“Fuckin’ play Cherub Rock,”
Screamed a dude sitting next to me at a Smashing Pumpkins show in 2012, whilst the band was touring on their Oceania album. Thanks to this gentlemen (and a few others in the crowd), I noticed a steadily growing dissatisfaction among the audience itching to hear all of the old hits and obscenely calling them out between songs.
The reaction might have been due to Billy Corgan being just too iconic for any of his new stuff to be relevant, or perhaps because those later albums were shit. Nonetheless, while reflecting upon how some of the bands I listened to in the 80s and 90s either disappeared or suffered from creative mediocrity after their initial years of success, my general attitude has been that musical artists reaching middle age have little to offer innovatively.
Being a middle-aged man myself, I have a lot of admiration for bands of roughly my generation still recording tight-ass albums and touring with energy and enthusiasm for their new output.
I can think of several middle-aged indie pop/rock acts that have put out excellent records in the last year or so. Those might include the recent Belle and Sebastian EPs, last year’s albums from Broken Social Scene, LCD Soundsystem, the Shins, and Spoon to name just a few. Bands falling into this category in 2018 include Okkervil River, Neko Case, Stephen Malkmus, Belly, the Decembrists, and Yo La Tengo (geeze, even Dave Matthews just put out a new album).
When it comes to this genre-of-sorts (meaning, middle-aged indie rock), the bands don’t necessarily reflect their audiences (as the Eagles or Lynyrd Skynyrd revival tours might). Checking out my first show for the Montreal indie rock band Stars this past Saturday night at the Bluebird Theatre in Denver, I was struck with the mixed generational demographic of the audience, ranging from balding, middle-aged fan boys with dad-bods, to squealing, jumping 19-year old college girls. Most of whom were intimately familiar with Stars’ vast back catalogue.
Even more impressive, however, is the extent to which Stars (and other bands of their ilk) have been able to maintain a freshness and relevance now that they are 20 years into their careers.
I’ve enjoyed Belle and Sebastian’s How to Solve Our Human Problems’ EPs this year just about as much as anything else they have recorded, and LCD Soundsystem’s tune “Oh Baby” from their comeback album last year has become one of my favorite songs ever.
Similarly, I have seriously enjoyed Stars’ last two albums – No One is Lost and There is No Love in Fluorescent Light – which served as my gateway to the Canadian band. Having gone through their catalogue several times in preparation for this article, I can honestly say that Stars has progressively improved sonically with age. I would even dare to say they may have hit a creative peak in the last 4 years.
Band leaders Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell have progressively experimented with everything from lush soundscapes to more jagged varieties of rock and pop through the band’s career (with their major achievement being their disco-infused 7th album No One is Lost), yet maintaining a reliable amount of hooks, danceable grooves, and emotive storytelling. This ability to continually churn out consumable, fan-pleasing tunes was evident throughout Stars’ live set conveyed through the audience’s excitement (and ability to sing along) with new songs from the latest album, such as “Alone” and “Wanderers” (my personal favorite from There is No Love in Fluorescent Light), but also be locked into the old hits (nearly everyone in the audience could faithfully recite the encore tune, “Your Ex-Love is Dead,” from Stars’ third album Set Yourself on Fire).
So what’s going on here?
Is 45 the new 18 for creative innovation in rock music? Hardly, but I think there is something expressed through age and a sense of nostalgia that constructively flirts with today’s popular sensibilities. I think both the film and book Ready Player One exemplify this idea quite seamlessly. The strength of those pieces of contemporary popular culture is an emphasis on an era and its icons as a primary character (in this sense, a smash up of late 1970’s and 1980s media ranging from video games, movies, books, and even one of the standout contributors to social suicide among 80s teenage boys, Dungeons and Dragons).
Writing about this very issue in a 2017 Los Angeles Times piece, Mikael Wood portrayed new music from James Mercer and Spoon as employing “flavors of 1980s new wave” and “the jittery sound of disco-era Rolling Stones.” According to Wood, there is very little space in our contemporary music culture for rock bands “fronted by guys old enough to have fathered the latest up-and-comers.” Even the 21-year old photographer I brought along to the Stars show for this piece disparagingly marveled at how Stars’ singer Campbell is the exact age as her father.
Yet, I think it is the nostalgic vibe some of these middle-aged artists authoritatively infuse into their tunes that captures the attention of younger audiences.
In the same vein, the vintage cultural authority of Ready Player One has channeled my teenage kids current obsessions with 80s pop rock tunes (good god, my twelve year-old daughter won’t stop singing “Sister Christian” by Night Ranger) and Stanley Kubric’s The Shining. This phenomenon is not only provoked by nostalgia nerds like Ernest Cline (the author of Ready Player One), but also the quick accessibility of decades of music, movies, and television made available and aggressively promoted by the likes of iTunes, Spotify, and Netflix.
Perhaps the intergenerational enthusiasm for their brand of middle-aged indie rock arises from Millan and Campbell’s wizened confidence of craft that Stars’ tunes impart to their audience. It could, however, be just as simple as this – the band just puts on a hell of a show. On stage, the two leads are emotional, enthusiastic, and appreciative of their audience. They have clearly established an adorable (albeit platonic) stage rapport together both vocally and physically. The band’s performance also offers an inspired rhythm section (wow, Evan Cranley is a really strong bassist).While I doubt Stars and their contemporaries will replace the popularity of younger artists capturing the imagination of teenagers and twenty-somethings, it’s awesome they can claim at least a little sliver of the indie pie.
Nate Jones is middle-aged, rapidly balding man with chronic bad breath who writes about culture, identity politics, and sometimes music. His published work includes pieces in Ready Player None: A Ready Player One Fanzine, Old White Dudes’ Quarterly, various want ads seeking vintage Atari 2600 cartridges, and his blog entitled “My Heaven is 1973.”