I was working in the home office the other day, and all of a sudden I heard the bright melody and chorus of a favorite punk rock song of yore. It was the Buzzcocks's "Everybody's Happy Nowadays." I loved that song going back to 1979, but I wasn't playing it on the stereo. So I went into the entertainment room to investigate. I found the TV turned on, and the song was airing during the same half-hour time slot as "NBC Nightly News." It was a commercial for AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons.
The folks on the screen were young, middle-aged, and older – all feisty. They were celebrating a birthday, throwing pieces of cake. Merriment and glee. At the end, the AARP was tagged as, "An organization for people who have birthdays."
If you know the song, you know its upbeat melody belies its sarcastic refrain. "Everybody's happy nowadays," was a line the Buzzcocks's singer- songwriter Pete Shelley appropriated from Aldous Huxley's futuristic 1932 novel, "Brave New World." In the book, happiness was uniform, rote, and the world had been stripped of art, culture, and philosophy. Now this line has been used in an AARP ad and the song has been stripped of context.
My mind was spinning with irony and contradiction, compounded by the fact that the AARP now invites people who have turned 50 to join the club – and I turned 50 last year. And, yes, with some hesitation (but mindful of discounted services), I applied for a free one-year membership.
I needed to talk this through and got in touch with Buzzcocks guitarist Steve Diggle in London. I had met Diggle while working as a rock critic for The Boston Globe, and we'd been pals for years.
"Diggle," I said, "what's up with that song and the AARP?"
"It is a bit ironic," he admitted.
"Didn't you have some trepidation about this?" I asked.
"Yes, really, and no," he said. "I [first] thought, it's going to be bad for our image – it's for old people. Then ... I realized it was for people 50 and over and I realized me and Pete are over 50. But I kind of don't gauge my life by my age."
"When I was kid, growing up," continued Diggle, "people who were 50 were pretty historic. Having arrived at the mark, ... it's not that bad. Rock 'n' roll does keep you at a level end; it's ageless in a way, particularly in the mind. People still listen to rock 'n' roll at any age.
"There is a greatness about being old. You can still keep your dignity, if you keep your health and strength. It's like climbing a mountain and being on top: You can see more than ever. I wouldn't want to be any age other than what I am now."
The Buzzcocks have gone down myriad different paths during their nearly three decades of existence. But they still play fast, hard, and for keeps. "Through punk," Diggle said, "there's more freedom to be youthful. In a way, we did change a lot of things, along with the Sex Pistols and The Clash in punk days, and it is good to make a contribution when you reach 50."
"We broke down a few barriers, in a stylish sense. You can say, 'OK, I'm 50, but I'm still cool.' The only thing you've got to watch is to do it with style and dignity. You don't want to be the uncle at the wedding showing the young kids how it used to be. You've just got to watch your step."
The ad, which the AARP calls "Birthday," is part of an ongoing branding campaign that will last throughout the year. "The ad is about vibrancy, energy," said Emilio Pardo, AARP's chief brand officer, who says they'll roll out five more TV spots. "There's a perfect energy, rhythm to that song.... Now we know it's an ageless reality we have. It's experience that's similar, not age." Mr. Pardo says research showed that nearly half of AARP's 38 million members are still working.
When I told Pardo I'd talked to Diggle and explained his reasoning, I could feel Pardo beaming over the phone line. A free AARP membership card is on the way to Diggle.
• Jim Sullivan is a former arts writer and columnist for The Boston Globe.