I was recently working at home (where else) stuck a moment of absent minded disassociation, when, staring off at my popcorn ceiling, I began to take notice to the music emanating from my stereo. All day I’d been ignoring the white noise it spewed – forgettable, contemporary Canadian pop/folk hits from CBC – but now I finally made out a lyric: “I’m 39 years old, and keeping my options open.” Maybe it was the genre I found disagreeable, but the first reaction was that of cringe followed as it usually does by guilt – maybe I’m a bad person for thinking this. An hour later, after writing this, I think not. Let’s jump in.
It’s with intention I’m not naming the artist or the song – if you Google it, that’s entirely on you. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the music, if not particularly uninteresting to me, and maybe ever so slightly reminiscent of something a mid-aged house mom might revel in because it references her very demographic by name. You get the picture – it’s typical minivan soundtrack fare, volume jacked, kids in tow. And that’s why I’m not naming names; representation is important, and for a song to paste up the musical equivalent of a propaganda poster to upwards mobility in the forties, all the more power to both the artist and the recipient.
For me though, six years younger than the artist in this song, representation is the exact problem and source of the cringe I feel, and where this commentary firmly enters “my opinion” territory. There is so much representation made in bad taste, poor imagination, and so much preset-propaganda that fits the bill because, like filters on Instagram, the person activating the sentiment thinks this concept is good enough, maybe even well done when the creative meat here is actually barely seared and oh-so blue on the inside. Steak metaphors aside, let’s compare this song with one I like enough to name, but suffers from similar lack of fleshed out lyrics.
A similar issue of cringe presented itself a few years ago when listening to a single from Avante Black, a hipster sounding band I know nothing about but overheard blasting at a cosmetics counter while walking through a department store (and, come to think of it, Avante Black seems like it’s one “+” symbol away from being an easy-come-easy-go online fashion label). In Make a Mess, a song I suspect is unoriginally about post-relationship angst, the line “two years into twenty I need more” is uttered. Immediately Avante’s age at time of writing is revealed, or that of her alter ego in the song; I think that’s a mistake, and probably cleaves away a chuck of the audience (or at least the cynics like me). For unless the age revealing sentiment in a song is skillfully presented with skill and nuance, people are going to get alienated or lost to the critiquing the amount of heartache a 22 year old could possibly have experienced, or in the case of the former song, why we should care about a 39 year old keeping their options open.
And this is the crux of my argument. True musical representation should be more about human concepts than reaching for the support of age brackets for easy audience endearment, the worst examples being the laziest, where the station in life is referenced directly. I don’t have an issue with very young or middle aged artists releasing songs glamorizing, popularizing, or underlining issues unique to their larger or smaller quantities of years, but like the classic adage show, don’t tell, doing so should be an exercise in allusion and subtlety.
In an era of easily triggered people and even easier-to-grab pitchforks, I’m already paranoid that haters are at the gate. There will be people who disagree with my opinion (and that’s fine), but I do know that for those of you – equally lazy perhaps – who are reaching for a tidy dictum that maybe I’m just prejudiced against middle aged female songwriters, I counter that with the reality that I’m a fan of the musical skill and lyrical nuance of women like Nic Endo, Tying Tiffany, and Allison Goldfrapp, each older than 39 years, and definitely keeping their options open. The late Poly Styrene, 53 when she lost a fight to breast cancer in 2011, was still writing and releasing relevant music I would readily mix in with playlists populated with band ensembles thirty years her junior.
It’s not even an argument strictly limited to the use of age in songs, but rather lazy songwriting in general: A great act suggests a topic rather than miming it out. Poly Styrene’s passing reminds me of a different late artist to counterpoint her abilities, Chester Bennington. As much as I like the concept of Linkin Park, even more so the subject matter they tried to electrify – depression and the myriads of codependent life struggles – I struggled to ever become a fan of the band on the basis that these topics were frequently spoken of by name. Again, show, don’t tell.
A lover of darkwave, a semi-underground genre (is anything truly underground with the advent of the internet?) distantly related and derived from post-punk, new wave, and goth pop, I equally struggle with the same problem plaguing genre pioneering band Clan of Xymox. Any band that commits a lyric to vinyl like “staying home and being depressed” is taking a way out – maybe an easy one – and that robs my ability to consume their hard work with seriousness and enjoyment. These songs do not end up on my playlists, and with Xymox, that’s a real crying shame.
I leave you on this note: If you’re 39, at home right now and feeling depressed (given the current global pandemic, I suspect that appraisal probably sums up a lot of people right now), entertain this idea: You’re not 39, and you’re also not depressed either. What you really are is a music consumer with good taste. Why settle for a song that tells you what to feel when there are so many more that will inspire you to assemble a relevant state of mind, camaraderie, or place of self-worth instead? I assure you, with music catalogues at our fingertips more than ever before, there are, how does one say, options.