How Old is Too Old to Be a Pop Star?
We often associate popular music with young people. But do youthful artists really dominate the pop charts?
It would be interesting to cross reference this with [the] age of performers. The unspoken rule of thumb is creatives age out of achieving A-list success by 30. What do you think?
What I think is that I’d love to answer your question, Thea. Let’s find out if pop music is a young person’s game.
So You Wanna Be a Pop Star?
According to the RIAA, Tina Turner is one of the best-selling artists of all-time. Born Anna Mae Bullock in 1939, Turner first came to prominence with her then-husband Ike in the 1960s. The large majority of her record sales, though, came after 1984, when according to Billboard she “launched one of the greatest comebacks in music history”.
At the time of said comeback, spawned by her album Private Dancer and the number one single “What’s Love Got to Do with It”, Turner was 46. Inspired by my reader’s comment, I wanted to find out how rare an artist achieving massive success in their 40s is.
First, I started with the top 100 best-selling artists on the aforementioned RIAA list that Turner appeared on. I then looked at how old each artist was when they released their best-selling album. If the artist was made up of multiple members (e.g., The Beatles), I took the average age of each of them.
52 of the top 100 best-selling artists released their best-selling album before the age of 30, with the median age coming in at 29. So, the rule of thumb that my reader mentioned, namely that “creatives age out of achieving A-list success by 30”, checks out.
But there is more to this story. Rather than just looking at the age of each artist when they released their best-selling album, let’s also look at their ages when they released their debut album and their last platinum album.
Though 92 of the top 100 artists released their debut before the age of 30, 45 released their best-selling album after the age of 30, and 61 released their final platinum album after the age of 40. This paints a slightly different picture. Best-selling artists start young, likely achieve their commercial peak before middle age, but often continue to put out beloved work for decades.
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That career trajectory is focused on albums, though. Singles and albums can attract slightly different audiences. You will occasionally see legacy acts release massive albums. It’s much rarer for them to release massive singles, though. For example, as I write this newsletter, The Rolling Stones - whose members range from 76 to dead - have the number 3 album on the Billboard album chart. No songs from that album, Hackney Diamonds, have cracked the Hot 100, Billboard’s pop singles chart.
If we look at every number one single on the Billboard Hot 100 from 1958 through 2020, we see that 95% of those songs topped the charts by artists before they reached 30 years of age. That’s vastly different from the breakdown of when best-selling artists release their best-selling albums.
Trends in popular music are undoubtedly driven by the young, especially in the last 70 to 80 years. But that youthful hold on popular music is even stronger among singles than albums. I was trying to understand this phenomenon when I thought of this quote from musician Ben Folds’ memoir, A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life Of Music And Cheap Lessons:
[Pop music is] a soundtrack for that yearning, that youthful anger, those ideals and inside jokes of the teenagers and young adults as they experience the rough ride together ... Good pop music, truly of its moment, should throw older adults off its scent. It should clear the room of boring adults and give the kids some space.
If you're post-mating age, you might enjoy new pop music to a degree, but it's not really for you. Post-mating-age adults have a whole other heap of problems, the likes of which the sickest beat and saddest rhyme are woefully unequipped to solve. You don't need an earful of sexy when navigating your aging parents into an old folks' home or when you're worried your kids might be trying drugs at their delinquent friend's house.
When Folds is describing that youthful “soundtrack”, he is almost surely describing a soundtrack of singles. Albums have been and remain meaningful to young people - myself included - but many of the situations that make up our youth are soundtracked by singles. From awkward dates to late night parties, singles color the background of our social memories. Albums are connected with deep listening in more intimate settings. Because of the relationship between singles and socializing, I think older artists will always have a hard time competing on that front. Their albums, on the other hand, have a better chance at faring well despite stiff competition from the youth.
I find all of this oddly comforting. I think young people should be listening to music that old people can’t understand. If everyone generation agreed on popular music, it would surely be a sign of cultural decline. Things change. And they should.
That said, artists can continue to have success for decades. Even if they never match the cultural prominence of their first 30 years, they can still put out works that are highly influential. What’s even better is that those works are likely to be albums, or works longer than three-minute pop songs. In other words, we get to see great artists engage with concepts deeply as they grow older while younger artists can experiment with the zeitgeist. I don’t know how that sounds to you, but it sounds good to me.
A New One
"Lips" by Jane Remover
2023 - Shoegaze
The first musical genre that made me feel all the years of my 20-something-year-old body was hyperpop. Born on SoundCloud and taxonomized by editors at Spotify in 2019, hyperpop is a glitchy, electronic microgenre whose practitioners, according to Billboard, “seek to accelerate and exaggerate pop music to the point of abrasion and absurdity.” Billboard goes on, “[A] prototypical song will usually sound like the meeting point between experimental sound design and EDM influenced pop from the 2010s.”
Jane Remover - formerly known as dltzk and Leroy, among other names - is one of the most interesting artists to emerge from that scene, even though she rejects the label. Listening to her latest album Census Designated, you’ll understand why. Those abrasive electronic beats have been traded for distorted guitars and what Pitchfork terms a “feverish blend of shoegaze and bedroom pop”.
An Old One
"The Man Comes Around" by Johnny Cash
2002 - Folk
When Johnny Cash began working with Rick Rubin in the middle of the 1990s, he hadn’t released a notable solo album in over 20 years. Between 1994 and his death in 2003, Cash released a string of gold and platinum albums that largely focused on covers with some occasional originals thrown in.
One of those originals was “The Man Comes Around”, a biblically-inspired track from American IV, the man in black’s final studio album. Though “Hurt”, the second track on the album, received most of the praise, “The Man Comes Around” is the track I return to most often. It’s a good reminder that older artists can be just as capable as their younger selves if we give them a chance.
Want a deeper understanding of what makes a song tick? Check out my interview with famed-songwriter Dan Wilson, a collaborator of Adele, Taylor Swift, and so many more.