With The Who recently declaring their intentions to quiet down and grow old gracefully after their planned fiftieth anniversary tour in 2015, it occurred to me that a whole host of the most respected and treasured artists in popular music are approaching their twilight years and, as such, may be swapping their backstage pass for a bus pass in much the same way. Are we to say our goodbyes and accept that the Bowie’s and McCartney’s of this world are going to follow suit and retire from music in the immediate future and is this, whisper it, a good thing?
As the recent swathes of critical plaudits for the finale of Breaking Bad have shown us, there is certainly something to be said for ending on a high. The writers called time on the immensely successful drama while it was enjoying its highest ever ratings and this decision will ensure it avoids the fate suffered by many of its contemporaries, of limping on past their sell-by-date, and ensure its rightful place as a fondly remembered all-time great. Perhaps then, writers and performers would do well to consider the wise (though ultimately ironic) advice of The Dark Knight’s Harvey Dent; “you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Admittedly, there may be a sliver of hyperbole in effect here, but any devoted Metallica fan that endured the rusty-pole-wailing-on-a-radiator cacophony of 2003’s St. Anger will be able to sympathise.
Witnessing the disintegration of your most cherished artists can feel like betrayal and may serve to tarnish the memory of their careers; few would bother to reproach anyone who insisted that Metallica are flogging a dead horse, despite the consistently seminal and defining albums which made them so great in the first place. Surely no artist wants to be accused of phoning it in, releasing fetid cover albums and wheeling out greatest hit tours. So why bother? R.E.M stand as a shining example of a respected band who recognised the opportune time to call it quits. They didn’t give themselves the chance to become irreversibly stale and will be remembered more fondly for it. So, should all the elder statesmen and bingo-hall-botherers of popular music just pack it in, enjoy their retirement and stop tarnishing their reputation with sub-par releases and tours?
If 2013 is anything to go by, then the answer is a resounding no! This year has been blessed by the rejuvenation of artists who are institutions in popular music and it is this which may be the most exciting and encouraging statement for the current music scene. The surprise return of the Thin White Duke gave the new blood chasing the coveted Mercury Prize a glaring reminder that they still have to contend with the music their parents danced to, in order to gain recognition in today’s music scene. Paul McCartney’s newest release does exactly what it says on the sleeve; it’s fresh, as if the heyday of The Beatles was only Yesterday (sorry) and has swagger to spare – it is, essentially, ‘New’. Furthermore, Elton John’s best work for years, The Diving Board, marks a revival for piano-driven heart and soul crooning, which shows the young pretenders like Tom Odell how it’s done. The fact that these albums all entered the charts in the top ten, with The Next Day reaching number one, asserts that their relevance is out of the question. These artists are entrenched in the culture of popular music and they shine as a beacon for British music and an example to younger artists who picked up an instrument because of them.
In short, the stars who penned the tunes our parents danced to aren’t done yet. Far from it. Sure, if you can recognise that your best is behind you, then it may be time to hang it up. Fans will always lament the loss, and perhaps the responsibility to provide for these adoring followers and sate their appetite may obligate them to continue past their prime. Fans will always salivate over the opportunity to see their idols, as the overwhelming demand for Michael Jackson’s ‘This is It’ series of shows proved. Is it then, an issue of prioritizing the needs of fans and those of one’s ego and legacy?
The omnipresence of older artists needn’t prevent younger artists from achieving success and getting recognised either. There will always be place for new bands to break into the scene, as the resounding success of, among others, the Arctic Monkeys and James Blake winning the Mercury Prize in spite of Bowie has shown. This isn’t a saturated market and this shouldn’t be a legitimate worry. The music industry doesn’t work like our brains or memories – we aren’t forced to erase one tune to make way for another – and so the music scene thrives on variety and a constantly changing and evolving roster of artists. If they are good enough, new bands are likely get enough attention, especially with the exposure afforded them by the internet and social media. These role models are just as vital for inspiring the new breed as they are for entertaining their legions of older fans, as well as the younger music junkies who will discover them, as influences on their current, fresher-faced favourites.
So yes, if your bodies can’t handle it, packing in the touring may be a wise choice. Fans will inevitably weep, but there shouldn’t be any pressure to retire when there is so much still to offer. As the old adage goes – you’re only as old as you feel – and this year’s triumphant records from the old guard have proven that they are still feeling young at heart, and we should count ourselves lucky they are.