themselves. In the case of rapper Dr. Dre, the motivation to change direction came from the direction of music itself. In the mid-1980s, Dr. Dre was the DJ for the group The World Class Wreckin’ Cru, and the group was more disco than gangsta. Don’t believe it? Just check out photographs of Dre at the time. In addition to wearing a stethoscope the way Flavor Flav still sports those clocks, Dre is wearing an all white jumpsuit and sporting lipstick and a little eyeliner. In other words, he was exactly in tune with the general 1980s vibe of androgynous fun and shiny outfits that were worn by everyone from Prince to Michael Jackson. But wait! While Dr. Dre was hanging with the Wreckin’ Cru, he was also in the studio with Eazy E, who would soon rock the world as part of N.W.A.
When N.W.A. was releasing the seminal album Straight Outta Compton, Dr. Dre was performing lyrics like “Hey, what’s happenin’ baby / I’m the one who needs no introduction / because I’m the world-class doctor, the master of seduction.” Those cringeworthy lyrics have left many music fans wondering whether the real Dre was actually a corny crooner. Dre has stated repeatedly that he left the Cru because he wanted a more hardcore sound, while his critics have charged that it was more about pivoting to the next big thing. Cru was modestly successful and garnered fans on the underground club scene, but whatever the truth of Dre’s ultimate motivation, there can be no doubt that he was one of the first to realize the truly groundbreaking potential that hip-hop and rap would soon be capable of attracting.
Dr. Dre isn’t the first superstar to have started in a genre that was light years away from where he would eventually achieve fame and fortune. If you’ve ever watched The Big Lebowski or lived through the 1960s, then you definitely heard the song Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In). And if you’ve heard the song, then you are well aware of its strong LSD vibe. With lyrics like “I woke up this morning with the sundown shinin in / I found my mind in a brown paper bag within / I tripped on a cloud and fell-a eight miles high / I tore my mind on a jagged sky,” the song was firmly ensconced in the counterculture movement of 1968. What you might not realize is that the song was performed by none other than Kenny Rogers, the same guy who got famous for songs like “Islands in the Stream” on the country dial.
How did that happen? Rogers was originally part of a jazz trio known as The Bobby Doyle Three. After the group broke up in 1965, Rogers joined The First Edition. “Just Checked In” was a huge hit, peaking at number 5 on the BIllboard Charts in 1968. Jimi Hendrix even told the group that the track was his favorite song. The group started to tilt toward a folksier sound in the late 1960s, scoring a hit with a cover of a Mel Tillis song. That foray into country didn’t amount to much, with the band sputtering by the early 1970s. When Rogers joined United Artists as a solo act in 1975, he had no clear direction. He quickly found one, however, adopting a new vocal style, cutting his long hair and throwing out his earring. He was headed for country music, where he would proceed to score 25 number 1 hits, some of which crossed over to the Billboard pop charts. Rogers’ shift from psychedelic 70s to the country-western 70s remains one of music’s most successful reinventions.