This is not the end, my friends

Faithful concertgoers prove age has not withered rock's maternal flame, Matthew Reisz hears

October 25, 2012

Different strategies for dealing with ageing adopted by performers such as Courtney Love, Celia Cruz, Madonna and "mothers who rock", are explored in a new collection edited by academics from the University of Gloucestershire.

'Rock On': Women, Ageing and Popular Music was put together by Ros Jennings, reader in cultural studies, and Abigail Gardner, subject group leader for media courses, who also contributed chapters on, respectively, Shirley Bassey and Petula Clark, and the "shock and awe" generated by the "ageless black body" of Grace Jones.

The editors describe themselves as women who are "getting on a bit" but "haven't yet gravitated to the same deep love of Brahms as we have for pop ... As ageing women, we are still buying new music and going to festivals (though now we take chairs)." Dr Gardner admitted that this could embarrass her children, but said her "students appreciate the fact I was there when Joy Division was around or that I saw Fela Kuti play at Glastonbury. I have a background of interests they can identify with."

The book arose out of an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project on women, ageing and the media, in which Dr Gardner worked on popular music. She had also researched subcultures and wanted to look at ageing festival-goers and ageing rock fans at a time when "the music industry is having to look at ageing performers, since live performance is one of the ways it can get some money back ... Performers no longer able to hit the notes are still attracting older fans on a 'nostalgia trip'," she said. "Grace Jones and Dolly Parton operate with a sort of camp aesthetic and refer back to their youth through artifice, surgery and performance strategies - that's how they maintain their fan base."

Another inspiration is what Dr Gardner called her "frustration at the paucity of media vocabulary to describe women over a certain age. It's always about ageing hands, bingo wings, whether someone 'looks good for her age'. I'd like the focus to be on performance and sound rather than just image, and the pleasure of that performance for the audience, knowing that the performance is a negotiation between the audience and the performer."

'Rock On' looks at how body parts such as "Madonna's hands, Courtney Love's face and Grace Jones' 'hindquarters' " have been "fetishized for how they might illustrate, deny or obscure ageing". It considers how obituaries of Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff - who died from a drug overdose in 1994 - served to keep her " forever". But it is also a celebration of the performers who keep going "till they drop" - and the fans eager to keep up with them.

"You have people who have grown up with something and don't have any other kinds of musical experience," said Dr Gardner. "Why should they shift and move over into different genres?"

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