During the 12-12-12 concert to benefit victims of Superstorm Sandy, both Coldplay singer Chris Martin and the venerable Mick Jagger joked about the collective age of the performers. As much as I admired the musicians for donating their time to a great cause, I was relieved I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Is it ageist to say that the sight of a 70 year-old rock-and-roller makes me uncomfortable?
Hard to believe now, but at one time the purveyors of this subversive music were virtually banned from television. But once the form’s commercial potential and power as a cultural force became clear, rock performers were invited onto the screen — as long as they didn’t gyrate too much or mind performing under a Geritol sign:
At first, they appeared as guest stars on mainstream broadcasts...
Then, as Baby Boomers dragged their favorite sound to the center of popular culture, rock began to displace the show tunes, movie themes, and creamy love songs that had formerly dominated the airwaves. Soon enough, rock performers got their own shows...
And before you knew it, they got their own channel!
For decades, then, rock has been a mainstream form; instead of opposing the establishment, it has become the establishment. But since the music itself remains youthful, the idea of a rock performer who’s been around as long as the genre can seem incongruous.
It’s partly the lyrics: a twenty year-old guy can melt your heart singing “Do you love me, do you, surfer girl, surfer girl, my little surfer girl?” But these words pouring out of a balding dude in his sixties seems — oh, what’s the word — inappropriate. A teenager who can’t get no satisfaction is most likely raging against the frustrations of youth; a 70 year-old who can’t get no satisfaction ... well, the joke pretty much writes itself.
The theatrics figure in, too. Take Adam Gontier, recently of Three Days Grace, who broadcasts youthful anxiety with his hunched posture at the microphone and his penchant for rolling around the stage. It looks natural, part of the persona. But those same gestures just don't work as well coming from someone old enough to collect Social Security. (Then again, artists working from the socially conscious folk tradition, like Bob Dylan, Neil Young and increasingly Bruce Springsteen, fit more comfortably in their personas as they age.)
On WNYC’s February 12 Soundcheck program, writer Steve Almond semi-facetiously proposed a mandatory retirement age of 65 for stadium rock performers. “That’s not music anymore, that’s just capitalism,” he said, accusing certain artists of peddling nostalgia, not rock & roll. He didn't say which ones, but the top three grossing tours of 2012 were Madonna, Springsteen, and Roger Waters.
I’m not sure it’s that simple. A good song is a good song, regardless of when it was written. And some audiences prefer the songs that helped them survive high school or their first break-up, and don’t much mind if the performer mirrors them in age. Ultimately, pop music exists to make listeners happy. If audiences enjoy watching septuagenarian Roger Waters condemn sticking another brick in the wall, I say go for it.
As for the incongruities, we made it through Zsa Zsa Gabor on Shindig. We’ll make it through this.