Is Ageism In Music Really A Thing?

“In the meantime we try to forget that nothing lasts forever. No big deal, so give us all a feel; funny how it all falls away…” –  Jarvis Cocker.

Is ageism in music really a thing?
There is a famous, prime-time televised music competition where contestants aged 25 and over are entered into what’s generally seen as the least desirable category of the competition; the ‘joke category” as it were, full of ‘older’ and (let’s face it) novelty, underdog, oddball contestants. (Anyone remember Wagner?) How sad, that at 25, you’re already considered ‘old’ for a career in music by mainstream industry standards! It probably goes without saying that these competitions aren’t exactly known for prioritising musical talent over marketability; Mr Cowell is, after all – a business man (an undeniably successful one) who began his career playing triangle on records for extra performance royalties and hiring uncredited session singers to record Robson and Jerome hits. It isn’t really that surprising that he once told a 45 year old contestant, “If you were 18 – 20 years old, and came in and sang like that I would be jumping over this desk right now to say you have to make a record.”

I spoke recently with Newcastle-based musician, Julie Grant on the subject of ageism in music. With a fascinating background that includes being previously signed to the same record label as The Cranberries in the 1990’s – Julie Grant’s music feels reassuringly familiar and oddly comforting; her lyrics, both witty and poignant. If Morrissey were female, he may have written something very similar to “Marry Yourself.” – a song which features on Julie Grant’s 2020 album entitled, “Couldn’t Care Less,” – which, incidentally, was performed by musicians ranging from ages 24 – 69. Julie conveyed to me that while her interactions with local musicians had been positive – she’d also experienced some negative reactions from promoters, one of whom posed the question, “would a younger audience listen to old relics…?” It seems very sad to me that at a time where it’s become recognised as important to provide equal opportunities for female performers, that there could be something additional – such as ageism – still holding us back.

When speaking with local folk singer-songwriter, Ed Woods (a skilled guitarist with a natural penchant for lyrical storytelling) he said, “I would hazard a guess that this issue may be different for male and female performers, as it may be [seen by some as] more acceptable for older men to play music than older women.” He also added that, “Music really should be the ultimate ‘level playing field,’” and, “should stand or fall on its own merits regardless of the age, sex, gender or race of the person producing it.”

Approaching the final year of his life, (aged just 26) the late, Kurt Cobain said, “It might be nice to eventually start playing acoustic guitars and be thought of as a singer and a songwriter – rather than a ‘grunge-rocker’, cause then I might be able to take advantage of that when I’m older and sit down on a chair and play acoustic guitar like Johnny Cash… and it won’t be a big joke. Who knows?” When considering that his bandmate, David Grohl (now in his 50’s) continues to fill stadiums and collaborate with well respected musicians within the rock genre, it seems unlikely that Cobain’s age or chosen genre would’ve worked against him. Within the context of the interview it seems more likely that Cobain viewed the prospect of ageing as a positive thing, rather than something to be ashamed of; looking forward to adapting and progressing in the hopes of being recognised as an older, credible musician. 
Where ‘credibility’ and ‘age’ go hand in hand, Cobain couldn’t have sighted a better example than Johnny Cash. A lot of Cash’s best work was recorded and released at the very end of his life, in his 60’s and 70’s (his cover version of Nine Inch Nail’s, “Hurt” being the most famous example.) There’s a depth of emotion which can be heard (and felt) through his delivery, which arguably comes directly as a result of his life experience. Similarly, with Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush’s re-recordings of earlier work, there are certain things that become more valuable with age. That’s not something that can be bought or worn on a T shirt. It’s something we all have to gain.