Throw Genre in a Blender

Merriam Webster defines genre as “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content." As humans, we feel a need to put labels on things and then shove them into boxes; music is no different. Genres help audiences understand where artists are coming from. Different genres speak to different experiences, cultures, lifestyles. But what happens when an artist or band shifts genres? What do fans do? How will critics react? Why do they even shift in the first place? 


Even within a firm genre, there is always someone doing something different than the norm; subgenres and taste-breakers are as old as music itself. However, sometimes an artist shifts tone so dramatically it cannot be waved aside as a mere genre-bending, but rather, a complete tonal shift. It is important to note that it is incredibly risky for artists to do this. Artists who make it big on a certain sound, and suddenly change, are often rejected by a once-rabid fanbase. Critics who once favored the band might find their new sound uninspired and uninteresting. It wouldn’t be out of place to assume this is why many artists stay in one genre until they retire (and there’s nothing wrong with that). 


For reference, many artists often take off years between albums that alter their sound. The average time between an artist releasing two albums is about two years; that’s enough time to do press for an album and tour it, then go home and record new music. Artists changing themselves often take off at least three years or more between albums. Let's examine some artists who shift genres, and the response they received, to better understand this concept.


Panic!, after their first album, were known for its edgy, fresh-out-of-high-school members with smeared eyeliner and circus costumes, filling Hot Topics everywhere with t-shirts for 13-year-olds that aren’t going through a phase, Mom. Songs from “A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out” remain in the public consciousness 14 years later, such as the seminal “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” and “Lying Is the Most Fun a Girl Can Have Without Taking Her Clothes Off." This album was characterized by a devil-please-care attitude, with lead singer Brendon Urie’s sexy, drawling tenor pushing out then-guitarist Ryan Ross’s lyrics with artfully disheveled ease; lines like “isn’t a shame the poor groom’s bride is a whore?” have the power to still shock first-time listeners today. So when the band resurfaced after two and a half years, after writing an album, scrapping it, and writing a new one, their fanbase was chomping at the bit for more teen angst fuel. What was released, actually, was a kaleidoscopic attempt at whimsical folk-rock, with concert-ready jams and melancholic ballads; tracks like “Northern Downpour," with lyrics like “I know the world’s a broken bone, but melt your headaches, call it home," would not have existed before this era. Songs like “When the Day Met the Night” and “Behind the Sea” are beautiful, orchestra-inspired pieces that embrace a breezy, organic sound. Fans hated it at first; the transition was not helped by the band all but refusing to play old material at their tour for the album. The band loved and embraced this new sound, but it wouldn’t last; after the departure of Ryan Ross and bassist Jon Walker in 2009, the remaining members returned to an electronic pop-punk sound in their next album, 2011’s “Vices & Virtues." 


As for Childish Gambino, he was met with a similar situation. In 2013, Gambino dropped what many would consider his crowning achievement, “Because the Internet." An experimental hip-hop album, “Because the Internet” used influences from pop, soul, and techno to create one of the best albums of the decade. Tracks like “IV. Sweatpants” and “I. Flight of the Navigator” cemented the album as a fire rap album with beautiful pockets of tenderness. The lines “I got to meet every planet, every star, everything that made me” and “rich kid, asshole, paint me as a villain” are spoken on the same album. But then after touring the album, Gambino dropped off the face of the earth, and returned in 2016 with a hallucinatory, moving soul album.“Awaken, My Love!” showed not only his growth as an artist, but his growth as a person, with many of the tracks being dedicated to his newborn son. Gone was the braggadocio prince of rap; instead there was a new father, torn between his old, wild ways and his duties to his partner and child. “Redbone” might’ve become the meme song of the following year, but “Terrified” and “Baby Boy” stand out as beautiful, intricate, and desperate. The man saying “keep all your dreams, keep standing tall” to his son is arguably a better musician for it. While critics adored this new venture, his fans were confused at best and irate at worst. 


Gorillaz, however, faced very little flack from fans for their change of pace. Their 2001 first album, simply titled “Gorillaz." was the efforts of Damon Albarn, former Blur frontman, and artist Jamie Hewlett, attempting to make an animated, fake band to mock the MTV culture of late 90’s. Instead they created a real trip-hop phenomenon, with tracks like “Clint Eastwood” remaining iconic to this day. Albarn’s lonesome voice singing  “don’t think I’m all in this world, don’t think I’ll be here long” and guest rappers bouncily saying “I’m highly animated even though I’m decomposing,” blended into a truly unique album. But the implication was always there that the band would do something entirely different for their next venture, and they did; 2005’s “Demon Days” redefined alternative rock for the modern age. “Feel Good Inc.” remains a party favorite, but the real strengths of the album lie within it’s anti-war messages, evoking the protest albums of the 60’s and 70’s. A kids choir features in “Dirty Harry," eerily singing “I need a gun to keep myself from harm," and Albarn manages a sleazy, bluesy mumble in “Every Planet We Reach Is Dead”, asking “I love you, what are we gonna do?” To this day, it is acclaimed as the band’s best work by both critics and fans. 


So again we ask, why did these artists shift genres? Ignore the material reasons; ignore a dwindling fan base, an apathetic critical arena, rapidly shrinking royalties. Look at the gut of the concept, and the answer is startlingly simple: because they wanted to. Because they needed to. Artists like these are simply stifled under petty restraints such as genres. Interviews with all of these artists during these eras indicate they felt trapped by the confines of the genre they were originally placed in. Music wasn’t meant to be boxed away the way record labels, recording academies and music stores wish it to be. Music was meant to be shaped by the people making it, and that’s what these artists did; pioneered their corner of the music world, then expanded. And who can fault them for that?