Theres a saying, “The older the fiddle the sweeter the tune.” In many areas of life, this certainly appears to be true-as we age we gain wisdom and perspective and memories that serve to enrich our lives and guide us through our days…of course, I’ve only been on this earth two decades, so anything I say on this subject is mostly hypothesis. However, when I think of that old quote, I can’t help but be reminded of two aging popular rock bands-Motley Crue and Bon Jovi, who both released all-new material albums recently (and by recently, I mean in the last year and a half). Of course, they’re not the only resurrected rockers-Def Leppard, Whitesnake, and others have also released records. This begs the question–how does rock n roll survive the natural aging process of its band members?
I’ve been thinking about this in light of Bon Jovi’s Lost Highway (2007) and Motley Crue’s Saints of Los Angeles (2008). These bands, while entirely different, were/are both icons of 1980’s rock music and well, popular music as a whole. And just as they were so different then (despite the fact they both got lumped into the category of “hair metal”) they’ve aged in different ways–giving us two very interesting perspectives on how to be an aging rock star.
Bon Jovi-at their peak, these stadium rockers gave us powerful, sing-along anthems such as “Living on a Prayer” and “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” today, their most recent album is a “Nashville inspired” (those are Jon Bon Jovi’s words, not mine) country hit, featuring duets with everyone from LeAnn Rimes and Big and Rich.
Motley Crue: notorious more for their off-stage antics rather than their hits, this foursome still managed to spew out a string of hit records, including “Shout at the Devil” and “Dr. Feelgood.” their new effort is in some ways musically reminiscent of the 1980’s Motley Crue, but the subject matter is viewed in a rather nostalgic way, as the band reflects back on their history and writes of what “used to be.”
The problem with rock n roll is it is built around an entirely youth-centered culture. Grandmas and Grandpas aren’t supposed to like loud, heavy music, parents aren’t supposed to approve of it, teachers are supposed to try to discourage it. Heavy metal was supposed to be the voice of kids and teens who are looking for identity, and want something that they can relate to and matters to them. When Dee Snider sang, “We’re not gonna take it, NO! We ain’t gonna take it!” kids across America stood up and said “yeaa…thats an attitude I can stand behind!” It didn’t matter what it was that wasn’t going to be “taken,” it was about attitude and self-confidence, and giving kids power to do what they think is right. But what happens when Dee Snider turns 50 and has kids of his own? Can they still sing songs about sex and drugs and rebellion? yes, I suppose they can…but they may not have as much of an audience for it. While Americans have some degree of tolerance for kids going astray, they always expect them to eventually grow up settle down, and not make those endeavors a permanent place in their lives. Rock stars are no different. When a middle aged man sings about sex, it is commonly viewed as sort of disgusting and ridiculous (think about it, would you want a 40-year old man on the street tell you about his sexual fantasies? probably not), yet it is not only tolerated but expected from a younger man. What is appropriate for an individual changes as they move through life.
With that said, it is interesting to me how rock bands have changed with the tides, not only to stay ahead of musical trends, but also to stay current and relevant to younger audiences. 20 year olds don’t want to listen to a 45-year-old Vince Neil sing about “girls girls girls.” They don’t want to hear 45-year-old Jon Bon Jovi sing about “[laying a woman] down in a bed of roses.” For goodness sake, those men are as old as their parents. No one wants to think about their parents in that regard, much less strangers as old as their parents. This forces aging stars to make a few changes to their tried-and-true formula. Bon Jovi went country. Motley kept the content, but started writing in the past tense.
Both these methods are effective. BJ’s because some types of music are somehow ageless, and truly do benefit from the wisdom of years. This is why-as I frequently like to say-bands such as the Stones and Aerosmith are still effective. When you strip their music down to its essence,they’re really just singing the blues…and as bluesmen, Keith Richards & co are really just coming into their prime. Country music is much the same way. It isn’t definitive of an age group, its definitive of a whole culture and a way of life. Therefore, you don’t have to be twenty-something to truly relate to a good country/blues/folk/etc song. You just have to be the kind of person who likes that kind of music.
And for Motley, their way works because they’re not singing of their present-they’re singing of their past. Even though they’ve still got the whole hard-living lifestyle well represented in their songs, for all we know, they could be at home changing diapers as they record them. We’re not being presented with an image of Nikki Sixx at age 49 doing the things he wrote about in his songs, instead we can picture a younger, cuter, ’80’s-style Sixx doing those things…and thats exactly what we expect (and want) the ’80’s Sixx to be doing. We still love the idea of rockstar decadence, and through Saints of Los Angeles,we’re able to hold on to that ideal and never have to confront the fact that our idols are indeed getting older.
Things change, we can’t avoid it. Thankfully, a blessed (and yes,blessed-if only for the fact they’re not dead yet) few have been able to find ways to stay atop the changing tides and continue to make music that people can love. I’ll be interested to see what comes next from these bands…I have great expectations.