If there’s no handbook on how to make it as an artist, there certainly isn’t one on how to age as a musician. Groups such as Pet Shop Boys and Blondie reached staggering international fame at the height of their careers, yet their contemporary releases aren’t as welcomed by the mainstream media and raise the question of whether discriminating older artists is a growing problem in the music industry.
The injustices of this issue are easy to spot; the world mourned the loss of icons such as Prince, David Bowie and George Michael, yet among articles in the past weeks celebrating Madonna’s achievements across her career as she turned sixty, there’s a palpable hint of uncertainty as to what’s next. A scan through the comments alone on a recent Instagram post of Madonna’s reveals one telling her to cover up her grey hairs.
Of course, it’s never a wise idea to form opinions based on Instagram posts, but perhaps these comments allude to another injustice in the industry. If ageing in the limelight is hard enough, female artists are clearly being scrutinised more than their male counterparts.
In a joint interview last year ahead of a tour together, Blondie’s Debbie Harry described the ageism they face as “frightening”, while Cyndi Lauper explained that artists are “not cars, but people”. Are older artists even seen as that, or just a manufacturing machine which eventually no longer works?
Lauper’s point shows us that in a throwaway society of streaming and instant online sharing, the idea of older artists continuing their careers long after their heyday sometimes seems to evoke a sense of embarrassment in the public consumers. Especially, it seems, for female musicians.
The ageism issue is a tricky one because it’s in many ways unchartered waters. There aren’t any instructions about releasing music over a certain age – but why should this be a problem in the first place? Understandably, from an older artist’s point of view, another great challenge of theirs lies with the airplay they receive from radio – or not, in some of the most well-known cases. Following the 2016 release of his thirtieth studio album, Wonderful Crazy Night, Sir Elton John criticised American radio stations for not playing his music and claimed that they were ageist.
It’s a difficult position to be in, clearly. The announcement earlier this year of Sir Elton’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour generated a considerable amount of press and fan attention and all current listed dates have sold out. The idea of watching a favourite artist play live excites fans and critics alike, but the release of new music over a certain age seems to have a different effect.
What’s more problematic is the noticeable challenges female artists appear to be facing more criticism as they age, as shown in the comments of Madonna’s photos. Where does this leave the conflicting issue of ageism in today’s music industry? Although it seems to be something which doesn’t get the attention it deserves, some of the industry’s biggest names seem unfazed by its potential to do damage.
Speaking to The Cut in April, pop icon Madonna shared the view that “people are going to shut up ageism soon” and that the ageism she faces currently, such as criticism for dating younger men, will one day be eradicated as in “ten to twenty years from now, it’s going to be normal”.
It’s a refreshing to hear, from the ultimate material girl herself. As a female artist who has been heralded as an unapologetic trailblazer for her chameleonic and regenerative image, if anyone can take down ageism and set another example of how artists can escape unarmed from its touch, it’s Madonna, who performed at this year’s Met Gala and stated in January that she has begun work on her fourteenth studio album.
If the world of pop culture and music is waking up to its faults in its treatment of certain individuals in the past for issues regarding gender, sexuality or race, I remain hopeful that there will be a time when ageism is no longer something hindering older artists.
From having a greater range of experience and knowledge of the industry to being catalysts of inspiration for their younger counterparts, it’s time older artists – regardless of gender – were appreciated in their lifetimes, before we lose another of the irreplaceable greats and realise just how young they were.
(Featured image: chrisweger @ Flickr)