Changing track: when musicians swap genre

Hard rocker Andrew WK has released his first EDM single and joins a list of other artists who have decided to go in a different direction

Getting signed to a record label is like going to college – both force you to declare a major. For musicians, that means dedicating yourself to a single genre. Otherwise, labels feel they can’t market your songs.

Artists grouse about this no end, but few have the power, guts or the right circumstance to do anything about it. Some who do buck the system do so during their struggling days, before they’ve found a substantial market to begin with. Others make the change due to a switch in personnel, allowing them to draw on the different strengths the new talent provides. In the most rousing cases, the artist just goes for it. In any case, there’s risk involved.

The latest example involves long-running rocker Andrew WK. His new single, Party ’Til We Die, snubs his career-long dedication to guitar-based music in favor of dance-driven EDM. Earlier this year, David Bowie took a similar leap with Blackstar, his final album. It represented Bowie’s first full foray into jazz.

Such stars join a long list of those who have placed their brands in jeopardy by trying something new. Here’s a look at 20 musicians who ignored the industry’s common call to “stay on message”.

Bob Dylan

Dylan generated one of the most controversial genre switches in history when he went electric in 1965. For the old folk guard, his move was treasonous. But, in the process, he created a whole new genre: folk rock, first popularized by the Byrds via their jangly cover of Bob’s Mr. Tambourine Man. Dylan would reinvent himself many times more over the years, but never with such consequence as with this first leap of faith.

The Byrds

Learning from their inspirer, the Byrds made several key changes after their folk rock start. In 1966, the band went psychedelic with their trippy 8 Miles High. They pulled another head-turner in 1968 by creating one of the first country-rock amalgams on Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The latter became the template for all alterna-country to come.

Taylor Swift

With her 1989 album, Swift finally ditched Nashville to forge her first true pop album. Of course, Taylor was never exactly Loretta Lynn. In fact, she had been slowly playing down the fiddles and mandolins for years and she already had a teen audience eager for her to conform to pure pop. But only in 2014 did she find a sound that has more to do with 80s synth-pop than anything that fits even the broadest notion of country.

The Bee Gees

The blinding success the Bee Gees experienced with the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack in 1977 nearly obliterated the sound that defined their first era of success. Nearly a decade before Stayin’ Alive, the brothers Gibb enjoyed a rich run of hits that mixed formal 60s psych-pop with genuine soul. The florid quaver of Robin Gibb fronted smashes like I Started A Joke or Massachusetts, while sibling Barry took the prime vocal on hits like To Love Somebody, which inspired covers by stars from Janis Joplin to Nina Simone. After running out of steam in the early 70s, the Bee Gees moved to Miami and started working with producer Arif Mardin. He steered them into dance music, first with 1975’s Main Course. That set the scene for Fever, creating one of the greatest second acts in pop history.

Michael Bolton

It’s hard to believe smarmy soul star Michael Bolton started his career in 1975 as a quasi-rocker, with the long hair to prove it. Bolton’s rock band, Blackjack, opened for Ozzy Osbourne at one point. But, by the late 80s, he had transformed himself into a corny adult-pop/soul crooner, in the process trading one crap sound for another.

Everything But The Girl

Eight albums into EBTG’s esteemed career as a quirky, jazz-inflected duo, they abracadabra’d themselves into a dance act. Their haunting song Missing, on the 1994 album Amplified Heart, became one of the biggest club, and crossover pop, hits of that decade. The new sound suited them as beautifully as did the earlier style, due to the intelligence of their lyrics, the sumptuousness of their melodies and the reserved rapture of Tracey Thorn’s voice. In any guise, they beguile.

Katy Perry

Before she became the queen of innuendo-laden candy pop, Ms Perry worked in the conservative world of Christian music. But few mainstream fans knew about it. To most, she arrived full-blown as the sexy, silly idol for teen girls – as well as some grownups.


The full-scale metamorphosis Genesis went through had as much to do with changing market forces as a potentially ruinous defection. In 1975, after singer Peter Gabriel “walked out of the machinery” (in his words), the band turned to their drummer to take the mic. Who knew, that said stick-man, Phil Collins, had such commercial savvy? Collins began leading them into an increasingly pop direction, mirroring the growing success of his solo albums. By 1981, on the album Abacab, every trace of Genesis’s art-rock roots had been pulled up and replaced by slick pop.

Fleetwood Mac

It’s hard to think of a band that weathered more personnel, and stylistic, changes than Mick Fleetwood’s group. But the hardest turn they took occurred in the 70s, when they eradicated their original hard blues-rock roots (enabled by guitar gods like Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer) to become a major force in LA rock. The move started in 1971 with the Future Games album, which stressed the talents of new member Christine McVie, the elevation of Danny Kirwan’s dreamy folk pop and the hiring of actual Californian Bob Welsh. The LA focus hit its peak with the hiring of Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, leading to 1977’s commercial colossus, Rumours.

Beastie Boys

Before they settled on their uniquely raucous brand of hip-hop, the Beasties began as hardcore punks. Six years later, on their 1986 debut, License To Ill, the one-time foursome pared down to a trio and perfected their super-successful metal/hip-hop amalgam. Just as quickly, they abandoned that for something artier on Paul’s Boutique. But their creativity didn’t stop there. The Beasties kept innovating over their next few albums, bringing in Latin soul influences, jazz and more, making them one of hip-hop’s greatest chameleons.


Very few musicians get the chance to radically alter their sound just one album into their career – especially following a release that went platinum. Pink! pulled off that coup by following her smash R&B debut, Can’t Take Me Home, with a rock star chaser, Missundaztood. The dare paid off, making Pink! one of today’s most respected, as well as most financially rewarded, stars.

Darius Rucker

As frontman of Hootie and The Blowfish, baritone singer Darius Rucker brought middle-of-the-road pop back amid the age of alterna-rock. Such counter-programming made their debut sell in the multimillions. But when that novelty wore off, Rucker reinvented himself brilliantly, as a country singer. His deep voice made him a natural for the genre, but he might have faced considerable prejudice, as one of the few African American artists in a genre which has promoted few such artists. Rousingly, he beat those odds as well.

Snoop Dogg

It’s a big leap to go from an LA gangsta rap icon to a reggae star (operating under the name Snoop Lion). But the former Mr Dogg already had a proven connection to Jamaica via his love of ganja. Of course, Snoop hasn’t sold nearly as well as a reggae singer, but that hasn’t harmed his image of unflappable cool.

Queen Latifah

Fans first knew Latifah as one of the most powerful female rappers around. But the woman born Dana Owens grew up crooning jazz. She finally got to show it in 2004 with the aptly named Dana Owens Album, which featured sultry takes on jazz songs from Lush Life to Barbara Lewis’s Hello Stranger. It outsold every album Latifah ever released in the US, while moving more than 2m copies worldwide.

Kanye West

With his Donald Trump-like ego, Kayne believes he can do anything – and do it better. That led him to sing, rather than rap, on his fourth album, 2008’s 808s and Heartbreak. More, the album featured a newly unified, synth-drenched sound. Kanye’s singing might have been iffy but the album signaled a major shift in hip-hop, making it increasingly inward, vulnerable and avant garde.

Eddie Vedder

Fans love Vedder as the best-selling singer of the grunge band Pearl Jam. But on his second solo album, 2011’s Ukulele Songs, he accompanied himself with an instrument more often associated with Tiny Tim. Listeners yawned, but the music had focus and beauty.

David Bowie

Pop’s great changeling has probably pulled more fast turns than most anyone in pop history. Bowie’s earliest albums drew on hippie-folk and psychedelia. Next, he patented glam-rock and “plastic soul”. Later, he made a Kraut-rock album (Low), an electronica drum-n-bass salute (1997’s Earthling) and finally a meditation on avant-jazz (2016’s Blackstar). The ch-ch-ch-changes never stopped.

The Moody Blues

The first hit by the Moodies had a far different sound than the one that made them millions. In 1965, they rose on R&B, generating the soulful hit Go Now, sung by Denny Laine. Two years later, Laine was out of the band, which solidified around a new lineup with a fresh style, offering a sentimental take on then emerging prog rock. The result was the orchestral Nights In White Satin, followed by a newly grandiloquent sound.


When they formed from the ashes of the early Santana band, Journey leaned towards fusion. Their first three albums stressed musicianship, a focus that shifted forever with the hiring of singer Steve Perry. He rebranded the band as corporate rock shills, with the string of stadium hits to prove it.

Joni Mitchell

Few singers have suffered as much for their evolution as Joni. When she took her sharpest turn towards jazz, on 1979’s Mingus, the move nearly killed her career. Most fans didn’t want to let the image of the lank-haired, literary hippie go, though Mitchell had begun moving on from that sound, and presentation, years before. While Joni’s bank account never recovered, the daring of her decision has only deepened the world’s view of her as one of music’s most revered artists.


Jim Farber

The GuardianTramp

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