Rocking-chair rockers

Culture | Aging stars are dominating today's pop culture, and the reasons go beyond mere boomer nostalgia

Issue: "America's best & worst," Feb. 1, 2003

The Grammy nominees for best male rock 'n' roll vocal performance are all over 50, except for one. Peter Gabriel is 52; Bruce Springsteen is 53; Robert Plant is 54, and David Bowie is 56. The one young sprout is Elvis Costello. He is 47.

The rock concerts that sold the most tickets in the record year of 2002 were put on by performers old enough, as Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn has pointed out, to join the AARP. No. 1 was Paul McCartney, age 61. Second, the Rolling Stones, fronted by Mick Jagger, age 60. Then comes Cher, 57. And finally, the two piano men who toured together, Billy Joel, 54, and Elton John, 56.

In Pollstar's list of the top music acts in terms of revenue, combining concert and album sales, only three of the top 10 were young whippersnappers: Eminem (#1), Creed (#6), and Nelly (#7). The other seven were Mr. McCartney (#2), The Rolling Stones (#3), the Dave Matthews Band (Mr. Matthews being 36) (#4), Mr. Springsteen (#8), Alan Jackson (age 45) (#9), and Mr. Joel and Mr. John (#10).

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And Elvis Presley scored a No. 1 album, a collection of his 30 No. 1 hits. This was 25 years after his death. This year he would have turned 68.

Isn't rock 'n' roll supposed to be for teenagers? Isn't it all about youthful rebellion and adolescent angst? How come all of these rock stars are old geezers?

Nostalgia may be part of the answer, but it doesn't explain everything. It is true that baby boomers, always a demographic bulge, are now in their 50s and beyond. It is also true that many baby boomers are nevertheless fixated on their faded youth, still listening to the same tunes they listened to in high school and refusing to grow up, even now.

This Peter Pan syndrome not only prevents their musical tastes from maturing, it keeps them childishly self-centered, which sometimes has wreaked havoc when they have tried to have families of their own. Many aging baby boomers remain trapped in the '60s, to the embarrassment of their children.

But young people are also attending these concerts and buying these records. Pop culture as a whole has been going "retro" (that is, reviving old fashions) for years. Whereas modernists were fixated on the present or the future, postmodernists love the past. Of the current top 10 movies, half of them are set in some other period of history-indeed, they try to capture the look and feel of some other time-whether the kitschy '60s (Catch Me If You Can), 19th-century America (Gangs of New York), or the fantasy Middle Ages (The Two Towers).

One appeal of the past and of old performers is that they are different. Ironically, those who want something new must often turn to something old. Those bored with their own times can find some other age stimulating. Those who yearn to hear a different kind of music have access-thanks to today's media technology-to a host of styles that will sound utterly novel to their ears.

This is doubtless a large part of the appeal of the O, Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. A whole generation that has never been exposed to traditional songs like "Big Rock Candy Mountain" or "I'll Fly Away" has never heard anything like this. To those who have never known it, what is old can seem new.

Another part of the retro appeal is that the most artistic creativity tends to come at the very beginning of a new style. In other words, those who are best at a style tend to be those who invented it. Less talented performers then copy them, reducing what was once fresh to a formula repeated ad nauseam.

This holds true for great literature (compare Wordsworth and Coleridge to the late Victorian Romantic poets) and for popular forms such as rock 'n' roll. People still listen to the Beatles, but not necessarily to the Dave Clark 5 or to the other Beatles-wannabes in the British invasion.

The performers who last have a "classic" quality-that is, they have stood the test of time-which is a testimony to the universality of aesthetic qualities, even in pop genres.

Besides, the notion that music, drama, and fashion should be designed primarily to attract children is an aberration. The notion of a "youth culture" was a phenomenon of the '60s. Before then, music was made primarily by adults for adults.

Cultures in the doldrums have always looked to their past for rejuvenation. The Renaissance sparked Western civilization as a retro movement to bring back ancient Greece. The Reformation was a retro movement back to the Bible. Going back just a few decades is not nearly retro enough.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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