The last cultural taboo?

Kirsty Folan sees the hypocrisy in a UK society that is getting older but still expects its women musicians and performers to remain ageless

, 28 December 2017

As the UK’s population is ageing, and the government projects that one in seven people will be aged over 75 by 2040, it is more important than ever that artists feel freedom to age within the youth dominated music industry. At the time of writing this, the current UK Top 10 entirely features artists under thirty years old and, of these, only three out of ten are women artists.

I have noticed that the age of female artists is often brought to the forefront of conversations while men of the same age, although sometimes victims of ageism too, are more widely discussed in terms of their music and achievements. Unfortunately, the music industry is still dominated by men and women popular musicians are often sexualised and commodified in the media. This creates a short ‘shelf life’ for many women pop stars and contributes to society’s obsession with eternal youth.

A few journalists have addressed the issue of ageism in popular music. Paddy Shennan, for example, wrote an article for the Liverpool Echo in 2015 about ageism in popular music which focused entirely on older male artists such as The Beatles, The Who and Iggy Pop. He argued that ageism has no place in the music world. While I undoubtedly agree, it was disappointing that Shennan failed to mention any women artists in his article.

Neil McCormick wrote a similar article for the Telegraph in 2007 arguing that ageism is old hat in pop music. He criticised Elvis Costello for claiming that British music fans don’t connect with older artists. Again, the only woman artist mentioned to back up his argument was Amy Winehouse who, at the time of writing the article, was only 24! There is, therefore, a real need to address the issue of age and gender in the music industry.

Madonna has challenged the views of how an older woman should look and act throughout her career

None of us are immune to the process of ageing and, for women in particular, the pressure to remain aesthetically youthful can be overwhelming. Kristin Lieb, writing in her book Gender, Branding and the Modern Music Industry, says “… for all but the exceptional few, the career lifecycle for female artists is much shorter than it is for male artists.” She includes a diagram of the typical lifecycle of the female pop star, which maps out a woman artist’s career path. This is based on observations of various artists’ careers. Unfortunately, this appears to be a very gender specific lifecycle that doesn’t exist in the same way for male artists. If you’re after some further reading following this article, I thoroughly recommend her book.

Madonna is a prime example of a woman artist who has struggled with ageism in the music industry. She first emerged in 1982 in her early twenties, with single ‘Everybody’, and quickly gained international pop success with the following single, ‘Holiday’. She won the Woman of the Year award at the Billboard Women in Music Awards 2016 and proceeded with a heartfelt and unapologetic speech, which addressed the sexism and ageism that she had encountered throughout her career. She believes the most controversial move of her career was “to stick around”. “I stand before you as a doormat,” she said. “Thank you for acknowledging my ability to continue my career for 34 years in the face of blatant sexism and misogyny, constant bullying and relentless abuse.” She went on to warn her audience not to age, “because to age is a sin.”

In the book, Rock On: Women, Ageing and Popular Music, Lucy O’Brien wrote that the pop world that Madonna inhabits is much less flexible than rock or folk where artists such as Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris can “grow old gracefully”. Madonna, on the other hand, is constantly falling victim to ageist remarks in the media. Recently, a photo of her hands was the subject of this criticism. The Daily Mail said “Madonna was ultimately unable to disguise her 58 years while watching the UFC fight in New York this weekend, as, in showing off her collection of rings she revealed her aging hands.”

Madonna has challenged the views of how an older woman should look and act throughout her career. In an interview with Rolling Stone, she stated that ageism “…is the last great frontier.” She said, “We’ve fought for the civil rights movements, we’ve fought for gay rights… but [ageing] is still the one area where you can totally discriminate against somebody.” She continued, stating, “Women, generally, when they reach a certain age have accepted that they are not allowed to behave a certain way”.

She strongly believes that women can be just as relevant in their fifties and sixties as they were in their twenties. Even at 34, Madonna challenged the view of what people can and can’t do as they get older. In an interview with Jonathan Ross from 1992, she expresses the view of older women not being allowed to be adventurous or sexual as a “… rather hideous” one.

Madonna is certainly not showing any signs of retiring. Her divisive dress at the Met Ball 2016 received a lot of media attention due to its revealing sheer lace. She made the worst dressed list of the Daily Mail and the Mirror. Headlines included “Where’s the rest of the material, girl?” Madonna claims she was, in fact, taking a political stance on ageism and sexism, stating, “When it comes to women’s rights we are still in the dark ages. My dress at the Met Ball was a political statement as well as a fashion statement. The fact that people actually believe a woman is not allowed to express her sexuality and be adventurous past a certain age is proof that we still live in an ageist and sexist society.”

Throughout her career, Madonna has always dressed and acted to make a statement. In the BBC documentary, Girls and Boys: Sex and British Pop, it was suggested that Madonna’s revealing outfits and suggestive performances were a conscious statement to show that women can be sexual, whilst also being strong and in control. Sheila Whiteley echoes this view in her book, Women and Popular Music: Sexuality, Identity and Subjectivity, arguing “… it is evident that any interpretation of Madonna relies on either an acceptance or a rejection, of her videos as ironic, as destabilising traditional representations of sexuality and gender by playing on the inflections of feminised images”. Whiteley argues that, “there is a distinction between simply flirting with the camera, and consciously manipulating images through shock tactics.” Madonna is fully aware of the politics of gender, particularly in her later years.

Madonna briefly explored the crone archetype in her video for ‘Frozen’ released in 1998, which showed her dressed as a witch. Along with her Drowned World Tour, it seemed for a brief time that Madonna was moving towards a more conceptual style of performance but this phase didn’t hold her attention for long.

According to Lieb’s lifecycle of a female pop star model, Madonna has expertly gamed the music industry system. Sheila Whiteley notes in her book, Too Much Too Young: Popular Music Age and Gender, that “Madonna seems perfectly at home as a mother and performer.” Her tour to promote her 2001 album, Music was a sell out and her image as a cowgirl seemed to suggest that at heart, she was the ‘all American girl’.

Throughout the last 20 years or so, Madonna has cleverly associated herself with younger artists. Famously, her 2003 VMA performance, which featured Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera dressed in white and Madonna in black, ended with a kiss. This is said to represent Aguilera and Spears’ transition from teens into womanhood. Other collaborations include Justin Timberlake, Pharrell Williams and Nicki Minaj. These associations with younger artists are an excellent tool to attract a wider, younger audience.

Taking control of her work in this way is perhaps what has sustained her career

Her most recent album, Rebel Heart, achieved four star reviews, which fits squarely alongside Björk’s album Vulnicura which was released in late January 2015, about six weeks before Rebel Heart. Pitchfork’s Jessica Hopper referred to this growing canon as “female artists of a certain age making mature, candid work about divorce, and the rediscovery of the artistic self that follows in the wake of the rupture of their domestic life”. Kate Bush’s latest album, 50 Words for Snow, also received critical acclaim.

Kate Bush and Madonna rose to fame around the same time – Kate Bush in 1978 and Madonna in 1982, and they are both 59-years-old with their birthdays less than a month apart. They’ve had very different careers and personal lives, and varying representations in the media, but both are still making significant (and magnificent!) contributions to popular music.

Kate Bush was the first female artist to reach UK number one in the charts with a self-written song. From ‘Wuthering Heights’ to 50 Words for Snow, her career has spanned nearly forty years. Whilst her contemporaries such as Sting and Peter Gabriel focused on touring their hits as their record sales declined, she has continued to release new material and is still very much focused on the creativity and craft of her songwriting. Her refusal to abide to any trend and her love of analogue tape recording her strong will to stay faithful to her art.

When Bush was nominated for a Brit Award in 2012, an article for the Telegraph was published discussing her relevance alongside younger nominees such as Rhianna and Adele. The article suggested that the fact that “the youth-obsessed Brits have recognised Bush’s importance is a sign that maybe our pop scene is growing up.” A rather nice analogy was drawn to a jazz phase of pop where old records and veteran performers are seen as just as important and exciting as newer, younger ones.

From early on, Kate Bush took firm control of her work and boldly fought with her record company that ‘Wuthering Heights’ should be her first single. This is discussed in Graeme Thomson’s biography, Kate Bush: Under the Ivy. She also later produced her own music, most notably the Hounds Of Love album. Taking control of her work in this way is perhaps what has sustained her career. Bush had little interest in touring and shied from it for 35 years before 2014’s Before the Dawn tour. Despite not fitting the typical structure of writing, recording and touring, the appetite for her music is huge. Her 2014 tour was received with critical acclaim and sold out within minutes. The Evening Standard gave it five stars, commenting that the show was “…unambiguously and obviously brilliant”.

Around the time that Madonna was emerging and just after the success of Hounds of Love, Bush decided to back away from the usual media pathway, and went in a different direction with next album, The Sensual World. In Thomson’s biography, Kate Bush: Under the Ivy, she is quoted as saying “Absolutely good luck to [Madonna] … she’s such an exposed person. I would find that so difficult to live with.”

Bush was asked about the future and whether the ‘Before the Dawn’ live album released last year marked a full stop on her career. Her response to this was a resounding ‘no’

While Madonna has always endeavoured to keep on top of the trends and conventions of the modern day, Bush has never been interested in fame and celebrity and has often been labelled by the media as a ‘recluse’. In an NME interview with Len Brown in 1989, Bush said, “It’s healthier for me not to indulge in being a famous person. It’s ridiculous, there’s absolutely no reason why I should be at all, other than that I make records.” She went on to say, “I find it extraordinary that people should want to write about me when I do so little. I just pop out and do an album and go away again.”

If I apply Lieb’s lifecycle of the female pop star model to Bush, she is one of the lucky few to achieve “protected status” which Lieb says is usually achieved through family connections or partners. According to the model, those who achieve protected status can “…more or less do as they please as long as their activity does not compromise or cheapen their established brand.”

Stepping outside of Lieb’s lifecycle, it can also be argued that Bush has achieved her protected status through sheer talent and longevity.

When reflecting on her Tour of Life in 1979, Bush said the tour had felt invasive. She said “By the end of the tour, I felt a terrific need to retreat as a person … I felt that my sexuality, which in a way I hadn’t really had a chance to explore myself yet, was being given to the world in a way which I found impersonal.”

Bush’s lyrics often contain overtly sexual imagery such as “feeling of sticky love inside” (L’Amour Looks Something Like You) on The Kick Inside, and The Sensual World, inspired by Molly Bloom’s speech about her first sexual encounter in James Joyce’s Ulysses. However, she usually takes a more romantic view to the subject of sex in her lyrics when compared to Madonna’s much more explicit approach.

In a later interview, she says The Sensual World album is a representation of her feminine identity, and Hounds of Love, a representation of her male identity. She tends to write about books and films rather than the highly personal love songs of artists like Joni Mitchell, and cites David Bowie as a key influence in Thomson’s biography Kate Bush: Under the Ivy. There are many parallels to be drawn between Bowie and Bush, most notably, their characters, storytelling and theatrical performances. This ability to channel different characters and keep her personal life mostly out of the media, is perhaps another reason why she remains so relevant and intriguing and contributes to the weight and depth of her work.

Kate Bush’s latest studio album, 50 Words for Snow was released in 2011, and in a recent BBC 6 Music interview, Bush was asked about the future and whether the Before the Dawn live album released last year, marked a full stop on her career.  Her response to this was a resounding ‘no’. “It’s just a rather big comma.”

I’ll end on a rather wonderful quote from Richard Elliot who has recently published a book called The Late Voice: Time, Ageing and Experience in Popular Music. He describes the “late voice” as being able:

To write and sing us tales of what it means to experience the passing of time, to reflect on age and to look back at roads taken and not taken. Far from being mere peddlers of nostalgia, the best of them offer us critical insight into the way the musical (and wider) world operates. Those numbers beside the names of our ageing pop stars say much more than their legendary status, or critical achievement.

First image is a a collage of three images of Madonna, showing a period of evolution in her image. The image has not been altered and is by Felix_Nine and used according to the terms of a creative commons licence.

Second image is a cartoon style image of the young Kate Bush. The image has not been altered and is by Robert_Ball. It is used according to the terms of a creative commons licence.

Kirsty will be embarking on a PhD shortly and focusing her research on ageing and gender in popular music. She is particularly interested in the creative process of songwriting and how this changes throughout an artist’s lifetime

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