The few times I play as bards are to really dig deep and satisfy that good ol RP itch. My favorite bard was a Teifling Orphan Bard/Warlock who I created to maximize battlefield control through liberal uses of bardic inspiration, cutting word, Hellish rebuke and vicious mockery. The Warlock dip was for rp fluff, mostly for the devil pact perk of gaining an imp familiar, who would be used to steal all kinds of food not being secured. I had worked it out with the DM, that my PC had originally been of Elvish/Half Elf descent, and was married fairly young to another fellow orphan, who had joined a devilish cult, and they ended up in a ritual gone wrong, and through duress, she had made a pact to a devil to spare her life in return for gathering an unspecified number of ‘innocent’ souls and eventually regaining her previous Elvish physical attributes. Failure to cede ‘innocent’ souls to her patron would have resulted in more physical changes towards devilish attributes (cloven hooves, a constant scent of brimstone, a more pronounced barbed tail, larger goat horns, etc). (There was also a caveat that one of the final souls was to be a random PC, in order to really make my PC squirm with the mental dilemma). As trying to end her ‘cursed’ pact would literally be turning her into the monster she hated to look like. Also, anytime I play as bards, I can more easily justify my love of puns and clever wordplay. (My Tiefling bard’s name was Dee Arckness (and yes I did have her learn magic missile as one of her magic secret spells). Her mouse familiar I named Supper (she would often be heard saying she could use some cheese for supper, leading many NPC’s to assume she was a dairyphile) and her imp’s name was Mai Unkel, to fully take advantage of that typical anime trope.
Because people kept saying 'play a bard, play a bard' and I don't like the bard concept, so I decided to show them how reflavoring worked.
My 'bard' was a student of military history and tactics. He was not a performer, at all (I simply dismissed the tool proficiencies). His spells were not musical, they were just, y'know, SPELLS like everybody else's spells. 'Song' of Rest was just motivational speaking and pep-talks. Countercharm was 'snap out of it/pull your head out of your *ss!' browbeating.
I honestly haven't been playing D&D long enough to know for sure, but I get the distinct impression that there's a stereotype, and that a lot of people think you're "playing the part wrong" if you're not following it.
Rod, that sounds like you have had some bad experiences, I hope you have better ones in the future. My experiences are that if someone is playing something stereo-typically then they are probably hiding something about the character beneath the surface. (its always the stereo-typical ones that everyones surprised by!)
Bards really suffered in 3rd because of their description in the PHB 'a useful 5th man in a four man party' OUCH. And to be fair they werent power houses, werent safer healers, werent mighty spell slingers. They were Jack (or Jill's) of all trades and masters of none. People played them loud and crudely for the most part. But devious players did make Terrifying bards who could overturn entire preconceptions.
Now in 5th this 'oh dear lords and ladies above, I didnt know bards could do that!!!!' element is contained in two class features - subclass colleges and Magical secrets. They allow a player to make the bard a bit of another spell caster or warrior class and in this way really customise bards into their own image, whether its the social chatterbox, or the dark rider capable of destroying all enemies unscathed, or the mastermind and ruler of a hidden empire of intrigue. All it takes is a good concept, a bit of imagination - oh and luck and allies to get you those pesky levels :).