Twenty years is an eternity in pop music. For performers who regularly sold out stadiums and pumped out hit records in the 1980s, the fade into obscurity can be traumatic. But two decades is also enough time for a new generation of listeners to catch the vibe of rockers such as Prince, Morrissey, and Robert Smith of The Cure.
Far from being over the hill, these 40-something artists may just be hitting their peak. In the past few months, Prince has reclaimed his pop crown with the sold-out "Musicology" tour and critically acclaimed album of the same name; Morrissey of The Smiths fame achieved his highest-ever chart position with "You Are the Quarry," released in May, seven years after his last album; and Tuesday marks the arrival of The Cure's much-heralded album, "The Cure."
Some say the stars are aligned, but the renewed public attention has less cosmic origins. Newer artists making their mark on the music industry - Outkast, the Rapture, Franz Ferdinand, and Interpol - are adopting the older icons' signature sounds and are quick to attribute them.
"I think the fact that younger bands are essentially quoting them and recycling their stuff gives them a lot of attention," says Jim Farber, music critic for the New York Daily News. "Obviously, Outkast is influenced by Prince."
Such tributes also win over a younger audience. In Morrissey online message boards, a number of fans are 'fessing up to a late interest in the "Mozzer," having been introduced to his music through new bands - "the 'pop-punk' stuff like New Found Glory," whose lead singer always wears a Smiths shirt, writes one 14-year-old. Another young fan heard that Morrissey was a major influence on Radiohead. "So I took myself down to the record store and straight away wondered how I had ignored them before."
The three rock icons have blazed trails through the music landscape, and listeners seem ready to retrace their footsteps.
"The Cure is new and fresh again. For 20-year-olds, it's a discovery," says MaryAnn Janosik, former director of education at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, who is writing a book about 1980s rock music. "The same thing happened with Elvis and the Beatles. There was a renaissance because another generation started listening to them. A lot of that is the passing of the torch between musicians."
Musicians have historically respected their elders. Prince himself acknowledges the deep imprint of James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and even Joni Mitchell. Yet such mentions don't always jump-start careers.
That's where the cyclical nature of the music industry comes into play, Mr. Farber says. The common denominator in this triple renaissance is a 1980s nostalgia that's sweeping the American market, from sweater vests to Voltron to Van Halen. George Michael rebounded with "Patience," The Pixies reunited after 11 years for a knockout tour, and members of Guns 'N Roses and Stone Temple Pilots' Scott Weiland recently nabbed the No. 1 spot on the Billboard chart as supergroup Velvet Revolver.
Morrissey and The Cure owe their resurgence to the rise of "classic alternative," says Bram Teitelman of Billboard magazine.
More radio stations are embracing the indie pop of the 1980s and early '90s, he says, trading modern acts for historical tracks. "They're saying, 'This is music for people who like music.' "
Critics across the board are saying that Morrissey, The Cure, and Prince are simply producing quality music - without sacrificing their genuine eccentricities.
Morrissey still ruffles feathers with his claim to celibacy and his controversial political comments. The Cure's Robert Smith hasn't rubbed off his lipstick - or tamed his hair.
And although Prince veered away from the wild side after he became a Jehovah's Witness, he showed everyone at the Grammys and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions that he was back - prancing around the stage as if hardly any time had passed.
Prince became a superstar with "Purple Rain" in 1984. Yet he became something of a joke in 1993 after dropping his name for an unpronounceable symbol (in a contract battle with Warner Bros.) and setting up his own label. Many listeners were unaware of the albums he's released since, and those who found them were confounded by them.
"I thought I was done with Prince. Even considered packing the CDs in my closet to save space," writes a fan in a forum at www.prince.org. "But 'Musicology' brought me back big time."
Morrissey, after recognizing that his 1995 and 1997 albums didn't stack up to his best work, moved to Paris and went underground. His absence apparently did make hearts grow fonder, because the new album has generated record sales.
The Cure, meanwhile, has made an album that epitomizes the band's nearly 30-year career. Rolling Stone gives it four stars, hailing it as the group's "most adventurous and passionate since 'Disintegration' [in 1989]." The Cure also released a four-disc set of rarities and B-sides in January, and earned a place on the Hollywood Rockwalk in April.
In contrast to the kids who are just discovering these performers, die-hard fans of the revived rock acts - and even the artists themselves - shrink from the word "comeback," saying they never disappeared.
"The only thing I'm frustrated by is people saying The Cure are cool again. They were always incredible," says Alison Ross, a Cure-aholic from Atlanta.
"The music scene today is a veritable wasteland," she adds. "The '80s were so vibrant."