Rock and roll is youth music, and the aging stars who play it are sad and desperate. Right? Right, if you ask The New Republic, that is. In one of the many think pieces that have emerged in the weeks since David Bowie’s death, in this month marred by the deaths of several prominent senior citizen rock stars, The New Republic argues that Bowie is iconic because Bowie, despite his age, avoided falling into the “cliché of the aging rock star.”
But I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think Bowie avoided it, and, more importantly, I don’t think it’s real. Because I think the only people perpetuating the cliché of the aging rock star, the ones who argue that rock and roll is for the young, that there comes a time for artists to hang up their hats, settle down, and finally act their ages, are old people themselves.
This ageist critique comes not from the literal young — not from those 20-something music critics hanging out on Twitter — but, surprisingly, more often than not, from their Baby Boomer counterparts or their own parents, even. Not all of them, but some. The ones who were front row-residing raucous punks in their youth, the ones who eventually traded in their ripped jeans for suits. The ones who eventually swapped their Stones cassettes for Barney sing-alongs. The ones who quit rock and roll altogether and eventually settled for the expected adult normalcy they were once against, the one with the whole 2.5 kids, a 401k, and suburban house with a two car garage kind of deal.
The ones who grew up started judging the ones who didn’t.
What exactly is the aging rock star cliché? It’s a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Rock stars who retire are sellouts and quitters. Rock stars who continue to chug on being their authentically bad selves are embarrassing. It’s a generalization perpetuated by cultural critic John Strausbaugh in his book Rock Till You Drop. He argues: “Rock is youth music. It is best played by young people, for young people, in a setting that is specifically exclusionary of their parents and anyone their parents’ age.”
Strausbaugh critiques the “horrifically aged bodies” of baby boomer rock stars like Eric Clapton (“paunchy and chinless, bearded and burghermeisterly”) and Stevie Nicks (“stuffed like a sausage into some girdle, her pancake makeup thick and hard as china”). They’re old. They don’t look the same. They don’t sound the same. Therefore, they need to be sent out to pasture.
But if that’s the case, if young people don’t want to listen to the same music as their parents, then why are so many of them attending the sold out world tours of classic rock artists? It certainly can’t just be for the nostalgia factor — they’ve got turntables, iTunes, and YouTube for that. Let me remind you that classic acts like Fleetwood Mac, Grateful Dead, the Eagles, The Rolling Stones, James Taylor, the Who, and more all had sold out tours in the past year — sold out tours where the average ticket price was more than $200.
Millennials — who make far less than their boomer counterparts — are spending more than $200 to see classic rock performers now, in their supposed old age. They’re spending more than $200 for two or three hours of entertainment, which is only $100 less than most festivals, where you get three or four days of entertainment — and “youth oriented,” at that. Why would a generation with far less discretionary income to spare invest in a ticket so pricy to see performers some people dismiss as too old?
Because rock and roll is youth music. But it’s youth music in the sense that it is radical and goes against the grain. It speaks to youthful woes and concerns. It critiques the culture we’re living in. It’s hard to find a lot of music that does that today, at least from younger generations. Rap is more willing to throw barbs, to call out racial, economic, and authoritative issues today, but Top 40? Whatever it is we define as indie rock or alternative these days? Forget about it. The best way to sell records now is to write something mindless and record label pleasing, something with a hooky beat and a chorus that satisfied an algorithm guaranteed to make it an earworm. Not something that will likely piss a lot of people off or “alienate your base.”
As I wrote earlier this month, our generation is a generation without true rock stars. So, we youth in revolt look to the older generation, because the great thing about music is that the artist will forever be preserved in the same age they are in a recording. Even better: culture is cyclical, youthful problems are relative — no matter what decade these songs were written in, they somehow find a way to remain topical and evergreen.
The people who sing “Go Your Own Way” will forever be our 20-something friends going through a fucked up breakup. “Refugee” is always going to be a defiant young punk raising a middle finger to the man. “My Generation” was written about boomers, but, oh, how easy is it for millennials to adopt as an anthem, while “The Big Country” still speaks to those of us who leave our sheltered suburban homes to make a life for ourselves in cities. “Gimme Shelter” may have been a reaction to the Vietnam War and violence of the ’70s, but have “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away” ever been more appropriate than today, where police brutality is on the rise, where young black men are being shot in the street, where 23 percent of female college students experience sexual assault?
More, rock stars don’t age to us because millennials don’t see age the way our parents do. We’re the overachiever generation, the generation who crams as much into 24 hours as possible, because there’s so much we need and want to do and say and see. The average life expectancy continues to rise, and we don’t want to waste our later years slowing down. We look at these rock stars in their 60s and 70s with awe and admiration, knowing that an exciting and fulfilling life is still possible in our later years, that we don’t have to move out of the fast lane if we don’t want to. We see them travel around the world for a year at breakneck speed. We see them continue to churn out material, explore new terrain, muck around in the dirt and make something new. Mick Jagger can still strut. Stevie Nicks can still twirl. We’re not embarrassed for them. We’re inspired by them.
Maybe we can marvel that Bowie escaped the trappings of being compared to his younger self by existing in a state of constant reinvention. Maybe we can also acknowledge how easy it is to romanticize people in the days that follow their deaths. It’s fine — there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s part of the grieving process.
But you can’t genuinely praise somebody without acknowledging reality. Before we claim that Bowie escaped what faced his peers, remember that it’s easy to do so when you’re not as active. Bowie became reclusive. He hadn’t toured since 2004, and in the past 12 years, only released two albums. That can certainly trap someone in an idealized vision of youth. To each his own, but he escaped the whole aging rock star cliché thing by simply avoiding it. Meanwhile, his classic rock peers charged ahead, continuing to be their authentic selves, continuing to remain busy in the public eye as the years ticked on, facing whatever criticism people may have had.
Bowie isn’t an exception to the rule that rock stars lose appeal as they age. Because true rock stars never age. Rock and roll is youth music because the spirit of rock and roll keeps you young.
True rock stars just don’t age, because they transcend time. “I hope I die before I get old,” the Who sang. So, they’ve got some wrinkles on their faces or maybe some arthritis in their joints. So, the key may be lowered to meet their range and they may not wail the same way anymore and they may need to slow the tempo just a hair, but they’re still the same as they’ve ever been. The heart that beats in their chest is the same. The brain that writes those lyrics and comes up with those bass solos may be a little more mature, but it’s not old. They’re certainly not lacking in energy. Anyone who chooses to get up on stage, whether in front of thousands or just a few hundred, and play loud music for hours straight is young.
May your heart always be joyful.
May your song always be sung.
May you stay forever young.
The aging rock star cliché isn’t real. It’s a sad stigma created by people who are old themselves. Because you don’t get old by aging. You get old by quitting.