FEATURE: Fifty and Out? Is There an Age Limit When It Comes to Artists Hitting Their Creative Peak?




Fifty and Out?


IN THIS PHOTO: Noel Gallagher (whilst touring as Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds in 2018) with Charlotte Marionneau in Paris/PHOTO CREDIT: Sharon Latham (from the book, Any Road Will Get Us There (If We Don’t Know Where We’re Going) 

Is There an Age Limit When It Comes to Artists Hitting Their Creative Peak?


I have been investigating ageism in music a lot…


 IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna in 1986/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

and do feel artists get pigeonholed and written off when they hit a certain age! It is interesting listening to legendary figures and which radio stations stop playing their music – there seems to be an age bracket for all of the big broadcasters. Maybe they will be consigned to BBC Radio 2 when they go past forty and it seems demographics and a misguided perception of relevance dictates an artist’s radio life. I think there is too much ageism and discrimination that needs to be addressed but I do wonder whether there is this feeling that an artist only writes great music when they are younger. Whilst I feel all artists should be allowed exposure and have something important to say; there is that argument as to whether artists, legendary and not, hit a peak and then it is a matter of steady decline. I think this question applies to the classic musicians we grew up with and have entered a new creative phase. If you look at two of my favourite female artists, Kate Bush and Madonna; they are both sixty and have no plans to retire. One can say, from a critical standpoint, they reached their peak around the 1980s. Madonna enjoyed success in the 1990s – 1998’s Ray of Light was a blockbuster – but, since then, it has been a case of great albums but nothing that hit her vibrant and eye-watering brilliance of the earlier days. Bush, similarly, has created brilliant albums later in her career – 2005’s Aerial (when she was in her forties) is seen as one of her finest achievements; 2011’s 50 Words for Snow (when Bush was in her fifties) is incredible – but most, when we think of the heady days, sort of stop by the late-1980s.

All those iconic Pop artists, from Prince and Michael Jackson through to David Bowie, had their ‘day’ and one can debate whether they managed to equal their peak later in life. David Bowie might be one of the rare exceptions regarding resurgence. He enjoyed a run of wonderful albums but, when we ponder the best of his output, we tend to have our minds in the 1970s and 1980s. That golden period – between 1971 and 1977 – when records like Aladdin Sane (1973), Young Americans (1975) and Low (1977) arrived (Bowie was in his twenties and thirties). Prince’s very best albums were created, largely, between 1982 (1999) and 1992 (Love Symbol) and the master was in his mid-twenties/thirties during that time. The reason I am bringing up this topic is that some musicians feel the notion there is an age limit and cut-off regarding quality and critical peak is a lie. They say some of their best work comes when they pass fifty and grow older. Maybe there is something subjective regarding quality. An artist might feel more comfortable and natural writing when they pass fifty – or they feel like they do not have to please radio stations and labels – whereas critical acclaim tends to happen earlier in a career. It is a generalisation to state critics stop listening when artists approach middle-age but I feel there is something to be said for youth and how artists write at different times in their life.

I am sure the likes of Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher will say they are producing their best work right now but one suspects this is more a commercial pitch or, as I say, they feel freer and less constrained by commercial pressure and hype. Does that sort of pressure lead to creative brilliance or are periods in time more impactful? One could say the reason the likes of Madonna and Noel Gallagher peaked when they were in their twenties and thirties was the climate around them. Madonna was living in a different times and music was very different; she was making her records in a different way and, as a younger woman, her ideals and ambitions were different. Gallagher, as a member of Oasis, was propelled by the Britpop rush of the 1990s and was writing in a band. Many might say Oasis’ first two albums (1994 and 1995) were their only relevant and decent offerings; a defined period in time when they were able to encapsulate a definite momentum and produce music the world needed to hear. Every accomplished and established artist seems to have that energy and desire when they are young and, largely, their music changes course and sound when they get older. Maybe Madonna is the exception but the artists I have mentioned so far sort of slowed down and became less bombastic when they hit their forties and fifties. Perhaps it is that case of having to write a particular sound that is seen as ‘age-appropriate’ or they feel foolish trying to recapture that youthful zing.

There is a definite difference between music peak and ‘musical paralysis’ – when we stop discovering music and tend to fall back on the songs we grew up around. This article explains more:

Did you know that you’ll likely stop discovering music right before you turn 28?  The strange phenomenon is called “musical paralysis”.  And researchers have found that users, on average, stopped discovering new music at 27 years and 11 months.

The research, commissioned by the streaming music service Deezer, surveyed 5,000 adults from the UK, the US, Germany, France, and Brazil.

Researchers found that music fans will first hit their “musical peak” several years before entering into a “musical paralysis.”  During the ‘peak’ age, they’ll listen to ten or more new tracks per week.  Then, they’ll stop discovering new music altogether.

Surprisingly enough, the ages of both musical ‘peaks’ and ‘paralyses’ varied by country.

For example, in Brazil, music fans will hit their ‘peak’ right when they turn 22.  They’ll stop discovering music altogether just 2 months after turning 23.

In France, the average listener hit their musical peak 4 months after their 26th birthday.  Just 3 months after turning 27 – under a year later– they’ll reach their musical paralysis age.

The peak age for German music fans is 27.  They’ll stop discovering new music exactly 4 years later.

In the UK, people hit their peak 5 months after their 24th birthday. As with German users, they don’t reach their musical paralysis age until much later — 6 months after turning 30”.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Johnny Marr (circa 2014)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Maybe musicians are like us when it comes to discovery and how their mind works. The younger artists are still curious about music and new sounds and put that into their own work. There is that freedom and the impetus; they have more fascination and going through a different phase of life. The fact they (musicians) are still blossoming and have very different responsibilities/experiences (the younger artists have different political takes and views on life, sex and music). Johnny Marr (The Smiths) has stated, lately, that his current solo work is his finest work. Most people would disagree and state Marr was at his peak when he was paired with Morrissey – as The Smiths created some of the defining songs of the 1980s. Maybe, as The Atlantic shows, there are differences between disciplines. Maybe creative peak differs depending which field of the arts you are in:

We Peak Young The New York Times' Sam Tanenhaus, age 54, acknowledges "an essential truth about fiction writers: They often compose their best and most lasting work when they are young. 'There’s something very misleading about the literary culture that looks at writers in their 30s and calls them budding or promising, when in fact they’re peaking,' Kazuo Ishiguro told an interviewer last year. Ishiguro (54 when he said this) added that since the age of 30 he had been haunted by the realization that most of the great novels had been written by authors under 40"...

We Peak in Middle Age Science journalist Jonah Lehrer, age 28, writes, "it's hard to settle this argument using anecdotes. Fortunately, a psychologist at UC-Davis, Dean Simonton, has assembled the historiometric data. He finds that the vast majority of disciplines obey an inverted U curve of creativity. The shape of the curve captures the steep rise and slow fall of individual creativity, with performance peaking after a few years of work before it starts a slow, gradual decline."

For instance, Simonton has found that poets and physicists tend to produce their finest work in their late 20s, while geologists, biologists and novelists tend to peak much later, often not until they reach late middle age. Simonton argues that those disciplines with an "intricate, highly articulated body of domain knowledge," such as physics, chess and poetry, tend to encourage youthful productivity. In contrast, fields that are more loosely defined, in which the basic concepts are ambiguous and unclear - examples include history, literary criticism and biology - lead to later peak productive ages. It takes time to master the complexity; we need to make lots of mistakes before we get it right.

It is interesting comparing painters and musicians, scientists and novelists and when their ‘peak’ occurs. I feel music, unlike art and literature, finds greater truth in the notion that younger artists – those in their twenties, thirties and forties – are more creative and adored than those who are a bit older.

It takes me back to the issue of music tastes and peak and whether we sort of switch off and rest on our laurels as we go through life:

For men, the most important period for forming musical taste is between the ages of 13 to 16. Men were, on average, aged 14 when their favorite song was released. For women, the most important period is between 11 and 14, with 13 being the most likely age for when their favorite song came out. It also found that childhood influences were stronger for women than men and the key years for shaping taste were tied to the end of puberty.


 PHOTO CREDIT: @_rxshxxd/Unsplash

Do we often put too much focus on the lead/songwriter and forget, at all stages, they have producers and writers helping them – many of them might be slightly older. This piece makes some interesting points:

In other words, while many people do their best work at average ages given what it is that they do, we have the capacity to excel at any age.

Truth is, we go through stages in our lives, and there are opportunities to do our best at various periods. What’s more, the differences in the way we view accomplishments at different ages can be extremely valuable to society collectively–especially when people work together. The innovation potential at the intersection between “young genius” and “old master,” for instance, is huge, especially when both parties are open to listening to and learning from one another.

No one wins Best Actress or Actor without the work of a director and a supporting cast. Pulitzer and Hugo winners would go prizeless but for their editors; Grammy winners have producers and songwriters; and Nobel Prizes are often won, to borrow a line from Isaac Newton, by “standing on the shoulders of giants”.

There are other reasons why we perceive artists being at their ripe best in their earlier years. A lot of times, we fall for musicians because of what they are saying and some relatable anger. I have mentioned Madonna and back in the 1980s and 1990s, she was talking about sex, being emotionally and physically revealing but also capable of writing songs that encapsulated youth, freedom and fun.

A lot of fans and critics would have been her sort of age – or younger – and they could relate. Many older or younger listeners might not have been able to relate so I wonder if there is subjectiveness regarding age and the fact we feel closer to artists who are similar to us. I think a lot of slightly older listeners might feel more connection to someone like Noel Gallagher and Johnny Marr now because they have that aspect in common – it is one of their peers making music. Many artists tend to hit gold early because they transcend from discovery and mistake-making and then discover that sweet spot. Look at the likes of Noel Gallagher and how do you possibly top something like (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? Gallagher was twenty-eight when that record came out and it followed an epic debut, Definitely Maybe. Oasis, even by 1997, were declining and not able to hit the same critical and creative stride they had even a couple of years before. Johnny Marr was twenty-two when The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead came out – they had reached that height and could never quite replicate the same magic. A lot of us, because of the age in which we discover an album, tend to feel that this work is sacred and, if it is not a copy of that, then it is a failure. Artists are always growing and moving but we all have those periods/albums that are seen as ‘best’ – can musicians ever please everyone and is nostalgia blurring our perceptions?

There are a lot of other factors. Many musicians, when they are popular and have hit that peak, do not have the same need to create a legacy and make that commercial impact. Popular culture shifts and it is unrealistic to think someone like Johnny Marr could get the same sort of focus as a solo artist as he did as part of The Smiths in the 1980s. Artists learn more as they grow older and I feel it is the lyrical and sonic side of genres like Pop where you see a definite age limit. Maybe, when artists get to fifty, they naturally evolve into a less electric and vibrant mould and that does not strike the ear in quite the same way. Many say Jazz and Classical artists can improve with age because of the professionalism and maturation of sound; Pop and other genres put lyrics and vocals at their fore so that means themes and a feeling of familiarity will be a bigger deciding factor. It is a complicated debate and there are many different aspects to consider. I do feel like artists over fifty should not be written off and it is awfully naïve to feel there is a definite where artists are seen as commercial and meaningful. Artists like Kylie Minogue and Melanie C have attacked radio stations for side-lining their music and, when they have reached a particular age, certain broadcasters have dropped loyalty and not seen them as viable. I disagree with this ageism but what of creative peak? I think it was Johnny Marr who claimed he is producing his best work now and most people would disagree. I have regard for these music legends but I do not feel it is nostalgia or pop culture’s changes that mean we feel they were at their best in their twenties and thirties – the fact is, they were stronger back then. Damon Albarn has just turned fifty and, whilst producing stunning records, he was at his finest when penning Blur classics in the 1990s and 2000s. Artists are still relevant and needed when they hit middle-age but I feel that argument of quality is an easy one to settle. Many have their own views but I think musicians (outside of Classic and Jazz) hit their peak...


IN THIS PHOTO: Damon Albarn in 2018/PHOTO CREDIT: Aaron Richter/Contour by Getty Images

BEFORE the age of fifty.