Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Why Music is a Young Man's (and Woman's) Game (And Why We Listen Less As We Get Older)

As we get older, we listen to music less often and purchase less music.  Our musical tastes change as well!

I recounted before how a 14-year-old girl I knew ran away from home. Foolishly, I flew out there to "rescue" her from being sex-trafficked and it was an eye-opener for me. I forgot how illogical teenagers can be (and how illogical I was at that age).  I think if most would-be parents spent the weekend with some unruly and moody teens, they would end up getting a vasectomy and their tubes tied.

But I digress....

One thing this moody teen told me at the time - that stuck with me - was her response when we talked about how her life was going off the rails.  "I'll always have my music!" she said, as if that was a reason for living.  And maybe it was.

Bear in mind she didn't play an instrument, other than the obligatory piano lessons that we all took in middle school when our parents were convinced we were the next Mozart or something. She didn't play the guitar, sing, or make music of any kind, as far as I know. What she was referring to was music she listened to, on the radio or played on a CD player or whatever.  For some reason - a reason we shall explore - she felt her identity was tied up in a packaged product of not only recorded music, but a set of attitudes and postures that were bundled with it.

It made me realize that at that age, I too, fell into this marketing trap.  The music business is aimed at young people and performed by young people.  In fact, it is amazing to me that the peak years for many performers are in their teens and early 20's.  Unless they are a superstar and can do endless "farewell" or "comeback" concert tours, most pop stars fizzle by age 30, as they are too old for the target demographic of 18-24 year-olds.

Music becomes a form of tribalism as well. Young people like to listen to music that alarms or annoys their parents or the older generation in general.  When my Mother swooned over a young Frank Sinatra, my Grandmother thought no good would come of it.  When Elvis swung his hips, ministers across the nation condemned it as obscene. When the Beatles said (misquoted) they were "bigger than Jesus!" it was deemed blasphemy.

And older people claimed the new music was just "noise" and had no artistic merit.  Later on, when heavy metal came about - followed by "rap" music (music is now just people talking!) our generation decried it as "noise" as well.  Only this time, it was literally true - or are we just getting old, too?

People seem to fixate on the music they bought and listened to as teens and 20-somethings.  Maybe some new "pop" artist comes along that they listen to as well.  Typically, though, music tastes get more "sophisticated" and softer as you get older.  Metal guitar riffs are less enjoyed, classical music and "old standards" are rediscovered.

But overall, I find myself at least, listening to less music as I get older.  Why is this?  I think a number of factors are at work:

1. We got a life: When you are a teen or in college, you have a lot of free, unstructured time on your hands, despite what put-upon teens and 20-somethings will tell you.  So you have more time to listen to music.  Over time, this is less the case, as life interrupts your listening time.

2. Disposable Income:  While perpetually crying poverty (I know I did!) teens and 20-somethings have a surprising amount of disposable income to spend on things like beer, drugs, and music (sounds like a party!).  We didn't have much money back then, but somehow found the cash to pay $4.99 for an album at the drugstore (yes, it was a thing back then).  When CDs came out and were retailing for $12.99 and up, well, it seemed an outrageous waste of money.  But by then, I was in my late 20's and had car payments and a mortgage to make.

3. Fixation:  Like I said, we tend to fixate on the music of our youth, and by age 30 are already grousing about this "newfangled stuff" that is "no damn good!"   Remember back in the 1970s when "Rock and Rollers" said "Disco Sucks!"  It wasn't that they hated Disco in particular, but the fact it was not the 1960's rock they had fixated on.  Kids these days!  Wearing nice clothes and dancing!  What is the world coming to?   Most of the 10,000 songs on my phone are from my youth - what does that say?

4. Moving On:  While we do fixate on the music of our youth, as we age, we realize that much of it was crap and not worth listening to.  The best survives and appears on the "oldies" station.  The worst fades away.  So much of what I thought was "good music" in my youth (by dint of repetition) I cannot even listen to, today.  The Talking Heads?  Seemed so hip and trendy at the time, but now seems just weird.  Elvis Costello?  Mostly un-listenable, as the rage in his early music sounds more like noise today. Tellingly, Elvis today sings "old standards" and you know what?  He's pretty good at it.  His wife is pretty easy to listen to as well!

5.  Hearing Loss: As you get older you lose some of your hearing - mostly high frequency for men.  I tried this informal hearing test with some dinner guests the other day, and it was interesting that the women could not hear the lower frequencies while the men could not hear higher.  I tapped out at about 12 KHz. I need a hearing aid! At parties, the collection of voices sounds like a cacophony and it is hard to pick out one voice in the crowd - including the person you are talking to.  Much music, as a result, sounds bad to older ears.  I find myself turning off music sometimes, as it is literally uncomfortable to listen to.

6. Talk Radio/Podcasts/Audiobooks/News Programs: I am not a big fan of talk radio or podcasts or audio books.  But when travelling by car, we often tun into the local public broadcasting station for the news.  And then we turn it off.  But a lot of people love these talky-talky programs, particularly talk radio.  It really took off in the 1990's and is a staple of radio today.  It seems odd to me, as when I was a youth, radio was all-music and the only "talk" was the DJ blathering on between records (or sometimes talking over the intro to the record) and we all wished he would just shut up. For some reason, talky-talky is the new norm, with people "watching" podcasts where someone with headphones and a big microphone (so they must know what they are talking about!) blathers on for hours.  I prefer to blather in text, thank you.

7. Marketing:  Like I said, most of what we think of "music" is marketing of an image or lifestyle.  Pouting heavy-metal "rockers" with their manes of hair are as much about the image as the music.  I noted before how the whole "glam rock" thing catered to the sexual insecurities and androgyny of adolescents and young adults.  Heavy-metal "headbangers" sold a message of nihilism.  Today, rappers sell the "gangsta" lifestyle, which young white suburban teens mimic until they grow up and get jobs.  As one gets older, I think, one realizes that this is just posturing and no one takes it seriously.  It is just a market-tested means of snaring followers, who ape the dress and actions and attitudes of their favorite "stars" - at least for awhile.  As a (real) adult, however, you realize that this sort of stuff is kind of juvenile.  You can't be a 50-year-old Juggalo, although I am sure some have tried.  Again, Marketing.

8. Disillusionment:  Tied closely to #7 above, I think older people get disillusioned with the whole "music industry" thing, particularly when you discover that your musical heroes are a bunch of racists, rapists, pedophiles, drug addicts, or tax cheats (or all of the above) or just abusive to their band mates or raging narcissists or whatever.  You also realize these folks are raking in millions of dollars of your money and you start to think less and less that spending $200 on a concert ticket is a swell idea.  Some of these "rock stars" turn out to be real jerks.  Others, you later realize, didn't even record their own albums, but instead had the "wrecking crew" or "the swampers" do all the heavy lifting, with the star's actual voice enhanced by massive over-dubbing (back in the day) or today, by "auto-tune."  Even when performing "live" they rely on a pre-recorded "backing track."  It is all a game of illusion!

There are probably a dozen or so more reasons.  It may be that the music business isn't what it used to be.  Hard to sell an "image" since the death of album covers and since music videos were supplanted by reality tee-vee (reality killed the video star!).  This music industry database shows that overall revenue from the music business peaked in the 1990s and is only now exceeding that revenue in 2023.  Meanwhile, the population of the US has increased, which means revenue per capita has decreased over time and is just now turning around.  Perhaps this is following the age demographics of our country as well.  Or maybe it reflects the sea change created by streaming music online. It is an interesting thought.

Of course, the death of radio might also be to blame. We bought albums of music we heard on the radio. After enough repetitions, you start to think the music is actually good!  Let's face it, the band "America" would never have sold a single record without massive airplay.  Horse with no name? Oz never gave nothing to the tin man?  Be serious!

In any event, it seems that people listen to less music as they age (from my observation, anyway) and in part this is because the industry markets to youth for the most part, as that market segment "buys" the most music.  And I doubt that will change, either.  Old people just don't listen to as much music as young people - it seems to be an intractable thing.