The Chameleon Kind

On Genre and Style Shifts in Bands and Solo Artists

The folk rock band, Mumford and Sons, has been receiving flack about their most recent album, “Wilder Mind.” Some of their signature instruments such as the upright bass and the banjo are gone, leading some to call them sellouts. This is surprising since Mumford and Sons appears to have a long career ahead with many potential alterations. While some bands find their niche and stay there, with fans that appreciate exactly what they do, many others experiment with their sound. Whether in response to changes in the band lineup, shifts in the music scene around them, or a desire to innovate, many musicians acquire a sound that differs greatly what they started with.

Some bands simply can’t find a place in the music scene with their original sound. No Doubt began as a third-wave ska band but scored zero radio hits and gained only a small following. They shifted to ska punk, then to punk, and finally to pop punk before achieving popularity with hit albums such as “Tragic Kingdom” and “Return of Saturn”. By adopting the sound of successful contemporaries—Blink-182, Lit, and Jimmy Eat World—they established themselves in the mainstream.

Likewise, The Beastie Boys went away from their original sound: their first EP, “Polly Wog Stew”, was hardcore punk. The mid- to late-’80s saw the breakups of prominent hardcore bands like Black Flag and Dead Kennedys and bands like Bad Brains and Bad Religion experimenting with other sounds. Their first hip-hop track, “Cooky Puss”, led to a deal with Def Jam records. While the ‘90s saw a comeback of hardcore, The Beastie Boys had already solidified their popularity with several LPs featuring a hip-hop rap rock sound.

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

Sometimes the reason a band’s sound changes has less to do with the music scene and instead is about who is in the band. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ first three albums with lead guitarist Hillel Slovak were heavily funk influenced. After his death in 1988, John Frusciante joined for “Mother’s Milk” and “Blood Sex Sugar Magic” with an alternative rock sound—a genre then on the rise—boosting the band’s recognition. But when he was replaced by Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction on “One Hot Minute” it was a commercial flop. Frusciante returned for “Californication” and “By The Way” ushering in another wave of popularity for the band. He brought more creativity to their music, drawing on his experience with many genres and styles.

Another band that changed substantially as a result of change in the lineup is Genesis. Their early albums, like “Foxtrot”, “Selling England by the Pound”, and “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway”, are intellectual and well-crafted progressive rock mainly attributable to Peter Gabriel’s leadership. However, after he left in ‘74, Phil Collins, best known today for slick pop songs and Disney soundtracks, quickly led Genesis in a different direction, infuriating fans of their original sound.

Still others change their sound simply because they want to innovate. Madonna, one of the most chameleon artists ever, constantly experimented with new sounds. Early albums like “Like a Virgin” had a dance-pop sound while later albums like “I’m Breathless” had a distinctly jazz-and-swing-influenced sound and “Ray of Light” had an electro and techno-pop sound. Beginning as a post-disco artist, she has experimented with rock, pop, electronica, and dance and adapted her singing and songwriting to the different genres and styles she worked in over the years.

Likewise, the Beatles are well known for having many distinct periods in their history. The band began as, ostensibly, a popular music rock-and-roll band akin to many British beat bands appearing throughout the early sixties like The Kinks, The Who, The Rolling Stones, and The Merseybeats. Over their career, they experimented with psychedelic rock sounds, blues, art rock, and many other genres as they changed and as the world changed around them.

Though some bands find a sound and stick with it (like U2 remaining essentially unchanged after nearly thirty years), most are not set in stone. For a variety of reasons they experiment with new styles or sounds. If a band’s sound deviates from what made them popular, they’ll either acquire a new niche audience or disappear. If their audience allows, a band can experiment with their sound and create a greater and more inspired variety of music. Perhaps, regardless of whether you like Mumford and Sons without the banjos or not, something new and exciting could be just around the corner, or perhaps they might bring the banjos back. Only time will tell.