Enough With The ‘Eras’ Already

The constant demand for pop stars to reinvent themselves with each new release is getting in the way of the music.

Depending on who you ask, Taylor Swift’s The Tortured Poets Department is either “forgettable” or “an instant classic.” Among the people I would call “realistic Swifties” — not the kind of fans who would, say, gush over an eight-hour recording of her snoring and send death threats to any critic who disagreed — I’ve noticed an air of mild disappointment with TTPD: Swift once again worked with Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner, key collaborators from her last few studio albums, and as a result, the latest offering from one of pop’s most prolific forces (surprise, it’s actually a double album!) feels like more of the same.

For female pop stars, frequent reinvention is central to the sport. And few understand this expectation quite like Swift herself, who built an entire economy-shifting tour around celebrating all the distinct chapters of her life and career as if they were our own. (Feeling rebellious? Congrats, you’re in your reputation era!) In her 2020 Netflix documentary, Miss Americana, she opened up about the pressure of “constantly finding new facets of yourself” in what is essentially the pop-star equivalent of America Ferrera’s patriarchy monologue from Barbie: “Be new to us, be young to us, but only in a new way and only in the way we want. And reinvent yourself, but only in a way that we find to be equally comforting but also a challenge for you. Live out a narrative that we find to be interesting enough to entertain us, but not so crazy that it makes us uncomfortable.”

JoJo Siwa at the 2024 iHeartRadio Music Awards.Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc/Getty Images

Swift is right that a “shiny” new era is often what fans want. It’s thrilling to watch your fave uncover new sides of their artistry, and when they use their talents to tell a consistent story — in their visuals, in their performances, in all their creative choices — they can achieve new levels of icon status. Just look at Cowboy Carter, Beyoncé’s don’t-call-it-country album that is a major departure from her previous records but retains that specific Beyoncé DNA and point of view at every turn. Just as often, though, this ceaseless demand for new looks, new sounds, and new stories gets in the way of the actual music. Artists make contrived pivots. Fans nitpick or proclaim one’s “flop era” prematurely. Everyone panics. Nobody wins.

Eras have been part of the language of pop music for decades, even before the particular pop stan lexicon went mainstream. Madonna, currently winding down her own retrospective Celebration Tour, prided herself on cycling through personas and genres, from the Catholic provocateur of Like a Prayer to the pop-girl-gone-cowgirl of Music. As a millennial, I grew up watching women use reinvention to break free from the shackles of child stardom, whether it was Britney Spears dancing with a python to “I’m A Slave 4 U” at the MTV Video Music Awards or Christina Aguilera indulging her “Dirrty” side with her Stripped album.

Madonna revisits her many reinventions on her Celebration Tour, a retrospective of four decades in pop.

Kevin Mazur/WireImage/Getty Images
Kevin Mazur/WireImage/Getty Images
Kevin Mazur/WireImage/Getty Images
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I thought of these artists — and Miley Cyrus, who infamously twerked her way out of Disney Channel stardom over a decade ago — while watching JoJo Siwa make her own bid for grown-up fame. After coming up through the worlds of Dance Moms and Nickelodeon, the 20-year-old declared herself a “bad girl” this month with a new single, “Karma,” and a new aesthetic that, at best, resembled a KISS costume by way of Eurovision.

Siwa was mocked online for the look, but also for the statements she made about this new chapter: that she planned to usher in a new genre of “gay pop” (never mind the out queer pop musicians who had come before her); that no one in her generation “has made this dramatic of a change” (despite “Karma” already sounding dated on its arrival — probably because the song indeed dates back to 2012). Growing up in the spotlight is never easy, and Cyrus’ stunning performance at this year’s Grammys is proof that awkward phases or missteps can pave the way to better things. But in Siwa’s case, it seemed like she was putting more effort into the trappings of a new “era” than the goods that should really define it.

Of course, audiences can be unfairly ruthless when it comes to an era that even slightly misses their expectations. You’d think Katy Perry’s 2017 album, Witness, featured 90 minutes of her clubbing her Left Shark to death given the way pop fans talk about it as a total bomb. (It still debuted at No. 1 and spawned a chart-topping single, “Chained to the Rhythm.”) Lady Gaga — one of pop’s most reliable shape-shifters herself — hit her first real bump when her 2013 album, ARTPOP, failed to replicate the success of her previous albums. But during the pandemic, a fan campaign for the album sent it climbing back up the charts. Now, a decade after its release, the album is considered a cult favorite (as much as a platinum can be considered “cult,” anyway) and its bonkers EDM-pop is frequently cited as ahead of its time.

You can see something similar happening in real time with Dua Lipa. The rollout for the singer’s third album, Radical Optimism, out May 3, has been lukewarm in comparison to Future Nostalgia — the era that cemented her as a superstar. Browse the comments on Instagram and TikTok and you’ll find plenty of snark about how her recent bops (“Houdini,” “Training Season,” “Illusion”) sound a little too similar to her previous material. That’s not an unfair gripe to have with new music; but if our demand for distinct eras means asking artists to try things that don’t feel right to them or make moves before they’re ready, it’s hard not to think the art will suffer. What fan really wants that?

With the stakes of reinvention so high, some artists have been vocally resisting the pressure to shapeshift. Adele spoke last year about how the birth of her son in 2012 led her to reject the idea that you “have to be constantly relevant to be successful.” In 2018, during a recording blitz that produced Sweetener and thank u, next, Ariana Grande challenged why she couldn’t release music as freely as rappers do. “I feel like there are certain standards that pop women are held to that men aren’t,” she told Billboard. “We have to do the teaser before the single, then do the single, and wait to do the preorder, and radio has to impact before the video, and we have to do the discount on this day, and all this sh*t. It’s just like, ‘Bruh, I just want to f*cking talk to my fans and sing and write music and drop it the way these boys do.’”

Listening to Swift’s new album(s), I found myself gravitating toward “So High School,” a ‘90s rock-inspired song about a crush that pulses with teenage intensity. It’s a sound I hadn’t heard from her before, and I fantasized about a whole album with Alanis Morissette vibes. Yes, I was hyped for a potential new Taylor Swift era — it’s what she’s primed her fans to expect. But, mostly, I was excited about the discovery: the thrill of a breadcrumb leading an artist somewhere neither of us expected. In rejecting the siren call of another reinvention, she may have found her next one anyway.