The rampant trend of “ageism” in modern pop music
This article was inspired by a newspaper article in the Bombay Times that I read while traveling in India in early January of 2013. The title of the article was “David Bowie releases new single without much fanfare”. While I was pleased to read that David Bowie was back with a new single (and new album) to celebrate his 66th birthday, I have to admit that I was not surprised that the song did not get much mainstream exposure (although it was awarded a huge banner on the iTunes USA main store page). My surprise does not relate to David Bowie in particular. It relates to the general treatment by the mainstream of artists (especially solo artists) over the age of 40.
How does a new single by David Bowie go under the radar?
Why does the average music listener think George Michael’s last single was “Amazing” (from the “Patience” album)? [In the US, an overwhelming majority has no idea George Michael had a music career past 1990]
Why does the average music listener have no idea that Duran Duran reunited in 2004 and has put out three albums since?
Why did Robbie Williams’ 2012 single “Candy” not get playlisted by BBC Radio 1 in the UK?
Why do we get an overdose of Justin Bieber?
The answers to all these questions can be captured in one single word – “ageism”.
Pop music has always been branded as being youth-oriented and deals with “being young”. In the past, all this meant was that the music appealed to the young. In the last decade and a half, three unfortunate realities have allowed “ageism” to become the golden standard in modern mainstream pop music.
First, there is a rather misguided trend perpetuated by US terrestrial radio – music’s biggest gatekeepers in the US (and hence elsewhere in the world). They seem to think of pop music as being created and performed “only” by the young. Hence, any artist above the age of 30 or 35 is considered too old for their prized “youth” demographic. As a result, these artists are not played on US terrestrial radio. As a result, even if artists over the age of 40 are churning out material that is current and relevant, the material by these artists is practically “dead on arrival” as it never gets played on the radio. Great music transcends generations and age-related boundaries. The age of the source of its creation should be absolutely irrelevant to whether or not it gets to see the light of day. Moreover, if some of these “older” artists were hit-makers in their younger years, they have at least earned a right to be heard – even if they are not celebrated. Sadly, getting heard is a pre-requisite to being celebrated and it is that pre-requisite that rarely happens for most of these great pop stars whose ability to churn out great pop songs has not been eroded by time and age. Noteworthy examples of such artists/bands include a-ha, Duran Duran, Kim Wilde, and George Michael. I remember a time not too long ago when I was a 13-year old. I did not need a 13-year old to sing to me to be able to relate to the music.
The conventional notion of “youth” seems to be changing with extended adolescence becoming a longer period in an individual’s life. This would suggest, that the concept of youth in pop culture should be one that is inclusive of slightly older artists. Yet, the opposite seems to be true. The latest display of this phenomenon manifested itself in the UK with BBC Radio 1 labeling international superstar Robbie Williams as “irrelevant”. The decision was made by playlist programmers and not the people that actually “consume” music. There was no widespread public agreement that Robbie Williams was irrelevant. The statement of relevance was made by one or a few programmers at BBC Radio 1. Since when was being in your late 30s considered “old”? If this was the golden standard 30 years ago, artists such as David Bowie and Hall & Oates would have never become the “breakout” stars that they were. The loss would have been ours.
Second, there is a widespread belief that “consumption” of recorded music falls dramatically when music consumers reach “adulthood”. Music promoters believe that these “adults” are not profitable to cater to. Hence, they don’t think “older” artists are worth promoting or focusing on. They have never stopped to think that one of the reasons adults may have stopped consuming recorded music is that the music being promoted is out of tune with their needs. That might be the reason consumptions falls. Instead, most people believe the reverse phenomenon to be true.
Third, while most folks think they are “passionate” about music, it is only a small percentage of music listeners that are truly discerning and have more than a “casual” interest in music. These folks can be easily identified by their desire to look beyond the narrow confines of terrestrial radio for their music. The segment of music listeners that lie outside the “truly passionate” are still “slaves” to their gatekeepers – i.e. the programming committee of the terrestrial radio stations. These music listeners are convinced that if terrestrial radio did not pick up music by older artists for radio rotation, the music wasn’t worth being played. By not tuning into alternate venues for music, we are giving the current gatekeepers excessive power over our ability to make choices as far as music is concerned. We’re doing ourselves a disservice as connoisseurs of the sacred art form of music.
Ageism is an unfortunate reality. In fact, in a recent interview, Curt Smith, from New Wave band Tears For Fears frankly stated that “making music with my former Tears For Fears collaborator is a money-losing proposition”. This is sad – since I think a world with new Tears For Fears music would be great. If this phenomenon had existed 20 years ago, the music of many of the artists we love and respect today would have never seen the light of day. Reversing this phenomenon should be easier in the era of the internet and digital music. We have options. We just have go grab them. Let us not become a victim of our traditional gatekeepers’ narrow horizons and myopia. Age has not eroded what we love most about many of our favorite pop/rock musicians. Let the decision of whether or not an artist is “washed up and irrelevant” be ours – and not the decision of a nameless and faceless organization whose only interest is to sell advertising and NOT truly showcase the vast landscape of pop/rock music.
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