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What’s age got to do with it?

About the author

Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune and co-host of the nationally syndicated public radio show Sound Opinions. He is the author of several books, including the forthcoming I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers and the March Up Freedom's Highway.

(David Redfern)

(David Redfern)

Three decades ago it wasn’t unusual for older acts to find success in the pop charts – but that is no longer the case. Greg Kot explains why.

Thirty years ago this September, Tina Turner’s wait was over. She finally had a number one single with What’s Love Got to Do With It. After a bitter break-up with her husband, Ike, in the 1970s, Turner had established herself as a solo artist to be reckoned with.

She also happened to be 44 years old – at the time the oldest female artist to go to the top of the charts. Back then, it wasn’t that unusual for a veteran artist to score a huge pop single. A year later, Grace Slick, also 44 at the time, had a hit with Starship’s We Built This City, and in 1999, the ageless Cher was 53 when Believe launched her comeback.

But in the last decade, stories like Turner’s are becoming less frequent. Heritage artists who haven’t retired or faded away have to rely more than ever on past hits to sustain tours and maintain careers because the pop charts are dominated by increasingly younger performers: 17-year-old Lorde and 22-year-old Sam Smith are the norm. Pop stardom has always been a young person’s game, but never more so than now.

What changed? How did veteran acts manage to maintain pop relevance in previous eras? A closer look at some of the more notable examples in past decades shows that these relative old-timers didn’t ignore what was happening in pop culture at the moment, but embraced it in a way that for them was authentic and even authoritative.

In Turner’s case, she got back to the gritty rock persona that had characterised some of her greatest successes with Ike Turner. After priming audiences by opening tours for Rod Stewart and The Rolling Stones, she tore into What’s Love Got to do With It like an upstart with something to prove. Her sound fit in right alongside top chart acts such a Van Halen, Prince and Bruce Springsteen.

A knack for trend-hopping enabled the Stones to re-establish their place atop the charts with Miss You in 1978, a mix of disco faddishness and rock grime. The song went to number one even though Mick Jagger and the boys were no longer boys, but well into their mid and late 30s (and bassist Bill Wyman was 41).

Comeback kids

The balancing act between opportunism and integrity kept older artists on the pop charts for decades. Diane Warren was on a hot streak of power-ballad blockbusters in the ‘90s, writing massive hits for LeAnn Rimes and Celine Dion, when Aerosmith came calling. Singer Steven Tyler was 50 and the band’s biggest successes were nearly a decade in the past when the quintet took Warren’s I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing to no 1 in 1998. It also didn’t hurt that the song was tied in with a commercially successful Hollywood movie, Armageddon. For hardcore Aerosmith fans, the song represented a sort of Armageddon, too, but perhaps not in the way the band intended. Nonetheless, the song effectively re-established the band with a new audience and kept Tyler relevant enough that he’d go on to serve as a judge for a couple of years on American Idol.

In the same year, Cher came back strong with Believe. It made her seem almost hip again with its thundering house beat and Auto-Tuned vocals, just as dance music was on the ascent around the world. Carlos Santana, at 52, also did some coat-tail riding on the massive 1999 hit Smooth. Santana played lead guitar and got his name on the tune, but Rob Thomas of the multimillion-selling band Matchbox 20 wrote and sang the tune. It was Santana’s first chart topper ever, but likely wouldn’t have happened without Thomas’ built-in pop connection.

All that changed during the last decade. The pop charts have been virtually a no-fly zone for veteran acts – unless they borrow from the Santana playbook and collaborate with someone younger and hipper like Eminem has. The erstwhile bad-boy rapper turned 41-year-old multimillionaire enlisted Rihanna to sing the giant hooks for number one singles Love the Way You Lie and Monster. Another exception has been 38-year-old Australian Sia, whose current top-10 hit Chandelier bears an uncanny similarity to the vocal style of pop queen Beyoncé.

Radio days

Other stars from past eras have not fared as well. Once-unstoppable pop juggernauts Mariah Carey and Mary J Blige barely got noticed this year when both singers, now in their mid-40s, released new projects. And though veteran rock acts such as Pearl Jam, Tom Petty, Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen still do well selling albums and concert tickets to their fans, they haven’t been able crack the pop-singles chart in decades.

Why does it matter? Because even a modest radio hit can change the arch of a band’s career and its public perception, as The Black Keys found out in 2010 when Tighten Up climbed to a modest number 87 on the pop chart and went gold after receiving tons of commercial radio airplay. It promoted the duo of Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach into an arena band, after a decade of playing clubs.

“Everyone told us that there is nothing that will change your career more than getting a record played on radio.” Carney told me in 2010. “You can make all the great records you want, but your audience will stay basically the same. There is a limit to how far you can go without a radio hit.”

But now that Carney and Auerbach are in their mid-30s, they realise the notion of sustaining that kind of pop success becomes less and less likely.  “I’ve seen it happen to other bands: it blows up and it goes away,” Carney said. “I realize there is nothing more special about Dan and I that would prevent that from happening, especially now. It’s all propped up by a song on radio, and we’re not a radio band.”

And neither are many of The Black Keys’ peers as they approach rock ‘n’ roll middle age and beyond.

Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune. His work can be found here.

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