Burn down the disco, hang the blessed DJ-- The Smiths, "Panic" (1986)
Because the music that they constantly play
It says nothing to me about my life
Because the music that they constantly play
It says nothing to me about my life
Watching the performances at the Grammys this year was a bit puzzling. Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Chicago, Carole King, Stevie Wonder, Nile Rodgers, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, in addition to the sight of duos like Smokey Robinson and Steven Tyler presenting awards . . . it was as if popular music had stood still for some 40 years. (Thank goodness Metallica was there to keep things current.) More than an odd sight, their presence raised the question: What was the purpose of trotting out so many old-timers of popular music? Was it to confer legitimacy on contemporary music? Or was it something else? Who was the intended audience? For instance, you would have to be in your late twenties (at least) to remember Paul McCartney’s last US Top 40 single (“My Brave Face”, 1989), and in your mid-thirties to remember his last number one (“Say Say Say”, with Michael Jackson, 1983); and even older to remember any hit by Ringo Starr. Of course, the Beatles have managed to remain well-known during the intervening time, as shown by the impressive sales of the Anthology series, Live at the BBC, 1, Love, in addition to their back catalog. But they have not maintained a presence on Top 40 radio in some time: justifying BBC Radio 1’s refusal to play “Real Love” in 1996, a spokesman said, “It's not what our listeners want to hear . . . We are a contemporary music station.”
So who was the intended audience? I can answer fairly confidently that it wasn’t me. As a 37-year-old, I have not had interest in popular music, or contemporary music (popular or otherwise) in many years. To some extent, I am simply a victim of what we might call the Old Fogey Syndrome in music: the basic fact that, at a certain point, we no longer find interest in contemporary pop music; the fact that my father, for instance, will refer to almost all music from the British Invasion on – i.e., almost everything that came out after he was in his early twenties – as “hippy trash”. While of course there are exceptions, it is indeed a general trend. Simply put, I am not part of the target audience for the pop music industry; this audience largely consists of teenagers, and (to a lesser extent) twenty-somethings.
But this wasn't always the case. Popular music used to target an older audience, one in its twenties and even thirties. What transpired?
The answer involves at least two developments in the immediate postwar years. (The observations in this paragraph are not new -- I came across most of them in Jim Dawson and Steve Propes's entertaining read What Was the First Rock 'n' Roll Record?) One was the economic boom of the postwar years, and the resultant creation of a mass of teenagers with disposable income. The other was technological advances in recorded music c. 1948-1950: specifically, the creation of 45 rpm and 33 1/3 rpm records. Up to that time, all music (at least once Edison cylinders became obsolete early in the century) had been released on 78 rpm records – fitting approximately 3-4 minutes of music per side, thereby leading to the development of the record single with A and B sides. In order for longer pieces of music, or collections of songs, to be released on record, they had to be assembled in a group of 45s. This was, literally, an "album" – a book in which each page was a record sleeve with a record inside. With the rise of these new record speeds, the old 78 was doomed. It lasted for a few years because it was the record of choice among older music buyers; but teenagers, with their new (but still limited) income and lack of habit of buying a specific record format, bought 45s, which happened to be cheaper. "Pledging My Love" by Johnny Ace (released posthumously in 1955, as he became an early example of the “too fast to live, too young to die” figure in rock) was a milestone: it was the first record, or at least first hit, for which the 45 outsold the 78. Within a few years, 78 rpm records were no longer produced.
Exceptions to this audience trend existed earlier – for instance, I can think of the audience for jazz at the dawn of the swing era in the 1930s and the bobby-soxers of the 1940s. But as a general phenomenon, particularly involving whom the music industry was targeting (and not just who bought the records), what happened in the mid-1950s was entirely new. Meanwhile, older audience were now targeted by new niches, such as "Adult Contemporary” (or “Easy Listening”), as opposed to the main pop market. It is probably not coincidental that Billboard began a chart for this market, under the name “Easy Listening”, in 1961.
But it is not only the audience that is young now. The performers too are typically in their teens and twenties. Again, this was not always the case in popular music. If we consider, for example, a favorite genre of mine – 1940s R&B – we find a very different pattern. For the first few years of Billboard’s R&B chart (started as the “Harlem Hit Parade” in 1942), the most popular performers were mostly in their thirties or even forties: bandleaders Duke Ellington (born 1899) and Lucky Millinder (born 1910), Louis Jordan (born 1908), the Ink Spots (born between 1902 and 1915), and Nat “King” Cole (born 1919). Only Cole was a relative youngster, in his mid-twenties when he became famous. For the most part, these performers had been working in music for many years before they became popular. Ellington had been recording as a bandleader since the late 1920s, but only reached what is widely considered his creative and commercial peak now, in his early to mid-forties – something unheard of in popular music today. And Ellington was far from alone in early R&B: the late 1940s and early 1950s saw career peaks for singers like Julia Lee (born 1902) and Big Joe Turner (born 1911), each in their forties at the height of their fame, and with recording careers of 15-20 years before they became popular (or reached the peak of their popularity).
The same patterns can be found among popular performers throughout the first half of the twentieth century. In order to confirm this idea, I looked at lists of the 10 most popular recording artists from each decade (as listed by Joel Whitburn, Pop Memories 1890-1954: The History of American Popular Music). And indeed, this is exactly what we find. Take the 1920s, for instance: the leading recording artists (vocalists and bandleaders) were all born in the 1880s or 1890s; the youngest, Fred Waring, was born in 1900. But most performers found fame in their late twenties or thirties, continuing into their forties. This pattern is repeated for all decades through mid-1950s: most performers were popular in their late twenties and thirties, often into their forties, and rarely reached popularity in their early twenties. If anything, the 1920s are marked by an unusual number of recording artists who first reached popularity in their early 20s: Waring, Ben Selvin, Marion Harris] Thus the most popular recording artist of the first half of the century, Bing Crosby (born 1903), first became popular as part of the Rhythm Boys in the late 1920s, but only as a solo artist in 1931 (at age 28).
This situation contrasts completely with that found from the mid-1950s on. Again the pattern is confirmed by looking at the top artists from each decade (see Joel Whitburn, The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits). Now, the model is not Bing Crosby but Elvis Presley, who became a star by age 21. And Elvis was far from alone – now performers were commonly becoming popular in their early twenties or even teens. We see the rise of a number of teenage vocal groups (of which Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers were only the most prominent, and most obviously named); and the rise of a series of teen idols (Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon, Fabian, and the most popular of all, Ricky Nelson), all of whom found fame in the late 1950s before the age of twenty.
There were exceptions – as there always are to general rules. At the same time that Julia Lee and Big Joe Turner were first reaching R&B stardom in their forties, 14-year-old Little Esther was also becoming an R&B star. Earlier, Walter Van Brunt had become a popular recording star in 1910 at the age of 18. But these cases are rare. On the other hand, after the 1950s sometimes performers in their forties could still be popular, but these are without exception (or almost so) already-established stars, and usually ones not quite at their peak: e.g., Elton John in the 1980s, Madonna more recently.
The mid-1950s, of course, were marked by the rise of rock 'n' roll, by definition a youth music. It is therefore not surprising for it to be performed by young people. It is no accident, for instance, that while "Rock Around the Clock" was the first big rock ‘n’ roll hit on the pop charts, Bill Haley – born 1925 –did not have any real longevity in pop (again, this is a point made by Dawson and Propes). But it was not inevitable that rock ‘n’ roll would become the dominant popular music of the second half of the 1950s. Its rise as a popular music is related, at least partly, to the rise of a younger target audience. It is in connection with this younger audience that we also see, as many have observed, the rise in use of nonsense syllables in song: “Tweedle Dee”, “Bip Bam”, doo wop songs, etc. Even with big band jazz/swing of the 1930s and early 1940s, where younger audiences were interested, the bandleaders had largely been older, in their late twenties and thirties: Goodman (born 1909), Shaw (born 1910), the Dorseys (born 1904 and 1905), Miller (born 1904), Ellington, Basie (born 1904), Lunceford (born 1902), Calloway (born 1907); most had been working musicians for several years, leading largely unknown bands or recording as session musicians before finding fame as leaders.
As an extreme example of this trend, consider cases where performers lied about their age. In the 1930s and 1940s, Jelly Roll Morton and Bunk Johnson both tried to pass themselves off as 5-10 years older in order to buttress their claims of having been instrumental in the development in jazz. (How else could Morton, probably born 1890, claim to have invented jazz in 1902?) Sometimes musicians claimed to be older (specifically, over 18) in order to be able to take a job (e.g., Ella Mae Morse, born 1924, when Jimmy Dorsey wanted to hire her as a singer in 1938). On the other hand, in the early days of punk (1976-1977), Joe Strummer of the Clash tried to make himself younger: he shaved two years off of his real age, 24 – all in the name of being an “authentic” punk (as discussed by Marcus Gray in Last Gang in Town).
These observations on age highlight the relationship of performer and audience. Why has the age of the performer changed along with the age of the audience? I imagine there are a series of related considerations here. While on the one hand the relationship is one of idol and idolizer, on another hand it is a mirror image, at least an idealized mirror image. In both cases, the relationship involves a sort of fantasy – romantic or otherwise, what the audience wants to be, the idea that we ourselves could become a star. (Not surprisingly, a number of popular songs in the rock ‘n’ roll era center on this theme: “So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star” by the Byrds, “Shooting Star” by Bad Company, “Into the Great Wide Open” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Mr. Jones” by Counting Crows, etc.) Also important is the idea that the performer speaks to the audience; whether involving social comment, romantic interests, or something else, the song reflects their concerns. And when we as listeners can no longer relate to popular music, it is not accidental: we are merely picking up the signals that we are not the intended audience. And at that point we might begin to realize that the entire history of recorded music is open to us, waiting to be discovered. In the meantime, we'll always have the Grammys.