Arts and Entertainment

What’s Your Sign? What’s Your Era?

Music has always changed with the times to reflect different cultural developments, but the rapidity with which contemporary online culture changes has solidified “eras” as a quintessential part of today’s music scene.

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By Skye McArthur

Like art, music moves fast—styles and trends change in the blink of an eye, and musicians swap aestheticized styles just as fast. This is epitomized by the recent trend of eras in music: short periods where artists tie themselves to specific motifs, aesthetics, and symbols. 

Musical artists have always had eras through themed tours and cohesive concept albums. David Bowie’s character of the androgynous alien Ziggy Stardust took center stage for The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), while Pink Floyd’s tortured rockstar character Pink provided the basis for The Wall (1979), both working well as concept albums, whether they were galactic space operas or trippy rock operas. However, these artists were typically restricted by their respective genres and, even throughout changing eras, produced similar music: Bowie was always a glam rocker, and Pink Floyd stuck with the psychedelic art rock scene throughout their career. 

In recent years, major artists have shifted between eras at rapid speeds. Billie Eilish transitioned from the macabre, neon-drenched When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (2019) to a neutral-toned, Julie London-inspired Happier Than Ever (2021). Beyoncé went straight from her cyber-royal Renaissance (2022) to the lasso-swinging Cowboy Carter (2024). It would be remiss not to mention Taylor Swift, famously the Queen of Eras. 

Swift’s artistic evolution embodies the rise of clearer distinguished eras in music. Her albums have become aesthetics, which is part of why she can market herself so well. In fact, her record-breaking Eras Tour was wholly based on this premise. 

The most prevalent reason behind the music industry’s shift towards periodical trends is that advertising a new album as a “reinvention” is fantastic marketing. Declaring a new era is akin to sending fans a curated Pinterest board; lifestyle content can promote the new aesthetic while symbols of the era can be mass-produced onto merchandise. Deleting old social media posts evokes a clean slate for the artist, and announcing a radical new aesthetic can attract new viewers who see an artist in a fresh light.

Aside from the music industry, eras can also appeal to musical artists who wish not to be limited to one genre. Delineating style changes by defining eras can be relieving for artists since they can switch between styles and personas for the sake of experimentation. Take Madonna, who made her foray into electronica and dance-pop with Ray of Light (1988), completely subverting the iconographically Catholic and sexually charged early years of Like a Virgin (1984) and True Blue (1986). 

The periodization of artist catalogs can also be attributed to the microtrend cycle perpetuated by social media. Music has always changed with the times to reflect different cultural developments—for example, the Beatles transitioned from traditional rock and roll to psychedelic rock in the mid-1960s. However, the eras of today may reflect the rapid nature with which popular culture changes in the digital age. Online microtrends evolve and disperse quickly; for instance, the cottagecore boom during the 2020-2021 pandemic was reflected in Swift’s Folklore (2020) and Evermore (2020). These albums refracted into even more specific eras and aesthetics with Swift’s subsequent releases of “Willow (90’s trend remix),” “Willow - dancing witch version (Elvira remix),” “Willow - lonely witch version,” “Willow - moonlit witch version,” and “Cardigan (cabin in candlelight version),” all of which hit streaming platforms between 2020 and 2021.

The fact that many eras are based on the volatility of online discourse means that certain motifs and aesthetics will get tired fast, so the era model of music might be less than sustainable. It’s also not hard to imagine an impending era fatigue; artists such as Swift constantly push eras, and the commercialization of the trend through tours and merchandise is likely to become a turnoff for listeners. Eras will likely stick around for a bit, but they have become too co-opted to remain a fixture of music for much longer.