Every now and then, perhaps once or twice a month, a new cause for concern is discovered. From some distant campus, a research paper is published which reveals that something we had previously taken for granted is, in fact, deeply worrying. Statistics are produced, researchers quoted in the inevitable press release.
Sometimes that little gobbet of anxiety and guilt dropped into the cultural pool spreads and becomes accepted in the right liberal circles. Guidelines are issued; those who dare to express scepticism are vilified as being out of touch and old-fashioned.
This week’s cause for concern is pop music and the old. A group of academics from Hull and Anglia Ruskin universities have been trawling through a database of song lyrics from the past 80 years and have concluded that, when it comes to ageing, a shocking 72 per cent of songs contain “negative messages that are detrimental to elderly people’s health”. That can cause “bitterness and hostility” which lead, of course, to “poor outcomes in mental physical health, particularly cardiac health”.
Put simply, pop is giving our oldsters nervous breakdowns and heart attacks.
This is not, it turns out, an early April Fool’s joke. The paper, “Representation of Age and Ageing in Popular Music Texts”, published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing, recounts how Paul McCartney’s deceptively innocent “When I’m Sixty Four” (“When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now...”) presents the old as unlovable, while Céline Dion’s cover of “All By Myself” suggests – and who could deny it? – that as the singer gets older, she feels lonelier. Turning to the 1981 novelty song “The Oldest Swinger in Town” by Fred Wedlock, the four authors solemnly conclude that old age is “identified as being associated with physical decline”.
What can be done about this state of affairs? Well, “more scrutiny of these texts by censorship boards should be exercised”, and songwriters should be encouraged to emphasise “positive ideas around relationships, pursuits and coping”.
Speaking to the press, one of the authors, Jacinta Kelly, has warned that this is “not a trivial issue” and she is right about that, if not quite in the way she intended. There is a great army of Jacintas out there, and much of their time is spent telling writers, musicians and directors how they should be more socially responsible. Their targets may change with the latest trends – smoking on film, gender portrayals on TV, the bad example set by celebrities on reality shows – and the language of disapproval is always reliably vague. There will be negative stereotypes, lack of positive role models.
In this case, the argument is stark and faintly sinister: the academics are asking writers to lie. Presumably, even at Hull and Anglia Ruskin universities, it would be accepted that Fred Wedlock’s central thesis, that age brings physical decline, is right. When you get older, you can indeed, as McCartney wrote, lose your hair. You might even be all by yourself. To suggest that writers, young or old, should avoid “negative emotions” when writing about age is as idiotic as asking them to steer clear of frustration when writing about teenage years, of the pain of love or the agony of separation. None of these things is exactly positive, and that is precisely why we need songs, poems and stories about them.
The world is increasingly divided into those who write, read and listen with freedom, accepting that complexity and sadness are part of the creative deal, and the rest – possibly a majority – who believe that civic responsibility, as defined by self-appointed moral authorities, is more important than any artistic expression.
In a song acceptable to the new moral guardians, there would be no hint that age brings decrepitude. Reference to loneliness, regret or nostalgia would be avoided, as would jokes about old love, old sex, shortness of breath, creaky bones and death. What are you left with? Clive Dunn’s “Grandad, grandad, lovelee...”.
What the disapprovers, in this as in other areas, can never quite grasp is that truth, when well expressed, is liberating. Just as teenagers like to read about being misunderstood, so the old want to see and hear what they are experiencing reflected in a clear-eyed way. If Jacinta Kelly went to a Dillie Keane concert, she would hear the grey-haired roar their approval to Kean’s honest, funny song about geriatric sex: “It Ain’t the Hokey Cokey Any More”.
She might even deconstruct my own song, “Sad Old Bastards with Guitars”, in which an old rocker converses with a younger woman who sings the chorus: “Everywhere I go in all the bars/ I see sad old bastards with guitars/ Singing out their youth – at least they try/ With their beer guts sagging and their bald heads shining/ Singing ‘Ho ho silver lining’/ They’re everywhere and nowhere, baby – wish they’d die.” There are some negative stereotypes in there all right, but in my experience they rarely lead to bitterness and hostility.
The best portraits of age disobey these university guidelines. Think of the depraved Mickey Sabbath, raging against death, cancer and the end of sex in Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater, or the pitiless truths groaned out by Leonard Cohen (“My friends are gone and/ My hair is grey/ I ache in the places where I used to play”), or the later poetry of Philip Larkin, notably in “the whole hideous inverted childhood” invoked so brutally and movingly in “The Old Fools”.
The paradox is that it is the grimly sincere academics arguing that age is all about “coping” who are, in their ageist condescension, likely to depress. Songs and stories that look with wit, honesty and passion at old age – not to mention life’s other little challenges – are life affirming, and make us feel less alone.