The rampant popularity of veteran rockers is evidence of society’s about-face on age-appropriate behaviour.
Veteran female stars decisively dismiss that most withering of fashionista put-downs, the sin of looking “dated”. Stevie Nicks, Debbie Harry, Chrissie Hynde, Cher and the comparatively bopper Spice Girls still rock their original looks, and are revered for it. Even Madonna, who recently claimed she was “being punished for turning 60” and having to fight “ageism”, has been criticised only for a recent musical flub, not for her optics. There’s nothing to stop her still playing with her image. Indeed she regularly does.
Still, it’s remarkable that the once hard-living 60s and 70s rockers should be the standard-bearers for social change. When 60s tearaways The Who sang, “Hope I die before I get old”, they couldn’t possibly have imagined their superannuated selves would still be packing out stadiums, outlasting and out-earning generations of younger acts.
Even the titans of today’s charts, such as Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Taylor Swift, have recently failed to sell out big venues. But the past year has brought sellout world tours by The Who, Elton John, Billy Joel, Rod Stewart, Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles.
Neil Young, who mournfully warbled, “Hey hey, my my/Rock and roll can never die”, will shortly, alongside Bob Dylan, entertain 60,000 Londoners – their combined age: 151.
Dotage-eschewing Elton John, U2, Metallica and Jimmy Barnes are likely to fill stadiums here in the next year. Their peers also now sell truckloads of books and generate streams of lucrative documentaries and biographical movies.
Sure, plenty of Gen X bands and younger have mass pulling power. But few could finish a tour with each (70-plus-year-old) member an estimated US$14 million better off, as Fleetwood Mac did on their last tour. Now Neil Finn has joined the band, the 61-year-old’s career is similarly reinvigorated.
So, how is it that leather-loined great-grandads and nana rock-chicks are big business? Partly, it’s because internet pirating has withered royalties and the only thing to do is hit the road again.
It’s the scale of these comebacks that’s been the big surprise. Tours by artists no longer recording used to be modest affairs: a schlep through RSA clubs, town halls and small music festivals. But these epic 60s-70s bands have been able to reprise the extravaganzas of their heydays – the behemoth support crews, the special effects and the audiences of tens of thousands each night.
One reason is their discovery by the children and grandchildren of their original fans. Rock’n’roll’s pioneer detractors little dreamt that songs by the likes of The Stones and Bruce Springsteen would stand the test of time quite as well as the old “standards” of Gershwin and Berlin. The old vinyl relics, with their artwork and themes, probably add a certain romance.
There are also pop music’s technological forks in the road, which mean successful acts of any age can exist all or mostly online, and as song units rather than albums. As the UK’s Daily Telegraph reports, an artist today can achieve dazzling playlist numbers without a live act or even a brand. It’s talent-liberating that not everyone who makes commercially successful music has to reproduce it live, but perhaps this makes consumers even fonder of those who can.
Eventually, though, hips, ear drums and vocal cords wear out. That’s great news for the Beyoncés, Gagas and Kanyes. They, too, can be in the top 10 of touring earners – when they mature in a few decades’ time.
This editorial was first published in the July 13, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.