Calculated Transformations: The Key to Remaining Relevant as a Music Artist

Successful music artists mustn’t only be chameleons in music, but also in self. Through transformations, artists convey to fans/audiences that there are many layers to them and have more to offer. A transformation is an intended major change in someone’s appearance through fashion to convey a facet of his or personality within the context of their cultural capital. Through calculated transformations, artists are making major changes to their appearances through their fashion to express themselves within the framework of their music to remain relevant and to ensure longevity in their career. By analyzing the trajectory of heavyweights within the music industry such as Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus, and Lady Gaga, it is evident that there have been significant transformations in how they present themselves visually to the world. Those who do transform, cash in on their cultural capital to convey new aspects of themselves thus revealing their artistic and social mobility which keeps them relevant, ultimately helping them move forward in their careers.

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What an artist wears becomes as important as the music itself in defining the artist’s intent and relationship to the audience. When Justin Timberlake was making his transformation from boy-band member to leading man, not only did his sound change but his entire aesthetic also changed. He had to convey to his audience that he had grown up, matured, and could hold his own. So what did he do to convey to his audience that he was serious? He wore a suit and tie…and sang about it, too! Pierre Bourdieu in Distinctions argues that taste is acquired over time and if you have good taste you understand the codes of fashion (Bourdieu 193, 201-202). Timberlake’s cultural capital of being an established celebrity within the music industry suggests that he has good taste. Timberlake understood the unspoken codes of fashion and used those codes to transform how others perceived him, “what we wear…can be subsumed under the general notion of code” (Davis 154). He knew that mature, business oriented, serious, and influential men wore suits and Timberlake was trying to fit into the standard of a serious man, knowing these standards have already been set by society (Veblen 64-65).

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Timberlake substituted his baggy jeans and braided hair for a slicked back hairdo and suit to convey that he had grown up and was indeed a tastemaker. Timberlake had cashed in his cultural capital to ensure that this new projected image of himself would be clear to as big of an audience as possible. He made a music video, appeared on SNL, and had a tour all in this new style of dress; “through clothing people communicate some things about their persons, and at the collective level this results typically in locating them symbolically in some structured universe of status claims and life-style attachments” (Davis 149).He ultimately embodied his cultural capital by making it seem effortless that he was a solo artist/leading man when years ago he was one of five guys in a boy-band. He made a statement by becoming overall very fashionable and ensured that his transformation was consistent on all media outlets.

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How artists wear certain styles and fashion construct value and communicate information about the wearer. Elizabeth Wilson in “Fashion and City Life” explains how “individuals participated in a process of self-docketing and self announcement, as dress became the vehicle for the display of the unique individual personality” (Wilson “Fashion and City Life” 154). By transforming her dress, Miley Cyrus was able to show the world a completely new side of her personality that was hidden from the world when she was still associated with her Disney past. Cyrus made a complete transformation from innocent Disney star to wild child. Wilson goes on to state that fashion functions like a language with shared codes and meanings, “street dress became full of expressive clues, which subverted its own anonymity because it was still just as important, or indeed even more important, to let the world know what sort of person you were, and to be able to read off at least some clues from the clothes of other people.” Dress allows outsiders to immediately perceive certain aspects of the wearer’s personality. As codes of dressed developed, the more the individual became what he wore (Wilson “Fashion and City Life” 137). Cyrus used certain fashion codes in her favor. She started wearing more revealing clothes, cut off all her hair, and started inking up. Knowing some audiences would view these choices as scandalous, she was able to tell the world visually that she wasn’t Miss Perfect. Cyrus was able to disassociate herself from her Disney image by going against the fashion codes of what it means to be innocent and childlike.

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Cyrus started to wear skimpy leotards and pasties when she went out to move further and further away from her old visual self; “although many individuals experience fashion as a form of bondage, as punitive, compulsory way of falsely expressing an individuality that by its very gesture cancels itself out, the final twist to the contradiction that is fashion is that it often does successfully express the individual” (Wilson Adorned” 12). Her transformation was to show the world another side of herself and that she had finally broken free from the grips of the Disney star image. Transformations like Cyrus’, help artists break free from fixed molds or niche markets through their fashion. Such transformations allow for a larger audience reach, in turn helping artists’ careers, because they allow the artist to appear more dimensional. Cyrus’ economic capital gave her the ability to pay for numerous tattoos, haircuts, outfits, and outrageous stage costumes. Because she is so financially successful, she is able to pay for certain adornments to meet the expectations of her projected image/personality.

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Fashion and style are visual counterparts to musical expression. When musical artists decide to switch genres, if the music is changing, so should the fashion. Bourdieu claims that we distinguish ourselves by the distinctions we make (Bourdieu 6). Lady Gaga made this evident from her transition from pop to jazz by understanding what distinguishes styles from others. With her transformation, she conveyed to the world that she was not fixed as a pop-singer and could fit into the realm of various genres. In Adorned in Dreams” Wilson states “[dress] as a cultural phenomenon, as an aesthetic medium for the expression of ideas, desires and beliefs circulating in society” (Wilson Adorned in Dreams” 9). Gaga herself became a consumer and accepted the ideologies that surround the jazz genre and began transforming herself visually so she too can be integrated into that lifestyle and viewed as a classy lady. Bourdieu states that “the interest the different classes have in self-presentation, the attention they devote to it, their awareness of the profits it gives and the investment of time, effort, sacrifice and care which they actually put into it are proportionate to the chances of material or symbolic profit they can reasonably expect form it” (Bourdieu 202). Gaga’s attention to her dress was important for the success of her transition into jazz and her visual transformation would directly affect the success of her jazz album. Gaga cashed in on her cultural capital to take the time to learn the trade of jazz along with the aesthetic elements that are expected with it. Through her newly adorned fashion, she is conveying to the world that she is an authentic jazz singer. She invested in styling her body to fit the style of the musical genre and used her cultural capital as a celebrity to connect with other jazz musicians such as Tony Bennett to obtain knowledge of what it means to look and be a jazz singer.

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Ultimately, these three artists made very calculated transformations to further their careers. They wanted to show the world that there was more to them and they did so visually through fashion. They made these aesthetic changes by cashing in on their cultural capital to ensure the success of their transformation; “he ‘makes’ the opinion which makes him; he constitutes himself as an absolute by a manipulation of symbolic power which is constitutive of his power since it enables him to produce and impose his own objectification” (Bourdieu 208). Timberlake, Cyrus, and Gaga’s musical talent, star power and celebrity status provides them with the cultural capital to control how they are visually represented within the media. If they are performing at the Grammys or VMA’s they control their stage “set”, props, costumes, and their own personal adornment. Through their cultural and economic capital (from cultural capital) they are able to control the discourse that surrounds them and therefore, they are meticulously choosing what side of themselves they want the world to see. Through calculated fashion choices music artists are able to control the vision of themselves they want the rest of the world to see.


Works Cited:

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984. Print. 1-209.

Davis, Fred. Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion?. Fashion Theory: A Reader. London: Routledge, 2007. Print. 147-58

Veblen, Thorstein, and Stuart Chase. The Theory of the Leisure Class; an Economic Study of Institutions. New York: Modern Library, 1934

Wilson, Elizabeth. “Adorned in Dreams.” Fashion and Modernity. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2003. Print.

Wilson, Elizabeth. “Fashion and City Life”. Fashion and Modernity. United Kingdom: I.B. Taurus and Co, 2003. Print. 134-289.

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