They say that age is just a number, but in the music world, that really isn’t the case. Pop music has always been a young person’s game, and the huge popularity of the likes of Justin Bieber is nothing new, even if his methods of building up a fanbase are very different to the pop stars of yesteryear, for whom YouTube and Twitter would have sounded like something from a sci-fi film. But everyone gets old, and Bieber won’t be able to coast on his mop of hair and cutesiness for ever (unless he’s the new Cliff Richard, of course), and he’ll find that it does get harder to be noticed when you’ve been around for a long time.
Of course, there’s always a market for ‘vintage’ bands on the nostalgia circuit, where they can reel out their old hits for the fans who have grown old with them, and a new Greatest Hits album every few years will help boost the coffers. But what if you aren’t done yet? What if you want to keep on making music and still get taken as seriously as you were when you were young? Gradually, that gets more and more difficult, because there’s an ingrained prejudice towards music made by older artists. Very little they do will ever get judged as being better than ‘not as good as their old stuff’.
Take Blondie, for example. Their new album, Panic Of Girls, was recorded over a year ago, but they’ve had real trouble finding a record company to release it. And this is Blondie we’re talking about. Debbie Harry might not have been quite as immense as Bieber is now, but in her day she was a cultural and fashion icon. Should she be treated as any less because she’s now in her mid-60s? It’s only just over a decade since Maria was riding high at the top of the charts when Blondie made their big comeback, but the last time anyone middle-aged got to number one was Madonna back in 2008.
The thing about Panic Of Girls is that it’s good. It’s really good. It sounds like classic Blondie, but with a modern production sheen that makes it sound relevant, and you wonder how it would be received if it was released by someone a bit younger. If Lily Allen released one of the reggae-lite covers Girlie Girlie or Sunday Smile, they’d probably do pretty well in the charts, and the same goes for if a modern ‘new wave’ band brought out Mother or What I Heard. But because it’s only old Blondie, it’ll get largely ignored with maybe a few lazy reviews from people who’ve made their minds up before they start.
That’s not to say that all artists and bands who’ve been great in the past will always be able to keep on releasing quality music, far from it. It’s not easy to keep up inspiration over many decades of making music, and that makes it all the more special when it happens. If you listen to Lady Gaga’s new album and Panic Of Girls, it’s hard to really suggest – beyond the croak in Harry’s voice – that one was made by a 25-year-old and the other by a band largely 40 years older.
Gaga is new, young, talented and relevant, and that’s why she’s getting all the attention, but that shouldn’t mean that bands like Blondie should be shunned by record labels and patronised by music reviewers. George Michael isn’t necessarily the best example for the rest of us in how to live your lives, but he did get it right when he called one of his albums Listen Without Prejudice. Do that to Panic Of Girls and you’ll hear an album that totally lives up to the reputation Blondie built up in the late 70s and that stands up on its own right in 2011.