Are Great Pop Musicians Washed Up by Age 30?
Recently, I read an intriguing retrospective of the dreadful Paul McCartney solo studio album, Ram — released 46 years ago today:
Recorded in the spring of 1971, Ram was McCartney’s second post-Beatles musical overture. At the time, the lackluster album was universally eviscerated by critics. In one of the kinder and gentler reviews, Rolling Stone described Ram as “incredibly inconsequential” and “monumentally irrelevant.” Spoiled by a steady assembly line of Lennon-McCartney classics from the preceding decade, the public didn’t care much for the new music either.
Aside from the stellar Band on the Run, released a few years later in late 1973, most of McCartney’s other solo projects consisted of mostly patchwork collections of erratic inconsistency, while engaging on occasion, far more often mere trinkets of Paul’s much-celebrated earlier works.
By 1982, when McCartney crossed his 40th birthday, he’d all but retreated from the cutting-edge cliff of innovation de facto morphing into the world’s highest-paid nostalgia act (albeit, still a remarkable live performer filled with boundless energy, even today at 75). If pressed to tell the truth, most hard-core Paul fans would probably have a difficult time naming a truly great McCartney-composed song released within the past 35 years. For whatever reason, Rock’s Mozart has become Muzak.
To be fair, McCartney’s post-Beatles stuff has always been unfairly judged against the gold standard of pop music genius. Expected to continue the greatest creative run in recorded musical history indefinitely, when Liverpool’s Fab Four plugged in their prehistoric instruments (by today’s standards) and changed everything within the eye blink of seven-year stretch, most fans and critics looked to McCartney as arguably the most talented of the group, and therefor best suited to transition as a solo artist and simply pick up where he left off right after the painful band break up in 1970. Yet despite some valiant solo efforts along the way, McCartney has failed to deliver anything remotely close to the catalog of masterpieces when the far more youthful icon — still in his 20’s — wrote (or co-wrote) an astonishing collection of more than 300 songs, many the soundtrack to a generation.
How could the same creative source of ingenuity who penned “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby” (by age 24), followed up by “Hey Jude” and “Let it Be” (by age 27) fade into a has-been, creatively speaking? Indeed, how does the same musical sage who composed so many classics later record and release so many utterly forgettable songs?
Do great pop musicians run into creative gauntlet by age 30, and if so — why? [Note: For purposes of discussion, I made “30” the creative cutoff. But it could be 29, or 31, or 32 — the point being that musical creative talent diminishes perhaps over time]
The evidence does seem pretty convincing. In my introduction, I picked on Paul McCartney because he’s one of the best-known musicians in history and his career is easier for us to judge over a longer stretch. However, I could have said pretty much the same thing about the Rolling Stones or The Who — the two other legendary bands of the 1960’s trifecta. I could also have plucked several other rock icons — including David Bowie, Elton John, Queen, U2, or Bruce Springsteen and made a similar argument that most of their creativity reached a peak prior to their 30th birthday. Then there’s Bob Dylan, arguably the greatest songwriter in our lifetime, who pretty much peaked by age 34 with Blood on the Tracks.
Let’s take a closer look at the Stones. While Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have clearly stood the test of time (and then some), they haven’t written or recorded anything remotely close to the temblor of Beggar’s Banquet (1968) or Let it Bleed (1969), or Exile on Main Street (1972) in nearly four decades. By the time the Rolling Stones had released their most memorable stuff, Jagger and Richards, the band’s primary songwriters, were both age 28.
The Who penned and recorded an astonishing burst of great music between 1965’s My Generation up through 1973’s Quadrophenia. Then, Roger Daltry and Pete Townshend turned 30, and it’s been all downhill since, at least from a cutting edge creative standpoint (to be fair, Keith Moon, a seminal force, died in 1978 at age 32).
This discussion isn’t limited only to white males of a certain era. It also applies to female songwriters and many soul and R&B artists, as well.
Consider Carole King, a monumental force of songwriting who — after spending years in the shadows penning hit songs for other artists — enjoyed her own personal breakthrough with Tapestry, released in 1971. At the time, she was 29. King remains a vibrant performer. However, like McCartney and the Stones and the rest, she’s not written anything particularly memorable in the last 35 years.
Stevie Wonder was a child prodigy and a bombshell of musical creativity. Wonder was one of the first R&B artists to seize full musical control of his material, intentionally choosing to write his own songs and experiment with new sounds when many Black artists remained under the thumb of record company executives. The years between 1970 and 1977 for him were as fruitful any artist in history. Wonder hit is creative peak in 1977 with the release of the epic album masterpiece, Songs in the Key of Life. At the time, Wonder was 27 years old.
What explains such an apparent decline in musical creativity, at a relatively young age?
Other genres of popular expression don’t seem to suffer an age lapse at all. Consider that over the years, many painters, writers, and comedians have produced their greatest works well into the 40’s and 50’s and beyond.
With writers, advancing age has been shown to be, not an inhibitor, but an elixir of creative inspiration. Few writers make much of an impact while still in their 20’s. But over time, as one masters the use of language and art of expression, (good) writers do tend to become better at their craft. I’m not sure if it’s the same with architects or scientists, who must also call upon vast reservoirs of knowledge and experience. However, it seems quite clear that virtually all artistic avenues crowded with older people doing better work now than yesterday, and destined to improve on their efforts tomorrow.
So, what makes music — or at least pop music — so much different?
Note 1: Keep in mind, I’m strictly discussing musical creativity, not musical performance. Many performers put on a great show well into their 50’s, and beyond. However, very few write good music well into their 50’s, and beyond.
Note 2: Consumers of pop music do tend to skew much younger than average. This would explain why many of the most popular musical acts are teenagers and in their 20’s. There’s simply more profit to be made catering to this younger audience. Hence, younger and fresher artists get far more opportunities and perhaps even greater creative latitude than older more experienced artists.
Note 3: Audiences could be as much to blame for the lapse in creativity as anything else. Most audiences prefer to hear hit songs. Most audiences don’t want to hear new (unfamiliar) music. So, there’s pressure on older acts to deliver stale material and no longer push creative boundaries.
Note 4: Finally, there’s obvious complacency which sets in once a musician is a multi-millionaire, earning royalties for the remainder of their lives.