Keepin' It Relevant

For musicians like Kid Rock, who performs Friday at Kiefer UNO Lakefront Arena, it's reinvent or die.



Six years ago, Kid Rock made the rounds as a white-trash rap-rocker, armed with ample record-scratching sound effects and staccato rhymes filled with braggadocio. On his new, self-titled album, Mr. Rock is joined not by Eminem and Jay-Z, but instead by the hip-hopless: David Allan Coe, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Hank Williams Jr. and ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons.

In case you missed the transformation, he even throws in a cover of Bob Seger's "Hard Night for Sarah" along with one of Bad Company's "Feel Like Makin' Love," for good measure. This isn't a crossover; it's a cross-pollination of jaw-dropping, if not hip-hopping, proportions.

While Detroit's hillbilly hedonist hinted at disparate tastes -- a hit duet last year with Sheryl Crow, "Picture," recalled nothing so much as mournful, he-she Nashville pairings and garnered equal play from CMT and VH-1 -- Rock's new record hammers it home.

He may be an outcast, but, as of now, he's nowhere near OutKast. More like Lynyrd Skynyrd-meets-Toby Keith.

The move, industry experts say, marks a combination of marketing savvy and stylistic gambit. In an era when popular culture recycles, and parodies, itself at accelerated rates, crafty chameleons stand the best chance of long-term survival.

That means change. Plenty of pop musicians have toyed with their musical styles, not to mention haircuts and fashion, over the years. Think Bob Dylan plugging in at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, at once enraging and thrilling his audience. Elvis, over an extended period, went from gyrating, raw rocker to sweating, sequined, Vegas vamp.

And, more recently, Madonna provided the modern model for keeping audiences interested beyond an album or two. Until her recent stumbles, the Material Girl went from Boy Toy to cosmopolitan club-hopper, with excursions into Hollywood glamour and electronica mixed in as well.

"Personal reinvention is a hallmark of American society," says Michael Azerrad, author of Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991. "And, if nothing else, popular music reflects the realities of our culture." Plenty of performers in past decades made changes in their sound and style. The difference now? Such moves have become all but mandatory. The Beatles grew from lovable lads to psychedelic rockers at their own pace during the 1960s.

By comparison, puckish popster Pink started as an R&B diva, then became an Oprah-tinged rocker exorcising childhood demons. Of late, she's taken on a punk princess demeanor. All in the span of three years -- and before her 25th birthday. It's enough to make Madonna seem like Britney's randy but middle-age Mom, left outside the club and forced to attempt, say, the obligatory celebrity children's book.

"I look at it on a case-by-case basis," says Duncan Browne, chief operating officer at Newbury Comics, a New England chain of music and pop culture stores. "With Pink, I think the permutations are part of what's inside her. With Rod Stewart, for example, I think it's more cashing in."

Stewart ranks as the most prominent of aging rockers toying with musical styles in a bid to connect with his longtime, graying audience. The raspy-throated womanizer now winks and wades through standards, cranking out a pair of strong-selling albums filled with tracks made for sipping lattes at Starbucks.

Cyndi Lauper, who once just wanted to have fun, now wants to croon as well. Now, she bops to Edith Piaf, you might say.

At the opposite end of the spectrum: teen queens ready to tackle more licentious fare. Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera have, in two years, all but blown up their previous incarnations. Next up is Hilary Duff, who must contend with a youthful audience even as she grows more distant from those listeners.

"It's not like it was for Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby," says Robert Thompson, professor of pop culture at Syracuse University. "They were pretty much the same character for their entire careers. Those days are long gone. You have to reinvent yourself."

For Kid Rock, whose real name is Bob Ritchie, the musical metamorphosis coincides with an image makeover blending mall-ready rebellion (tattoos and trucker caps) with a dollop of campy glitz (on-again, off-again girlfriend Pamela Anderson).

He entertains American military troops overseas, including a trek last summer to Qatar, Kuwait and Iraq. At the Super Bowl, Kid Rock draped a homemade American flag-turned-poncho over his torso and thrashed about the stage, prompting an indignant response from veterans' groups and U.S. Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.). Controversial, sure, but not exactly 50 Cent.

On the new album, he sings about being a single father, throws in a few profanities here and there to keep it real for the kids and, in the next instant, mines the power ballads of Journey when he invokes the cliche of road-weary troubadour: "I guess lovin' a music man really wasn't in your plans."

Even the keg-party Kid Rock bears little threat these days. It's become a series of knowing commercials for Coors Light as part of the brand's National Football League sponsorship. Last December, VH-1 aired a Kid Rock Christmas special. "Five years ago, that would have sounded like a Saturday Night Live skit," Thompson says. "Now you say, 'OK, I can believe that.'"

Such moments, contrived or not, convey a canny sense of popular taste. Kid Rock's sense of pastiche, like that of Lenny Kravitz, works with surprising frequency and effectiveness. Beyond a handful of performers -- the Rolling Stones, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen and Elton John, among them -- the shelf life of pop acts demands more and more reinventions in order to stay relevant.

"Everything is much faster in the cycle now," says Browne, the Newbury Comics executive. "People don't have nearly as long to make an impression."

Azerrad, a veteran music journalist, says the changes aren't all contrived. He points to examples such as Paul Simon and David Byrne, who both discovered world music later in their musical careers and integrated them into the pop world with spectacular results.

In addition, some changes that flop can be beneficial. Neil Young explored rockabilly and techno; neither worked, and he soon found himself back at what he does best, folk rock. Garth Brooks made a disastrous foray into mild alternative rock, then returned to the arena country he all but invented.

Pop culture professor Thompson says the biggest motivator beyond retaining relevancy is avoiding mockery. David Letterman raised a generation of ironic pop-culture consumers, ready to embrace a band in one decade and reconvene a few years later to chuckle over how meaningless said act became.

"It's re-packaged for mockery on cable specials," Thompson says. "It may be loving mockery, but it's still mockery. As rock became domesticated, and as rap becomes domesticated, avoiding that mockery gets harder and harder. You have to reinvent everything all the time."

For Kid Rock, the musical metamorphosis coincides with - an image makeover blending mall-ready rebellion with a - dollop of campy glitz.
  • For Kid Rock, the musical metamorphosis coincides with an image makeover blending mall-ready rebellion with a dollop of campy glitz.

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