2016 has been a year with few bright spots. Even leaving aside my personal feelings about the presidential election (which is admittedly tough to do, but I went almost thirty seconds this morning before I remembered who we’d elected – baby steps, am I right?) and focusing solely on the music world, these past 11 months or so have been a real downer. The deaths of Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Phife Dawg (of A Tribe Called Quest) and Merle Haggard are not only saddening in and of themselves, but each star’s passing serves as a reminder that many of the musicians who soundtracked the last half-century of western life are not going to be around much longer. Morbid, I know, but it’s the truth.
But what’s even more amazing than the fact that we lost so many trailblazers in a single year is that, aside from Merle, ALL of them released a solid-to-excellent album within a year of their passing (Haggard’s last album came out in 2011).
Bowie’s final release, Blackstar, currently holds the top spot on Metacritic’s year-end best-of composite list (which gives albums points based on where they land on other publications’ top 10 lists. Leonard Cohen’s You Want it Darker – released just a few weeks before his death in November – comes in at number 10 on the list. If I had to bet, I’d say A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got it From Here… Thank You for Your Service will be knocking on the door before all is said and done. (Even professional currency printers and occasional musicians The Rolling Stones are getting in on the act with the release of their forthcoming collection of blues staples, Blue and Lonesome, which is – you guessed it – garnering strong early reviews.)
It may seem surprising to see artists whose heydays occurred 30 or more years ago battling younger stars like Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper, and BeyoncÃ© on best-of lists, but given the recent runs of other, ahem, mature artists, it shouldn’t come as a shock. Before they passed, Johnny Cash and Sharon Jones were making some of their best music. Bob Dylan, Loretta Lynn, Paul Simon, Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, and Bruce Springsteen (all of whom fall, of course, firmly into the “Please Lord Don’t Take Them Anytime Soon” category) have continued to do great work long after their so-called primes.
Four paragraphs to make a single point: aging artists are having something of a moment.
Which is weird, since for decades, the greats just kind of faded away, going into semi-retirement and occasionally cashing in on their glory days with hit-laden nostalgia tours. Their fans’ fond memories carried them through, and once in a while they’d release new music that would either get ruthlessly mocked (Lou Reed, Michael Jackson) or politely ignored (Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton), depending on the media’s predisposition toward them.
So why exactly are we suddenly witnessing a musical renaissance of those so long-in-the-tooth?
I have a theory. The splintering of the music market has essentially killed the idea that album sales = success, drastically reducing the expectations placed on artists to create music that resonates with the broadest possible swath of the public. Yes, artists like BeyoncÃ© and Taylor Swift can generate millions in album sales, downloads, and streaming revenues, but most artists and labels have had to content themselves with modest sales, making up the difference with tours and merchandise sales while trying to build their followings through internet and social media platforms.
My list of artists from above all fall into a category of musicians that has, in a weird way, benefitted from this inversion. If a hit record was still the primary metric of success in the industry, that’s what they’d be gunning for. And, like generations of older artists before them, they’d fail. But now, instead of trying to recapture the old magic with tired retreads of the work of their youth, they’re free to just make music that they find interesting. Since they know that the days of writing true, culture-saturating hits are gone (for just about everyone, not only them), they can stop worrying about mass appeal. This is the formula that indie artists have been relying on to grind out a musical existence for a long time, and the one-time mainstreamers are taking a page out of their book.
Gone are the A and R men saying they don’t hear a single. Gone is the push for radio play that leads to compromised creativity. Gone is the notion that artists should hope they die before they get old.
What’s replaced all that stuff? A whole lot of really freaking good music, made by a slew of artists ready to go down swinging.