Does an artist have the right to evolve? Yes, the answer is “yes.” A friend of mine, a very talented singer/songwriter/producer, recently received an email from a fan who first heard her work around 2002. The gentleman started by saying how much he loved her first recordings and complimented her ability to “touch him” with her work. This then led to the purpose of his communication, to notify her that her newer works did not “touch him” like her earlier ones. He wanted the teenage artist back and didn’t like the more mature sounds that she was evolving into. This was his “heartfelt feedback.” (The kicker is that he closed the email by asking for a CD from 2002.)
People booed when Bob Dylan started to play that black Telecaster at the Newport Folk Festival. Seems pretty silly but it did happen in 1965. They called him “Judas!” Yes, Judas, as if Dylan were betraying folk music, or perhaps betraying them, the listeners, the purists. Dylan’s career obviously wasn’t hurt by it as he is now more often treated as a messiah. The Beatles are the perfect example (of many things) of artists evolving in sound, presentation, and content. The basics were always there: drums, bass, guitar, vocals. You also had added elements over their short career: sitar, harpsichord, and manipulations of sound in the recording studio. I don’t know that any artist will be that successful at doing what they want while also satisfying their ardent listeners.
Two of my favorite artists, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Joni Mitchell, both took heavy hits to their careers to pursue different artistic directions. Tharpe had been leaning on the popular rhythm and blues for a while before she left the exclusive gospel circuit. Her church-going listeners were not happy. We are just now recognizing her contributions to the genre that would be called “rock’n’roll.” Mitchell was not so lucky. Dylan recovered from his introduction of “folk rock.” Mitchell’s straying into jazz with Charles Mingus hurt her sales. She challenged her listeners by operating outside of the hippie folk they wanted her to be.
Some folks say that when a artist puts her work out into the public sphere, it’s no longer hers. Maybe. What does an artist owe her audience? A dialog. If a listener doesn’t like the change in dialog, he can disconnect the line. Listeners get attached to those songs. They get attached to the musician as she is first heard. It’s like a husband suddenly changing religion. “Wait a minute, who are you?” But he’s still your husband. He’s just…evolved. As my friend told me after she received the email “If you’re not evolving, you’re doing something wrong.” It can be the minutest amount of growth, but it’s there whether you notice it or not. You can’t expect that 19 year-old girl to write the same songs and sound the same way 15 years later. That’s called stagnancy, and it’s fucking boring. You have to find new ways to deliver the same message. Henri Matisse said, “Creativity takes courage.” Yes, the answer is “yes.”