She retired from the music business nearly thirty years ago, with the wise words, ‘All rock-and-rollers over the age of 50 look stupid and should retire.’ In a later interview, she expanded on this theme: ‘You can do jazz, classical, blues, opera, country until you’re 150, but rap and rock and roll are really ways for young people to get their anger out … It’s silly to perform a song that has no relevance to the present or expresses feelings you no longer have.’ If only more ageing rock-and-rollers knew when to give up.
I’ve thought about this for many years now — is there such a thing as aging gracefully within the somewhat-limited confines of rock music? Is it possible to still use the same basic guitar-based template to express something more profound, more age-appropriate, than aggression, depression and sexual obsession?
It all depends, of course, on how we define rock (or, more broadly, pop) music. It’s not hard to think of instances where Grace Slick’s opinion is inarguable. I can think of many artists who have remained stuck in an image they cultivated as young men, even as it becomes pathetic to see them still playacting in middle- or old age. Certain genres, like Scandinavian extreme metal and gangsta rap, will always be the Lost Boys of Neverland, refusing to grow up or aim for any higher purpose beyond alienating parents and shocking the boorzhwazee. But rock ‘n’ roll contains multitudes; its family tree has countless branches. Was Morphine’s jazz-influenced minimalism adult enough to pass muster? Does Clutch sound creatively exhausted yet? Are TV on the Radio or Modest Mouse defined by a surplus of testosterone? Has there even been a Masters of Reality record that didn’t sound somehow both ageless and timeless? And how would we even classify Beats Antique? I could go on and on and on without doing justice to the diversity within mere “popular” music, so I think it’s rather obvious: an artform that has been around for sixty or seventy years has had no choice but to mature and evolve. Sometimes the critics, just as much as the enthusiasts, are guilty of refusing to allow it to age out of adolescence.
Besides, I take heart to think that even the British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, a man who is practically the embodiment of highbrow taste, a man who colorfully claimed that the electric guitar “owes much of its immense appeal to the obvious fact that it is strapped on and brandished like a livid dildo,” nonetheless professed an appreciation of Metallica, calling them “genuinely talented,” as well as “violently poetic and musical.” Well, then; if he can say that, then I can certainly continue to find something musically redeeming in Godflesh, Goldfrapp, Rob Crow and Joachim Witt.