You’re Dead to Us…Hit Songs By Older Adults, Made for Older Adults

A new series in which we look at once common curiosities of pop culture that don’t exist anymore, be it because of changing tastes, the fragmentation of culture, or merely the fickle nature of fads.

My first memories of pop music are around 1981, 1982, age three or so. That dovetailed with the time my parents’ reached that point that most parents reach—when they stop actively paying attention to and keeping up with current pop music. Thus, American pop music began with “Islands in the Stream” and “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” for me, and ended with “Islands in the Stream” and “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” for my parents. Since then it’s been nothing but The Big Chill soundtrack and church music.

This conscious shift into ignorance or semi-ignorance of current chart hits has happened to me, too. I’ve got a kid and a job and a novel I’m never going to finish to tackle, so there’s less time for music. Every day for a few hours while I work I take some time to listen to good indie rock albums I somehow missed over the last couple of years. For my parents, who had at least three children (my memory is fuzzy) life got too busy to listen to music for which they didn’t already own the cassette. It’s incredibly ironic that my parents got too adult for pop music during a period in which pop music was at its adultiest. By which I mean the dreariest.

I probably have a fondness for music from the extremely early ‘80s because the music was incredibly non-threatening to a toddler, and also that the musicians I saw performing the music on The Merv Griffin Show and Solid Gold looked like my parents; the ladies had feathered hair, still leftover from the Farrahtastic ‘70s, and they wore unflattering and formless blousy dresses. The men wore sweaters, rocked chest hair, and almost always had full beards, glasses, and perms. Perms.

Between the slow death of disco and the cementation of what we can all agree is definitive ‘80s music (wonderful synth-based songs about alienation made by precious little British men in funny clothes), Real Adults took over pop music. They ruled the airwaves and the culture with their boring, mellowing songs in which they worked through their boring adult issues both negative and positive, such as begrudginhly reaffirming your love for a longtime partner you awkwardly call “lady,” and the joys of boat ownership. I am not even exaggerating; REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity  was the top selling album of 1981; Christopher Cross, whose logo was a pink flamingo, swept the Grammys that same year. Women found Kenny Rogers, the physical embodiment of a midlife crisis, to be sexy. People got their groove on to Laura Branigan’s “Gloria.” Barbra Streisand had multiple #1 hits. It was totally bonkers.

But why? Were the ‘70s, with its Watergates and Vietnams and recessions and Rootses and iron-fisted peanut farmers so stressful that adults were left so fried that they needed to spend a couple of years, even if these were their last years actively consuming the culture, just chilling the hell out, agreeing with Eddie Rabbitt as to the goodness of rainy nights? Or rather, were the events of the ‘70s a complete disappointment, a betrayal of the promise of the countercultural‘60s, that adults needed to zone out and forget about being complete sellout nonstarters to a soundtrack of Michael McDonald forgetting he’s not in love anymore?

Today, musicians on pop radio and in the celebrity-gossip complex, the universally recognizable ones like Kes$ha, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Katy Perry—they do not sound or look like Kenny Loggins, Joey Scarbury, Matthew Wilder, the Climax Blues Band, or Kim Carnes, all of whom were, looked, or acted middle-aged. Sure, plenty of pop stars today are in their ‘30s or higher. That goof from LMFAO is 37. Fergie is 37. Gotye is 33. As is Pink. Hell, David Guetta is 45; my dad certainly wasn’t making club bangers about bitches when he was 45. And yet these particular performers are not any older than the soft-rock gods of the early ‘80s (Michael McDonald was 30 in 1982; Peter Cetera was 38), but they sure seem a lot younger. They act and dress young and make songs about young people things, primarily dancing, the club, and, somehow convincingly, being teenagers and figuring yourself out. Steve Perry, REO Speedwagon, Cross, and the lot seemed a hell of a lot older, probably because of their songs about second chances at love and life and the need to chill. But really probably because of their terrible clothes and facial hair choices.

The end of the monoculture—the now-passed era in which we consumed whatever the Big 3 TV networks and six record labels with six radio formats presented us—has something to do with this. People over the age of 35 still make music that sells relatively well; they just promote it on Live With Kelly and Michael and dominate those “listen while you work” adult contemporary radio stations geared at frazzled adults. Of course, those stations’ playlists are still dominated by “Who’s Cryin’ Now” and “Key Largo.”

Trends change and youth ultimately wins, but it’s related to the much covered concept of my generation and the next’s “extended adolescence.” The generation that liked this depressing music about middle-aged woes, either on purpose or subconsciously, allowed their young to take their time to figure out their lives and to wallow in immaturity and self absorption well into their 20s and 30s. Because if they learned one thing, and could have given us one gift, it’s the idea that being a real adult, with responsibilities, and having a beard, and having to listen to soft rock, kind of sucks.

  • Jon C

    I’ve come to terms with my age (I’m 42), and I’m choosier with my indie music than I was ten years ago, but at the same time I’ve been fascinated by witnessing how cyclical music trends are. At present, indie rock is right around somewhere in the mid 80s–a lot of synth bands, a bit of MBV/J+MC noisy shoegaze, and hints of postpunk abound. Or to translate: it’s like college rock all over again. And I couldn’t be happier. ;-)

  • JonCummings

    Y’know, Brian, I’m usually not a big fan of pieces that lump a bunch of songs together into a trend and then disparage that trend — but I actually appreciate this because it starts a larger conversation. Your perspective on this — having been a preschooler at the time, and therefore hearing these songs either in retrospect or (if you remember hearing them back then) from the back seat as someone else controlled the radio — is far different from mine, as someone who controlled his own radio dial as a 15-year-old in 1981.

    A few things are key when considering AC-pop music of that era. First, pop radio was a much more expansive beast then than it is now, at least in terms of the age range of its listening demographic. Radio hadn’t yet undergone the narrowcasting that it did in the early ’90s, and while there were Album Rock, Adult Contemporary, R&B and Country stations competing for listeners, a lot of adults in their 30s and 40s were still listening to pop stations whose counterparts in our era most likely would have moved on to Adult Top 40, “Jack” or “Jill” or one of the 27 varietals of oldies available on satellite. Therefore, Top 40 programmers could count on receiving requests for J. Geils AND Bertie Higgins, Springsteen AND Air Supply — and juxtapositions that seem jarring today felt pretty natural back then, as a listener. It’s also worth noting that when Top 40 (both “mainstream” and “rhythm”) became intensely unfriendly to older acts & audiences during the 1990s, a lot of artists moved to Nashville and a lot of listeners moved to Country.

    Second, back then, even if an AC station in a market had higher ratings, Top 40 was where the money was, both for artists and advertisers — and acts who today might be satisfied building a large audience in a niche category were always looking to cross over to pop. Country wasn’t enough for Kenny or Dolly (or Eddie Rabbitt or Ronnie Milsap), AC wasn’t nearly enough for acts like Streisand or even ol’ Bertie, and AOR couldn’t contain the ambitions of REO Speedwagon or Styx or the other groups that made Power Ballads a phenomenon beginning in the early ’80s. Never mind the R&B acts you didn’t mention here, who crossed over with very adult ballads — Champaign with “How ‘Bout Us,” etc.

    Third, the early ’80s happened to be a time when numerous acts that had come up in the late ’60s and through the ’70s were becoming more “mature” — Chicago, Michael McDonald, Elton John, McCartney (and even Lennon), etc. — yet still trying to stay relevant to the pop market (even as their longtime fans wanted to stay pop-relevant, too). For some reason, “mature” has usually tended to mean “slower” when it comes to music, and so, poof! — “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” “I Keep Forgettin’,” “Blue Eyes,” “Woman,” etc.

    Of course, none of that explains EVERY song you mention, nor does it negate the fact that pop music was largely treading water during the early ’80s, mostly ignoring what was going on with punk and new wave (and England, generally) until the volume of pop-friendly stuff from those arenas eventually crowded much of the AC-leaning stuff off the radio.

  • abyssgazer

    And I have a “fourthly”.

    When you’re very young, most performers are older than you, then you hit that sweet spot when they’re mostly your age, and then, bam, they’re all kids who need to get off of your lawn. Those guys from the 70s look “old” because they were your parents’ age.

    People wore weird clothes and had questionable facial hair—young and old—but a certain look screams 70s guy, whether he was 25, 35, or 45.

    I don’t know. It reminds of something from MST3K–there was a riff questioning why everyone in old movies was forty. I’m not entirely sure the cause of the phenomenon, but, now, everyone from the 70s looks forty, too.

  • Ted

    As a guy who used to work in AC radio, I have to say that while songs by Journey are played from the time to time, I don’t think Bertie Higgins has ever surfaced on the current radio playlists I looked at using Mediabase. AC radio has changed and is now dominated by songs that were played in the ’90s and aughts. The ’80s category is limited to the likes of Madonna, George Michael, Tina Turner, and Tears for Fears –who show up very rarely. Nowadays, old geezers like Pink, Natasha Bedingfield, One Republic, Kelly Clarkson, and Maroon 5 are some of the core artists played.

  • Jon C

    Good points all! There’s an interesting book out there by Ben Fong-Torres called ‘The Hits Just Keep on Coming’ that goes into this sort of stuff, as well as the cyclical nature I’d mentioned in my comment. Interesting reading.

  • rockymtranger

    Such a great post. Let’s not forget that someone like Paul Davis would NEVER get near a playlist these days ( Style wins out over substance a good chunk of the time, but that’s not to say there isn’t quality either. Maybe we’re heading in that direction again with the likes of Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers charting like they are. The beauty of popular music is that it’s possible to foresee some trends, but something is always popping up that no one saw coming (Harlem Shake, anyone?).

  • Link Crawford

    As I get older, I’m realizing that most music is good. It doesn’t mean I always want to listen to it. But in the right mood and with the right person I can appreciate P!nk…or Eminem…or Christopher Cross…or King Crimson…or Elvis…or The Andrews Sisters…or Paul Whiteman.

    But man, I REALLY like the post-disco pre-MTV whimpy adult contemporary/country leanings of the early 1980’s. Heck, even “Hooked on Classics” went top 10 in the US. I long for a more eclectic top 40. That’s why I’m always happy when a country song or a Korean dance tune climbs the charts.