Pop stars are constantly evolving. It’s almost like they’re human or something. I find it fascinating to watch pop stars teasing their latest image rebrand, whether that’s with a pastel-toned series of Instagram posts á la Taylor Swift’s Lover or the announcement that Lady Gaga would play Ally in A Star is Born.
Even better are the sudden drops, like Beyoncé in 2013. Months of silence, then a single Instagram post and boom, an entire album.
Our own lives are full of reinvention and change and pop stars go through exactly the same thing. They just have to do it with all of us watching. Nothing gets my attention more than a celebrity rebrand. Remember what Katy Perry was (and is still) doing in 2018, when she cut her hair and dyed it platinum blonde and everyone freaked.
Sometimes it’s problematic. Ariana Grande’s 7 Rings, with her commercial use of black culture, springs to mind. The constant slipping in and out of different identities means that pop-stars risk ignoring what is appropriate and who they actually are. For every successful rebrand, there is another star who didn’t quite make it work.
Pop stars, like the rest of us, are living through a constant identity crisis, never really settling on one image. And they can screw it up, just like we can.
The fine art of reinvention subverts the strict boxes into which we place pop icons. They challenge the rules of “Don’t be a slut” and “Don’t talk about politics” that are unspoken limits on female pop stars. And those reinventions upset some people – because even fans internalise the message that pop stars should be perfectly neutral.
The unsignalled shifts in image, towards a new message of sexuality or politics, are the best reinventions. The ones where pop stars say: this is the box I’ve been placed in, and I don’t like it anymore. And then they break out of it, reborn as a country singer or a dominatrix or a feminist.
Have those pop stars really reinvented themselves? Maybe not. Maybe they’re actually just showing us a side that didn’t fit with their image before, so we never saw it. It can feel like pop stars are polished and perfect, but reinventions are a nice reminder that they too are going through a constant identity crisis.
Madonna is the prototype of reinvention in pop music. Her image has been through endless changes since her 1980s debut and she’s still going. Her pivot to a celebration of sexuality with Erotica set the scene for other pop stars to smash out of the confines of the pop princess image. Rihanna’s similar shift with Good Girl Gone Bad pivot is just one example of her legacy.
The political is even better. Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande turning up at women’s marches in the USA. Beyonce appearing in front of the word feminist at the 2016 VMAs.
Most powerfully, Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade. Quoting Malcolm X in a music video with “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman," is probably the pinnacle of an empowering pop reinvention. Lemonade was not just a rebrand but a work of political activism.
That’s where the real power in reinvention lies. For all the superficiality of a new Instagram colour palette, the best reinventions push the boundaries of what pop music can or should do. Pop music is a crazy Hunger Games-style competition to stay relevant, but the best reinventions do more than just stay relevant. They subvert the limits placed on pop stars. These reinventions remind us that the ‘rules’ about our identities are made to be broken.Support Villainesse