A while back, I wrote a blog about Miley Cyrus, her 'scandalous' performance at the MTV Music Awards and the resulting publicity - culminating with her face on the cover of Rolling Stone a couple of weeks later.
My blog today centre's on Madonna – her eyebrow-raising 'performance' at the Grammies and the resulting publicity - culminating with her face on the cover of Rolling Stone a couple of weeks later.
Rest assured, even if the promotional machinery of the 'music business' is repeating itself most faithfully, I'll do nothing of the sort with this blog.
Some of the controversy surrounding Madonna's Grammy appearance centred on her age. In response to the real or perceived public opinion that she is getting too old to be a credibly current pop star, she made a number of anti-ageist comments and then mooned the photographers, revealing a sort of peek-a-boo butt-bra (now there's a great band name!).
Was she right to lash out against ageism? Is ageism a problem in the music business? How many ageing pop stars today wear butt-bras? I shall try to address these chafing questions...
While I personally don't believe ageism has any place in the music business – it's arguably as much a form of discrimination as that on the basis of race, sex, ethnicity or orientation – the anti ageists would enjoy much greater credibility if any among them weren't already old (by pop music standards). I don't recall Madonna rushing to Joni Mitchell's aid twenty years ago when Joni was decrying the treatment of ageing artists by record labels. In fact, I can't think of a single instance when a young pop star took a stand against the industry's or public's ageist tendencies. As a result, outcries like that of Madonna appear merely self-serving. Moreover, for better or worse, ageism has been a steady staple, if not an essential ingredient, to pop music for as long as the genre has existed.
Although ageist trends have come and gone in waves, 'Out with the old, in with the new' has generally been the rallying cry, the 'guaranteed fresh' pledge of the pop world,. Bill Hailey and his Comets fell from grace quickly and decisively in the late '50's when it was publicly revealed that Hailey was (gasp!) well into his thirties. The baby-boomer watchword back in the '60's was 'don't trust anyone over thirty', and the Who famously sang 'hope I die before I get old' (well – half of the Who got their wish...'though ironically, not the guy who wrote that particular lyric). Perhaps ironically, the baby boomers turned their ageist tendencies in the opposite direction when they themselves outlived their musical 'best before' date, savaging or ignoring such young upstart bands as Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Rush and Kiss, despite widespread popularity among the younger generation. Disco was not a genre of rebellious youth – with its soothing string sections, cooing voices and relentless feel-goodery, it was the music built to cushion the blow of oncoming middle age. Ruthlessly pushed and promoted by ageing industry execs throughout the late '70's, Disco went on to suffer a crushing and inevitable backlash, banishing bands like the BeeGees and KC and the Sunshine Band to oblivion for decades – if not permanently.
Unlike discrimination on other bases such as skin colour, ageism has some credible reason. Due to pure novelty and hormone levels, emotions run higher in youth – and that can translate to more passionate, less calculated art. Physical strength and stamina tend to be at their best in earlier years as well – so who wouldn't prefer to watch an artist perform at the height of her physical powers and emotional commitment? And out of youthful rebelliousness, naivete or mixture of both, it's a young artist who would seem most likely to buck conventions, take huge risks and produce something new and innovative. Finally, there's the nature of the beast, a certain amount of evolutionary hardwiring that draws our attention toward certain traits. We prefer the appearance of firm, supple, wrinkle-free skin and muscle tone, full heads of hair in its original (or at least non-grey) colour, bright eyes, a full set of teeth, and spriteliness. While all that might have everything to do with sexual selection and nothing to do with good musical selection, youthful appearance does have the advantage of grabbing your attention first. More cultured or cerebral forms of art may legitimately claim less superficial standards (composer Gyorgy Ligeti was never in danger of appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone, even while his music was hot among hipsters), pop music is partly a beauty contest – and nobody would know that better than Madonna.
I suppose I could fairly be called a longtime nerd or geek, and one hallmark of avowed nerdiness is loyalty to one's interests. We geeks ain't fickle. Especially now in the internet age, we can maintain our fascination with things that first caught our eyes decades ago...but that means a lot of our heroes are old men and women now, if they're still around at all. Even with all my nerdy loyalty, I do recognize that very few of my old heroes are writing 'em like they used to - even if many can at least still play 'em like they used to. The vocalists have generally suffered ageing in greatest numbers and degree, as singing is arguably the most strenuous physical activity in a rock band (I can hear drummers shouting their objections this moment, but I can think of very few drummers who are now retired or obviously deteriorated; whereas Paul Stanley, Geddy Lee, Jon Anderson, Lou Gramm, Brian Johnson, Brad Delp and Steve Perry number among the high-profile singers who have taken themselves out of the game or are performing in a significantly weakened state). From observing these artists over many years, would it be fair to say artists deteriorate with age? Certainly in physical appearance, yet that really has no bearing upon recordings or my enjoyment of a live show. So long as the musical performance is strong, I'm happy – and I don't think I'm alone in this.
Then, of course, there's the most personal case. I'm a lot older than Bill Hailey was when he was outed for his age; and while I'm still a lot younger than Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page or even Neil Finn and Sting (in fact, I was born the same year as Kurt Cobain), I'm also in no danger of becoming a teenage heartthrob, either; and although I can't claim objectivity, it's my sincere belief that I'm better than I've ever been as a musical performer and songwriter. I'm also more physically fit than I've ever been. The downside to my age is my less-than-youthful appearance, my greater volume of work making it a little more of a challenge to keep from repeating myself, and an older man's perspective and biases. Human nature is a lot less mysterious to me now than it was thirty years ago; there's precious little novelty in any emotion anymore; and I have zero interest in, say, using samples or loops to build a piece of music, despite prevailing trends. Meanwhile, I've learned a little more every year about the human condition, writing, recording and performing – there is something to be said for the experience that comes with age. For someone who is showing a little “snow on the roof” (a.k.a. white hair), there are actually more encouraging trends these days than at any other time in pop history. It's still, by and large, the older, established acts such as Fleetwood Mac, Billy Joel, Leonard Cohen, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd etc., etc., that are filling stadiums and selling recordings, and there tends to be a healthy contingent of younger buyers of such artists' concert tickets and recordings. At the very least, there isn't nearly the same stigma against older artists as there was back in Bill Hailey's day. If you're twenty years old now and your favourite band is Led Zeppelin, you probably aren't a hipster, but you're probably not a pariah, either. Granted, I haven't seen any recent come-from-nowhere, runaway success stories of artists in their forties, but considering the rage for gigantic beards these days, no one (or at least no males) appear to be too caught up in looking or sounding youthful, excepting dance and rap artists.
Perhaps the “dance and rap” qualifier is the crux when evaluating Madonna's stance on age. It's not as though her stage or her videos have ever been populated by anyone other than young, ultra-svelte models, and her legacy as a pop icon (I almost typed 'artist' but thought the better of it) is arguably more visual than aural. In other words, it is she who made Madonnaland a youth-only, youth-celebratory establishment – so when the lady standing centre-stage at her shows starts to look a little out of place among the many conspicuously youthful stage dancers, despite all manner of cosmetic resistance, she really has only one person to blame. Yep, point that wrinkly finger at the mirror, m'dear. Is it an unfairly ageist pop culture we live in today? It may well depend on how important youth is to the image you foster and to whom you want to appeal. If you're Madonna, your early expiry date is in your own handwriting. If you're Leonard Cohen or David Gilmour, you probably believe ageism is as real and threatening as Santa Claus. If you're Steve Perry, you know the only ageist who matters is the built-in obsolescence of your genetic code. We're all programmed to eventually fall apart. The question is whether you get to do it onstage.