LOS ANGELES — We may be on the eve of the next millennium, but the big news of this year's Grammy awards is that the 20th century rules. Santana, Cher, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Sting, Aretha Franklin, and Smokey Robinson - all nominated for Grammy awards Feb. 23 - are pop-culture icons from another time.
Baby boomers learned to tune their first portable radios to these rock legends.
Yet, like the 60-something Tina Turner who just blazed through a Super Bowl Sunday performance, all of these Grammy-nominated rockers are still singing and selling records at a time when a large part of their audience actually qualifies for senior-citizen discounts.
So, what gives? Rock has come of age, is the first and best explanation, says producer Phil Ramone, who sits on the board of directors of the Grammy Foundation. "It took the first 25 years for it to be accepted as music at all," he says, with a laugh. Now, veteran performers are being rediscovered by new generations of audiences. "They're saying, 'Hey, this isn't just my father's band."
Mr. Ramone also points to the success of such shows as the VH1 behind-the-scenes biographies in developing an educated audience about music from earlier decades.
Beyond that, adds the producer, who has worked with many of the top acts of the last half century, the enduring appeal of this music is more evidence of the power and influence of the baby-boom generation.
"There are a bunch of artists who may not be selling like they used to," he says, "but they have a big and loyal following." Most have the savvy to hold on to their old fans while developing the new, willingly playing a few oldies during a tour that's meant to showcase new music.
"These people have become brand names," agrees Frank Alkyer, editorial director of Down Beat Magazine, which has covered the music industry for 65 years. The key, of course, is good music. Only the top artists will prevail in any generation, he says.
Rock isn't the only arena to find new, younger audiences. He points to jazz great Tony Bennett, who was rediscovered in the '90s.
Some of these performers tap new talent to help bridge the generation gap. Many collaborate with younger musicians. Santana received 10 Grammy nominations for an album that also features the young voices of Lauryn Hill, Dave Matthews, Wyclef Jean, and Everlast.
This cross-pollination is important, given the economics of the music industry today. The simple act of making a recording is much more expensive than in the early days of rock, and the mergers of major companies create only a few industry players (Will the Internet change this? See story, page 13).
"It's very hard to rise to the top right now," Mr. Alkyer says, "given the consolidation going on in the industry." It's not just the music that harks back to the early days of rock. With the lack of long-term commitment to career building, "We've gone back to the '50s with radio stations cranking out Top 40 hit singles."
"We're in a very song-centric period, as opposed to a band-centered time," he adds, which makes the big-name players even more difficult to challenge. But however powerful the image of Mick Jagger may be, the moment will come when the baby-boom generation will lose its clout. "The boomer clock is ticking," says Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse (N.Y.) University who tracks pop culture. This era of unprecedented consensus in which a single powerful generation shared a set of common popular culture values is winding down. "Fragmentation is the direction we're going," he says, and with it, "mass-culture dominance will be dead."
For now, the boomer heroes are holding back the clock. But veterans, such as Cher, the only rock 'n' roller to have produced a Top 10 hit in each of the past four decades, are up front about the challenges. "It's a lot of fun, and it's exhausting," she said in discussing her concert tour last summer. "I figure as long as ... I can still walk off the stage under my own steam, that everything is good." But, she adds, "The older you are, the harder it is to get in shape to do this kind of tour. That's why there aren't a lot of 53-year-old women out there running around in tights and jumping up and down."
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