October 19, 2006

More on young rock stars:

As I said last night, my impression is that they ain't making new rock stars as young as they used to. With the help of readers, I'm going to ramble on that general theme, since there seems to be a lot that can be learned, although I'm not sure exactly what.

First, is that true? It's kind of hard to say. British invasion stars were typically 19-23 when they first hit it big. Here are the ages of famous 1950s rockers when they made their breakthroughs:

Elvis Presley recorded his first rockabilly tracks at 19 and became the biggest star in the history of the world in 1956 at 21.

Little Richard started recording at 18 and had a hit with "Tutti-Frutti" at 22.

Jerry Lee Lewis was 21 or 22 when "Whole Lotta Shaking Going On" became a hit.

Johnny Cash (more country than rock) had his first hits at 23.

Chuck Berry, however, was 28 or 29 at the time of "Maybellene."

A reader writes:

Just reading over the "young rockstar" post, and I thought how far back this goes, if true. I looked up the ages of various grunge and pop-punk stars when they became famous:

Billie Joe Armstrong (Green Day) = 22 ('72, '94)
Zack de la Rocha (Rage Against the Machine) = 22 ('70, '92)
Rivers Cuomo (Weezer) = 24 ('70, '94)
Kurt Cobain (Nirvana) = 24 ('67, '91)
Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots) = 25 ('67, '92)
Billy Corgan (The Smashing Pumpkins) = 26 ('67, '93)
Jerry Cantrell (Alice in Chains) = 26 ('66, '92)
Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam) = 28 ('63, '91)
Dexter Holland (The Offspring) = 29 ('65, '94)
Chris Cornell (Soundgarden) = 30 ('64, '94)

Recently: Brandon Flowers (The Killers) = 23 ('81, '04)
Julian Casablancas (The Strokes) = 23 ('78, '01)
Pete Doherty (The Libertines) = 23 or 25 ('79, '02 or '04), since first album was success but second made them superfamous
Kele Okereke (Bloc Party) = 24 ('81, '05)
Alex Kapranos (Franz Ferdinand) = 32 ('72, '04)

Also, most of these people started playing and/or already had record label deals by their late teens or early 20s, but didn't achieve stardom until the dates above. Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell, for example.

A reader writes:

As to UK rockstars who came up in the '60's, you may want to consider that in the good old days most kids over there left school at 15, except for the small percentage that was being groomed to go on to university. Someone might make it as a rockstar (at least in the sense of no longer needing a day job) at 19 after already spending a couple of years full time in the work force. Roger Daltrey was a sheetmetal worker, Ozzy Osborne worked (I think) in a slaughterhouse, Van Morrison was a window washer (see his nostalgic song "Cleaning Windows"). I think a lot of the kids in that cohort who went off to art school started that at 15 or so, since it was not the same track as proper university so you didn't need the last couple years of academic preparation.

Yes, it could be that the British Invasion skewed particularly young because so many kids were thrown out of school -- Tom Wolfe went to Carnaby Street in the mid-1960s and wrote an article specifically about that: how so many working class English kids could afford to be in The Life (the whole Austin Powers Swinging London scene) at age 16 or 17.

So, maybe what's going on is largely the decline of British (and Irish) rock bands in American music from their extraordinary peak of 1964 into the 1980s. The huge role played by British bands over the Beatles to U2 era (when I first saw them in 1981, Bono was 21 and Edge 20) may have skewed the sample younger due to British policies that kicked lots of kids out of school at 16.

There's also the British emphasis on "mateship" that means most of their big artists, with the exception of David Bowie, are bands rather than solo artists. In contrast, a higher percentage of big American acts (Dylan, Hendrix, Springsteen, Prince, etc.) have been solo artists or star plus subordinated band. This could skew British artists younger in that it might be easier to start off as part of a band than as a solo star. You can start young as a solo star if you're being packaged by a music industry svengali, but that's more of a pop than a rock approach.

In contrast, the CBGB punk-new wave scene of the 1970s in New York wasn't that young. Johnny Ramone was at least 25 before the Ramones started playing at CBGB in 1974, with Joey and and Dee-Dee being a little younger. Deborah Harry of Blondie was in her early 30s before their first album came out in 1976. The Talking Heads members (probably the most famous American art schoolers) were in their mid-to late 20s when they got their first album in 1977. Before then in NYC, Lou Reed was in his mid-20s when the Velvet Underground first had an impact.

I guess the explanation is that the world in general was ready for Elvis in 1956 and the Beatles in 1964, but wasn't ready for the Ramones until about 20 years later, when "Blitzkrieg Bop" became a standard in TV commercials.

I'm a bit surprised that you have extrapolated a trend from so few data points. You might be right, but it's not hard to find counterexamples from earlier generations. As you acknowledge, Chuck Berry was almost 29 when Maybelline came out, and if you go back into the blues Muddy Waters was well into his 30's and Howlin' Wolf was past 40 before they got records out. Patti Smith was 29 when Horses came out. Billy Zoom of X was 31 or 32 when Los Angeles came out, although Steve McDonald was 12 or 13 when the first Redd Kross album came out around the same time -- punk had a pretty broad range that way. I also assume there's lots of youngsters putting out debut LPs (or whatever the heck the kids call them -- debut downloads?) today.

So, while the earlier stars tended to be younger, the real difference is that when the earlier stars became famous they became vastly more famous. After Elvis was 21, American culture was never the same again. On the post-1990 list, only Kurt Cobain could be considered in the same breath as the sub-Elvis and sub-Beatles icons of the 1950s and 1960s in cultural impact. It's hard to invent rock and roll all over again, although for a couple of decades they often almost managed to.

A reader writes:

I can't prove it, but I suspect that home video games have also delayed the maturation of musicians. Many future rock stars are dexterous and sociable but prefer indoor activities to outdoor (think guitar vs. skateboard). I think a lot of them nowadays put in plenty of hours playing video games that might previously gone to experimenting and jamming.

A reader writes:

My wife and I have often discussed why rockers today trend older. We went to see ZZ Top a few months ago and the place was full of kids with their parents. That's the problem. Teenagers today lead pre-programmed lives. They have no time to sit around picking guitars, experimenting with the piano or putting together a garage band, they are too busy with music lessons and other organized activities. They don't get freedom from parental programming until university, so they start later, albeit with better formal preparation.

A reader writes:

If there are fewer young rock stars right now, I think it is generally because rock music right now is kinda in the doldrums with not many dynamic new ideas. That's just my opinion, though, so whatever.

Here are some youngish rock stars for ya, though:

Brandon Flowers, lead singer for The Killers, was 23 when their first hit album was released in 2004.

The band members of Jet ranged between 22 and 24 when their first album was released in 2003.

Brandon Boyd (Incubus) was 23 when their first hit album was released in 1999.

Chester Bennington (Linkin Park) was the oldest band member, at 24, when their album Hybrid Theory was released in 2000.

Jacoby Shaddix (Papa Roach, ugh) was 24 when their hit album was released in 2000.

A reader writes:

On a related note, is it just me, or do rock bands produce work at a much slower rate nowadays? A quick internet discography search shows that in the first eight years of their recording careers, the Beatles put out 13 original albums (not including greatest hits, live albums, or, in the case of the Beates, Yellow Submarine), the Stones 10, the Beach boys 14, Dylan 9. Even the notoriously fussy Who put out 6, in addition to a whole slew of singles. Nobody matches that output anymore.

Similarly, the Clash released 120 tracks from 1977-1982, the equivalent of about ten albums worth, most of it good, then burned out completely. Joe Strummer said later that they should have just decided to take a year off, but it never really occurred to them at the time, so they tore each other to pieces in their exhaustion. I believe it's more common to take "sabbaticals" today as a way to maintain a longer career.

It might be that rock music has jumped the pop-shark somewhat. This may sound strange to you but relative to other contemporary pop music, rock requires a certain degree of effort on the part of the listener, sometimes it has to be listened to more than once to be 'gotten'. Rap on the other hand is a more natural choice, combining the danceibility and the immediately pleasing sounds of that were formerly found only soul and disco with the hard edge that teens used to look to rock to provide. Rock is becoming the choice of the semi-alienated intellectual teen rather than the anthem of the masses. Currently, the most important online music review site is this pitchforkmedia.com; it looks as if it is written by and for the pretentious future humanities professors of america, rock seems to have started attracting a better educated crowd, and that's a sure sign that it is losing the pop war.

Another reader brings up John Stuart Mill's notorious worry:

People often say that music is infinite in combinations, but that's nonsense. Only a few combinations are pleasing, and there are a much more limited number of rhythms that one can employ.

Rock forms and conventions allow an extremely limited number of chord progressions so we have to use the same ones over and over. Given that repetition, the number of good melodies that you can generate from a simple chord progression is, again, limited.

The problem for the modern rock artist is that everything has pretty much been done by the time he picks up his instrument.

There are a few strategies a good composer can employ to try and break up this logjam such as using offbeat rhythms like 5/4, 7/4, or combinations of different time signatures but one has to be very clever to make such things swing and produce catchy tunes or pleasant "hooks".

Also, having great chord vocabularies would help, but most guitar musicians I see hardly know their fretboards or how to use dominant seventh chords which helps change obvious tonalities.

Also, few groups have any idea of vocal harmony and how absolutely atractive that is to the human ear.

The recent spate of boy bands used harmony but their tones were ugly, whiney and nasal; yet in spite of that, they had huge success.

There simply is nowhere for pop music to go except continuous recycling with the occasional tune that catches your ear and fancy.

Serious concert music has a similar problem.

I put forward a similar theory in a 2001 article "Where Did All the Catchy Tunes Go?" I just don't know if it's true. I don't have anywhere close to enough musical talent to justify my theorizing on this topic.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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