Macca performing at an age much closer to 64 than 24. Photo by The Admiralty.
Whether as a musician, music listener or just everyday human being, I feel as though I’ve been collecting older brother figures my whole life. Not father figures, mind you—that’s a whole different Oedipal ball game. What I mean by “older brother figures” is admiring an older male more so than a mere role model but placing them on a much less serious pedestal of moral authority than you would any family member.
As the eldest son and resident middle kid born to a stable Catholic New England family, I realize my pursuit doesn’t have complicated origins. Occupying the curious position of not immediately being considered the family trailblazer (which would be my sister, the oldest), while still not being cute enough to be thought of as the baby (my younger brother), forces you to have to look for alternative sources of identity.
What began with the comic book superheroes of my childhood inevitably evolved into more serious creative and artistic hang-ups into my twenties. As I age past the golden years of my respective musical heroes, I’m not so much threatened by the possibility of a quarter-life crisis as much as I begin to question my reasons for admiring these individuals in the first place. Does my idolization of Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson or Bruce Springsteen have anything to do with the fact they hit their creative peaks (arguably) at the age of 24? Furthermore, have I esteemed these individuals so much because up until this point I’ve always been younger than them? Do I admire their older, obviously less dynamic selves any less because of this? More specifically, can Sgt. Pepper Paul be considered an entirely different artist from Flaming Pie Paul in this way?
This all makes the prospect of my turning 25 in less than six months a troubling milestone. Aft which, I can no longer look at the inside jacket of Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper and think that this was the work of fully-realized adults. On the contrary, the older I get the more these legends look like children to me in ways that say multitudes about how their most classic work will likely age with me rather than with my parents. The closer I get to the quarter-century mark, the more these records sound like the performative utterances of adulthood crafted by aging adolescents trying to prove they were worth being taken seriously. This, as opposed to the work of an adult with nothing to prove to anyone except themselves (early Miles Davis seems as good an example of this as any).
Awaiting that turning point also reveals a humble truth about being an aging music listener that no one likes to admit: It’s hard to ‘look up’ to artists who are younger than you, as the act of being a fan often implies. If the trajectory of my listening habits ends up being anything like that of my father’s, I should have no trouble divorcing any interest in current music by the time I’m 38. For my dad, that was the year of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and a distorted guitar sound that was just too much for ears who thirty years prior took great pleasure in the deafening roar of Jimi Hendrix’s Marshall stack.
It was also around the time oldies and classic rock FM radio formats were riding the initial waves of baby boomer nostalgia. Needless to say, discovering music from the booster seat of a family sedan in 1991 had as much to do with grunge as it did with Motown. Despite the difference in era, in listening to the Diana Ross of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and the Kurt Cobain on Nevermind, you’re still listening to two people who are roughly the same age, interestingly enough.
Pop music may always be a game of youth and the marketable illusion of nonconformity, but is there anything wrong with listening to “Baba O’Riley” past the age of 19? It’s worth remembering that when Pete Townshend coined the phrase ‘teenage wasteland’ he could hardly be called a teenager. If anything, he may have been condescendingly referring to the ocean of doleful, young faces he saw at his concerts. Then again, he told us countless times that he hoped he would die before he got… well, you know the story.
So what is it about an artist in their early twenties that gives their youthful zeal so much authority? To paraphrase Neil Young, it’s that tender age when you’re old enough to repay but young enough to sell. I’ve always taken that to mean you’re old enough to be indebted to the world but young enough to still have something to offer those to whom you owe so much. As I age from a 24-year-old with so much more to an old man looking back at life, I hope I’m still brave enough in my old age to invest real emotional capital in those musicians to come who have yet to reach these crossroads. Come what may from the sting of experience, I hope to recognize (for as long as I possibly can) the true ideological insight that comes with being young enough to still dream with the full faith of an unbruised heart. Most of all, I hope I still can tell what that even sounds like.
If pop music teaches us anything about these years of our lives, it’s that they don’t last terribly long–a fact depressing enough to make anyone want to stay 24 forever. Yet what other purpose does pop serve than allowing us to at least feel that way?