5 Pop Artists Who Dramatically Changed Their Look and Image

Pop music as a genre has changed dramatically since the 1950s. The Beatles were considered pop music, but so was Michael Jackson. Artists have blended genres for decades. R&B was no longer easily defined when it merged with soul, disco, and funk. Rock bands started using synthesizers and drum machines, pop stars recorded albums with heavy metal guitarists, and country music adopted hip-hop beats.

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Reinvention is not a safe bet. New fans might discover an artist with a new sound as old fans revolt to the change. Some artists grow restless of repeating themselves, so they restyle the look and sound that made them millionaires. For others, something isn’t working and they require change with the hope of getting noticed—again, or for the first time. 

The artists below dramatically changed their image. Critics noted radical changes with an almost hostile erasure of what came before it, leading to iconic reinventions as fans wondered what was coming next. 

Music has long been a vehicle for change. Pop music produces more than albums or concert tickets. Trends in pop music affect what’s acceptable in culture. A music revolution can change the world.

The five pop artists below dramatically changed their look and image. They were each radical in their own way, and the transformations weren’t universally accepted at the time. It takes bravery to normalize the radical. 

1. David Bowie

With little success, Davie Jones fronted several blues bands in the early ’60s before going solo and adopting the name David Bowie—inspired by the 19th-century American pioneer Jim Bowie. While studying avant-garde theatre and mime, Bowie created a personae for his music, and he continued to evolve, from the cosmic rock star Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke—becoming an artist who defined reinvention more than any other.

Each rebirth smashed his past, as Bowie changed from glam folk to glam rock, soul and funk, krautrock, pop, and electronica. The through-line was over-the-top theatrics, splashes of androgyny, lots of fashion, and great hair. Artists as diverse as Lady Gaga and Nine Inch Nails would not exist without the radical path carved by David Bowie. 

2. Michael Jackson

Pop artists reinvent themselves in many ways. Hair, make-up, clothing changes. And fashion changes often inspire musical changes. Michael Jackson—the King of Pop—wore many hats. Part James Brown and part Charlie Chaplin, Jackson had a long career as a pop chameleon. Plastic surgery was an extreme part of his metamorphosis. Jackson, at times, seemed to be dancing through the pain of lingering childhood trauma. His pain may have driven cosmetic changes, but Jackson also used that pain as a tool to become the most dynamic pop star in history. He brought joy to millions of people and left behind a timeless body of work, despite the troubling personal issues that would follow him until his death and color his legacy. But none of that changes the fact that Thriller is, deservingly, the best-selling album of all time.  

[RELATED: The Story Behind Michael Jackson Buying The Beatles’ Catalog and Angering Friend Paul McCartney]

3. The Beatles

John, Paul, George, and Ringo came on the scene wearing mod suits and mop-top hairdos. The Beatles’ music referenced Little Richard and The Everly Brothers with traces of skiffle. The clean cuts then grew to a shaggier length, and the suits were replaced by turtlenecks. As the band tinkered with their look, the music became more experimental, and they ultimately reinvented how records were made, using the recording studio as another instrument.

Next came healthy sideburns and round sunglasses. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band pictures the band dressed in military costumes and heavily mustachioed. At the end, they were bearded and psychedelic. And then they were no more. Changing an already successful format comes with risks. With each reinvention, The Beatles became more popular, their records more important. They are history’s most influential band. 

4. Madonna

Madonna rivals Bowie in using reinvention as a feature of her act. We first see Madonna in New York post-disco chic, with bracelets and ’80s leggings, followed by the purity tease of “Like a Virgin.” There was Desperately Seeking Susan Madonna. The Marylin Monroe period. The dark-haired sacrilegious period. Jean Paul Gaultier’s cone bra left little to the imagination on the Blonde Ambition Tour. Madonna as Marie Antionette. Back to old Hollywood Marylin Madonna. Ray of Light ’70s-denim Madonna. Spanish Madonna. Buddhist Madonna. British Madonna. Madame X.

The Queen of Pop is also the Queen of Reinvention. But what didn’t change about Madonna were the results. She outsold every female recording artist in history. 

5. Lady Gaga

Stefani Germanotta was playing in a band called SGBand when she met producer Rob Fusari. Fusari said the Queen song “Radio Ga Ga” inspired the name Lady Gaga, and with it, she left behind the college guitar rock of SGBand and adopted an electropop sound. Two years later, her début album, The Fame, was released, and Lady Gaga had evolved her way to becoming an icon.

Her transformation from fronting a college club band to becoming her generation’s version of David Bowie, meets Madonna, meets Freddie Mercury, is one of the most drastic and successful pop reinventions ever. Within two years Stefani Germanotta went from indifferent Hollywood club audiences to becoming Lady Gaga, global superstar. 

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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