COLUMN: Live Long And Prosper
Published: Wednesday, October 9, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, October 9, 2013 20:10
“I hope I die before I get old,” sneers Roger Daltrey in a famous line from The Who’s classic “My Generation.” It’s an iconic moment in the song, perfectly summarizing the ’60s generation’s scornful rejection of their parents’ values.
At the same time, though, Daltrey’s lyrics contain repercussions extending far beyond his generation. Musicians have always harbored anxieties about growing old, stale, and tired. The conventional wisdom goes that artists produce their greatest work when young, and that after a certain point it’s all downhill. Perhaps this assumption is made for good reason—a look at The Who’s phoned-in 2010 Super Bowl halftime performance suggests why. But in any case, the fear of aging lies just beneath the surface of all kinds of songs: think of The Beatles’ “When I’m 64,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “Old Friends,” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days.”
Or, if you prefer, think of a New Zealander named Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O’Connor—or, as she is better known, Lorde. With the success of her chart-topping single “Royals” and the release of her acclaimed debut album Pure Heroine, Lorde has been the talk of the proverbial town, and with good reason. She’s a refreshingly unguarded celebrity who marches to the beat of her own drum. She’s unafraid to knock Selena Gomez and Taylor Swift down a peg in interviews, or to turn down a tour offer from Katy Perry. More importantly, her music displays obvious talent, as it stirs soul, electropop, and hip-hop influences into a stylistic mix that is popular enough to hit the charts but unique enough to resist easy classification. And Lorde’s lyrics offer far more insight than the he-loves-me/he-loves-me-not cliches of Swift and her contemporaries. She even cites literary figures like Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff as inspirations for her writing—hardly typical influences for a burgeoning pop star.
Oh, and did I mention she’s 16 years old?
Lorde seems to have tapped into the youthful wellspring of musical invention rather early, but she’s already fearful of the future. While listening to Pure Heroine (a stellar album, by the way), one line uttered at the end of the track “Ribs” stuck out to me like a sore thumb: “It feels so scary getting old.”
Why on earth would a teenager be experiencing fears about aging? Perhaps it’s because such anxieties are built into the very fabric of pop music, an industry always on the hunt for the newest young talent, the Next Big Thing. But it seems to me that this blind preference toward youth, and the assumption that artists peak young, ignores the virtues of artists with deeper roots.
Last December, I got a glimpse of this for myself when I saw Leonard Cohen’s concert at the Wang Theater in Boston. Cohen released his first album in 1967 and is currently 79 years old, but the man I saw was no aged relic. From the instant that he ran on stage and dropped on his knees to sing “Dance Me to the End of Love” in his unmistakable baritone, Cohen had the entire crowd energized. He played for three hours, reshaping old classics with the help of his dedicated band and working in new material from his 2012 album Old Ideas. Many of Cohen’s songs explore deep, dark currents of human experience, including aging (“My friends are gone and my hair is grey / I ache in the places where I used to play,” he sings on “Tower of Song”). Quite simply, these are songs that Cohen couldn’t have written as a younger man—they are graced with a wisdom and maturity only available to the aged. Far from being gloomy, though, Cohen’s performance was carefree and charming. As he exchanged witty banter with the audience and bowed deferentially to every outburst of applause, Cohen was the embodiment of gratitude, a man thankful to be reflecting on his long life and career with a supportive crowd.
Cohen is far from the only artist to explore fruitful new avenues in his later years. Johnny Cash could not have recorded “Hurt” in the ’60s without the years of drug abuse and regret evident in the 2002 recording. The Bob Dylan of “Blowin’ in the Wind” could never have written his 1997 album Time Out Of Mind, a swampy blues masterpiece about lost love and mortality.
So, Lorde, heed some friendly advice: first of all, you are 16. It might be a little early to be having an existential crisis about aging. And second, don’t fear the wrinkles. Getting old may be scary, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing—you can live long and still prosper.