October 19, 2006

Why are new rock stars older today?

The October 2005 debut album by the Australian power trio Wolfmother is striking both because it sounds straight out 1969's dawn of heavy metal and, despite the band's lack of stylistic originality, it's awfully exciting (and I never much liked metal).

These guys were 28 or 29 when their first full album came out. They've all had what were were more like careers than day jobs in non-musical fields. I believe that's pretty common today, but by the standards of the 1960s-1970s, late 20s is rather old. In contrast, Robert Plant was 20 and Jimmy Page, already a prominent veteran of the Yardbirds and studio work, had just turned 25 when Led Zeppelin's first album came out in 1969.

Similarly, the Beatles were between 20 (George) and 23 (John and Ringo) when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were 21 when they released "Satisfaction" in 1965. Roger Daltrey was 21, Pete Townshend 20, and Keith Moon 19 when The Who recorded "My Generation" in 1965. Mick Jones was 21 and Joe Strummer was 24 when they released "The Clash" in 1977. Elvis Costello was 22 when "My Aim Is True" came out.

Among Americans, John Fogerty was 23 when the first Creedence Clearwater album was released, as was Bruce Springsteen. Brian Wilson was 20 when the first Beach Boys album came out, as was Bob Dylan. Kurt Cobain was 22 at the time of Nirvana's first album, and 24 on "Nevermind." Prince was 19 or 20 at the time of his first album. Jim Hendrix was 24, which seems rather late for such a talent.

I wonder why the debut age of rock musicians has gone up?

A reader writes:

"It's much harder to get record deals today. Record sales are way down. A lot of bands have played for a long time on the club circuit before they score a major label deal."

Okay, makes sense, but record sales only dropped off a few years ago due to Napster. My vague impression is that this trend goes back 15 or 20 years.

The British Invasion superstars tended to be guys born during the WWII Baby Bust who enjoyed the advantage of less competition from their cohort and a vast number of Baby Boomers coming up behind them to buy their records.

There is a big new metal band from Virginia called Lamb of God. You'd never guess that several of the members (3 I think) are graduates of the University of Virginia. I guess we all go to college now to burn 4 years...even if what we really want to do is play heavy metal music. In sum, in several cases, you can now add +4 to the ages you listed for the Pages and Plants of the 60s.

Whatever happened to when rock stars used to be art school dropouts?

It's a paradoxical legacy of the 1960s, which taught subsequent generations not to grow up as fast as previous generations, who were often parents by, say, 22. Ironically, now, people don't even become rock stars at 22!

A reader writes:

It's because rock is getting to be a fairly mature form. There are fewer wild innovations out there for rockers to do. So it rewards less the green and rebellious and rewards more those who have studied everything that has come before them. So, older dudes.

It may be that there are huge breakthroughs waiting out there to be, uh, broken through. I hope so. But right now there isn't a lot of new happening, at least I don't think so. In ten years we'll be able to look back and know better of course.

I think that probably is a big part of the story.

In general, things don't seem to be changing as fast. I was discussing with my son the interconnected events of the year 1968 -- the protests and unrest in America, Paris, Prague, Belfast, etc. He asked, "Was feminism a big part of 1968?" I replied, "No, feminism, while an offshoot of the 1960s, only became a hot topic in 1969, or maybe early 1970." Then I stopped and thought about how bizarre that particularity by year sounds compared to how much slower social movements proceed today.

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

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