Aging pop stars and the struggle to keep making popular music

Aging pop stars and the struggle to keep making popular music

Fifty may be the new forty in some areas of life, but popular music is not one of them.

With very few exceptions, pop musicians do their most important work in their twenties and early thirties, and even if they continue to play sold-out houses into their eighties, as the Rolling Stones did, fans are largely indifferent to their new music and they just want to hear the hits – which leads to the seemingly opposite situation of artists with sold-out tours tied to new albums that are relatively failures anyway.

Yet the level of ambition and ego required to reach the top rarely fades with age, and the desire/desperation of these artists to remain relevant can reach terrifying levels – especially in the 80s, when the Stones, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, and even Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen tried (or were convinced) to stay contemporary with already horrifyingly outdated production techniques.

Even those who tried to keep innovating—the Stones with the early Prince-flavored “Emotional Rescue” and the dub-inflected “Undercover,” Bowie’s reckless explorations of industrial and drum and bass in the 1990s—in they eventually realized their fans didn’t want that and reverted to some form of their former selves, usually with lucrative results. That’s the general pattern now: At the top of the spectrum, many of the aforementioned artists enjoy a comfortable lifestyle of greatest-hits tours, bringing in millions of dollars in arenas and stadiums, with new material serving as bathroom breaks for audiences.

But still they try, and like any rite since the dawn of humanity, each generation must learn it for itself. Recent examples: Justin Timberlake and Jennifer Lopez’s new albums and Madonna’s “Celebration” tour.

In January, Timberlake’s long-awaited but unfortunately timed return from the desert was preceded by a bulldozer of a rollout as familiar and heavy as it was safe and old: A week of daily, increasingly loud announcements and online teasers leading up to the release of a song and album and tour announcement, and an obnoxiously self-referential appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” featuring a rekindling of his longtime relationship with Jimmy Fallon. The two not only chewed up the scenery, but they performed it like Godzilla, cutting into showrunner Dakota Johnson’s opening monologue as a drunken college couple getting together and then reviving one of their tired old skits, all in the first 15 minutes of the show . The bulldozing continued in the weeks leading up to the album, with club gigs in Memphis, New York and Los Angeles, the latter of which briefly led to an exciting moment for fans: an NSYNC reunion, which he would associate with but won t engage with

Without the reunion, it’s almost identical to the presentation of his 20/20 Experience album over a decade ago, and the album itself feels like an attempt to squeeze into an outfit you rocked in your early 30s, which still can still look good, but it’s too tight in the crotch: The music on “Everything I Thought It Was” is a solid if predictable revival of his classic sound, but the sometimes terribly sexual lyrics are like being forced to watch the happily married couple Timberlake lovingly sings about drunken dirty dancing in other songs.

Marital bliss, even as a happy ending, also doesn’t have enough suspense to intoxicate the 20-something masses. Just ask J-Lo, whose This Is Me… Now is a self-indulgent and self-financed multi-platform tale of her reunion with Ben Affleck — a romance shipwrecked two decades on mainly by Gigli, their maligned 2003 rom-com collaboration. Lopez has been focusing on movies in recent years, and it shows — the two films attached to the project have landed relatively well. But the album—her first in a decade—was critically panned, debuted at No. 38 on the Billboard 200, and then faded from view; Her accompanying first North American tour in five years is said to be selling poorly.

Compare these dated flood zone releases to this one from 30-year-old Ariana Grande for her the first album in three-and-a-half years, which she teased with a few Instagram posts, released to rave reviews and followed up with an “SNL” appearance that was polished, while Timberlake’s was mostly obnoxious. The comparison isn’t fair – she’s still in the growth stages of what is likely to be a very long career – but the low-key approach allowed fans to fuel the hype for her. Sure, it’s easy to do when you’re almost as virtuosic at social media as you are at singing (and avoiding overexposure before a big-screen debut starring in Wicked later this year), but her beat was telling.

Which brings us to Madonna, who finally took a break from overloading her concerts with sub-par new material and embarked on a triumphant greatest hits tour last year. Prince, her rival and contemporary, demonstrated a similar tenacity from the mid-90s to the early 2000s, releasing a series of mostly terrible albums while flatly refusing to play hits during many of her concerts. He capitulated with 2004’s Musicology album and a hit-packed tour that grossed more than $87 million and was the year’s top-grossing trek. For the rest of his career, he had it both ways, releasing new albums to mostly indifferent response while making millions touring.

Characteristically controversial, Madonna waited to make such a move until she was literally of retirement age, instead sparingly handing out a handful of classics during her concerts while forcing fans to sit through long segments of the pompously conceptual “Madame X” or the sterile dance-pop of “MDNA”. Not surprisingly, the “Celebration” tour was received with a level of religious reverence that the singer hasn’t inspired in decades.

So it often goes to mature an era of a previous music career when age and decades of success deprived the superstar of reading how completely the room temperature had changed. So who is aging gracefully? This is an ongoing challenge that is not one-size-fits-all.

Sade, Missy Elliott, Maxwell, and even the late George Michael thrived on scarcity, underdoing rather than overdoing, leaving people hungry for more. Sade has only toured twice and released just two albums in the past 25 years, although the band are reportedly working on new material…in 2018.

Others like Kelly Clarkson, Mary J. Blige, Queen Latifah and Pink have sustained music careers by parlaying their screen skills into talk shows, acting, hosting or podcasts. While it’s unfortunate that such star vocalists use their voices to speak, it’s a different kind of celebrity that has the same potential to make people’s lives better.

Bob Dylan, Neil Young, McCartney, Springsteen and others play both sides, touring regularly and relentlessly releasing new material while feeding fans a steady diet of archival releases – often in lavish (and profitable) boxed sets – that, from the negative side, are inevitably far more vivid reminders of their genius than the new material, which can seem like an old-time baseball game with a slower pitch. Others fully acknowledge their age, like Jon Bon Jovi and Billy Joel, instead of taking the dyed hair approach that many others do; Robert Plant is firmly following his own musical arrow, turning down multi-million dollar offers to re-tour Led Zeppelin.

And sometimes, though rarely, there is a brief burst of inspiration at the end of a career. Dylan (“Time Out of Mind”), Young (“Ragged Glory”) and Marvin Gaye (“Sexual Healing”) all had them. Kylie Minogue had a rare late-career hit single last year with ‘Padam Padam’, although the success even surprised her label.

And in an unimaginably bittersweet farewell, David Bowie’s brilliance seemed to return as he stared mortality in the eye in the last year of his life, recording his most innovative and creatively inspired album in 35 years, Blackstar – and then died two days later. It’s an ending he would have written, and he kind of did.

Which goes without saying It is all that a man should aspire to but in his dignity. And dignity isn’t something we necessarily feel we’re showing here – but it’s a strong love that makes us say it in the first place.

And to be fair, insane lyrics aside, in some ways Timberlake’s new album shows that he may have learned at least part of his lesson. After his 2018 album Man of the Woods — a partial attempt to branch out into more traditional sounds — failed miserably, he returned to the energetic pop R&B that made him the icon he is. On “SNL ‘ we got everything and then some from his first song, the future band ‘Sanctified’, joined by a talented but hyperactive band and group of dancers, ending up with 20 people on the small stage; the performance was immediately followed by a commercial for his upcoming year-long tour. It was like watching a bachelor party drive down the Las Vegas Strip in an open limousine on New Year’s Eve.

But his second song was the opposite. Accompanied by just two musicians and a warm-up track, he sang “Selfish,” the first single from the soft-start album—a beautiful R&B-tinged ballad with a melody and falsetto inflection on the chorus that perfectly matched his soulful voice. And as he soared through the highs and lows of the song and caressed the lyrics and the melody with that voice and his graceful and trained gestures, gradually building the intensity to a peak in the middle section before easing it back slightly for the finale, you were reminded again of what a world class singer and what a one in a million talent he is. Why? Because there was no mess, no noise, no clanging—it was just him and the song.

Maybe that’s how it’s done.

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