There’s a delicate and difficult juggling act that hangs over the heads of anyone brave enough to try and rise above the crowded space that is the mainstream music industry. Style and identity are two of the most crucial aspects of becoming better known among the public and yet, there’s a constant push and pull between artists feeling like they are one-note and artists that change so often the variety comes off disingenuously pandering or looking as though the artist doesn’t have a clue who they are. This isn’t a fair dynamic by any means but the inevitability of fluctuating interest remains. Sure, conversation ruling artists like Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Adele, and more recently Lizzo, can take on any number of looks, sounds, artistic concepts, or the like without inciting panic. But that’s because their fame is already so large that even a drastic identity shift won’t suddenly become the reason for their fame. The tail doesn’t wag the dog, so to speak.
What’s perhaps less talked about but no less noteworthy, is the resilience and same unwavering path of progress for songwriter and hook specialist, Skylar Grey. Not the type that seeks the center stage in the same fashion as the above mentioned ladies, Grey might seem a more reserved artist by comparison but taking comparison out of the picture, Grey is impressive in her own right; just for vastly different, and less spotlight-focused reasons than her peers. Keeping this in mind, when looking at Grey’s artistic and creative trajectory over time, the multi-faceted musician has actually made plenty of creativity, identity, and style based shifts, while the end result always comes across known as nothing less than Skylar Grey work. In all of the variety Grey has shown over the years – the most notable shift being her becoming known as Skylar Grey starting in 2010 – nothing after that has led to severe questioning of “Who is Skylar Grey?” or “What is Skylar Grey about?”
This is despite the fact that some of what makes Skylar Grey so admirable is her embrace of individuality and contrast – especially where her outward appearance is concerned. At times Grey has opted for formal, fancy attire and at others, bolder, urban, and more relaxed looks. When combined with her tattoo collection and vacillation between mature / explicit lyrical subject matter (e.g. “Straight Shooter,” “C’mon Let me Ride” feat. Eminem) and down-to-earth, nearly spiritual fare (“Coming Home Pt. II”), Grey is a successful example of flouting stereotypes and sub-cultural expectations attached to both ends of this formal vs. casual, conservative vs. flexible spectrum.
Straddling a duality present across lines of music, fashion, body art, language, and gender norms, it’s this very strength in Grey’s own journey as an artist that makes Angels with Tattoos all the more worth celebration. The title track in particular, speaks to Grey’s own difficulties with how others – particularly those connected to the love of her life – see and perceive her as a person, based solely on her tattoos and what they believe the implications of having them mean for Grey’s personal character. It’s a common source of pre-conceived judgement for musicians and non-musicians alike but it doesn’t make the schism any less frustrating to bridge when one is the target of condescension or outright emotional dismissal, as Grey alluded to with radio host John Schafer during a recent studio interview:
“I mean I guess I intended for that to happen when I got [the tattoos]. I wanted to look tougher and like, ‘Don’t mess with me.’ But it’s now biting me––biting me in the ass. Just because, you know, I want my fiancée’s mom to like me and, I’m not accepted.” – Skylar Grey
One might argue Grey’s public identity, which has remained steady in its supporting roles – featuring her vocals on others’ tracks, writing others’ hooks and songs (A song on an upcoming record by Celine Dion was co-written by Grey and Elliott Carson Taylor), and placing releases with things like soundtracks (“A New Kind of Love” was featured on the OST for Hulu original film, Four Weddings and a Funeral“) and social campaigns (She partnered with Budweiser for disaster relief) – is even more worthy of praise, given the fact that her path is less visible than someone who markets themselves and their material entirely under their own brand. It wouldn’t be the most odd decision if, to compensate for some of the auxiliary positioning in her repertoire of professional accomplishments, Grey made choices of change that would inspire questions and possibly even confusion because, as is said often in public relations, “any PR is good PR.”
But Grey is just herself and with or without shifts of inspirational focus, there’s never been any confusion about that among fans. And it’s this uniquely solid stasis of hers that makes the premise of new EP, Angels with Tattoos, so refreshing: the risk Grey bears, in choosing to explore an acoustic, folk-rock hinged, Fleetwood Mac-inspired song style over the rock, electronic, and pop hook-driven material she has embraced in her last two solo LPs, is only as much as the pressure for satisfaction she puts on herself.
Years into a career and having stepped into several style, concept, and emotional territories, all while accruing creative credibility and enough funds to have “made it” where another occupation need not be a factor to sustain living, Grey has inarguably reached a point of freedom that isn’t as easy to hit as one might believe. Sure, monetarily speaking, once there’s enough for a person to retire on, they could conceivably write and release any music they want – to the praise or rejection of their fans – without it “mattering.” But presuming an interest in keeping a career alive and moving forward, even for the extremely well-known and well-off, that freeing space might not actually be so accessible because there’s a residual amount of unchanging expectations – whether surrounding an artist’s look, their live experiences, their music video aesthetics, etc. Again, it comes back to that awkward balance: sometimes, being the biggest and most known presence in the room can actually leave a person more constrained and under more pressure outside themselves, than if there’s recognition but less rigid expectations from those observing. In other words, Skylar Grey never let herself or her artistic motivations get confined or steered by creative repetition, stagnancy, or excess expectations of her fan base.
Angels with Tattoos feels like something Grey did truly for herself and not just because it’s another solo record. There’s an emotional intimacy to it goes beyond just taking the lead on the project. The fact that this softer sonic approach happens to give a new perspective – both musical and personal – on her overarching body of work, may just be a beautiful pleasant, fortuitous coincidence for everyone who isn’t Grey or her closest family and friends.
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