Paul McCartney capped the Grammys this month by leading an all-star jam on "The End," the grand finale on "Abbey Road," the last album recorded by the Beatles. The 43-year-old song may have finished the awards show, but it spoke to the seemingly endless new beginnings afforded by music.
Bruce Springsteen joined the jam after opening the Feb. 12 telecast with the E Street Band's first major performance since the death of Clarence Clemons last year. During the Beatles number, The Boss traded solos with Joe Walsh and Dave Grohl, a musical force nearly 20 years after the end of Nirvana. And McCartney, nearing 70, is unstoppable – even if some Twitter users never hear of him.
The Grammys finale came to mind this week with the intriguing news that Adam Lambert is set to front Queen at the U.K.'s Sonisphere 2012 music festival in July, some 20 years after the death of Freddie Mercury. The tapping of Lambert spurs ambivalent feelings. But it adds to a growing message from aging music greats. Critics and purists be damned: Rock royalty is set to rock on.
This is mostly a good thing, at least when done right. McCartney, Springsteen and Grohl remain relevant artists, at different ages and stages of their long careers. The upcoming Lambert gig is more complicated.
The music of Queen didn't die with Mercury and deserves new live airings, even with only some of its creators. Lambert, a fine performer clearly influenced by Mercury and David Bowie, seems a reasonable choice. But unlike the rock gods of old who paid a very different kind of dues as they made groundbreaking music, Lambert came to prominence on "American Idol," a show, like “The Voice,” where the young singing-star hopefuls often audition with songs that were hits before they were born.
This speaks to the enduring power of the popular music of the last six decades, but also to a changing landscape where it can be harder for new music to break through and grab hold. Still, there’s something heartening about generations finding occasional common ground in popular music, which has been more associated in the mass media age with rending generation gaps.
The uneasy balance was on display at the Grammys, which was shadowed by the sad death of Whitney Houston, an icon of the 1980s and 1990s, to whom current star Jennifer Hudson paid a brilliant musical tribute. The big winner of the night, 23-year-old Adele, triumphed with new music heavily influenced by artists from the latter half of the previous century.
We’re in the midst of an unusual generational push-and-pull in music. Springsteen's new album, “Wrecking Ball,” which is being streamed one cut at a time, aims to be the soundtrack for the youth-driven Occupy Wall Street movement – a characteristically bold move by the 62-year-old rocker. Grammy night brought some backlash on Twitter where, as BuzzFeed noted, a bunch of folks tweeted "Who is Paul McCartney?" – some genuinely unsure, others perhaps in protest of his two performances on a night on which Houston was on many minds.
McCartney is the older guy on the cover of the latest Rolling Stone. He’s a musician who, in the last few years, has produced some of his best solo music and mounted some of his strongest concerts, mixing the old and new. He revealed in his interview with Rolling Stone that a manager urged him to retire at 50, because "it's going to get embarrassing.”
"You get the argument, 'Make way for the young kids.' And you think, 'F--- that, let them make way for themselves," McCartney told the magazine "If they're better than me, they'll beat me.' Foo Fighters don't have a problem, they're good. They'll do their thing."
Sounds like a reasonable challenge from a performer determined to rock on. Think about that as you check out a humorous a music history lesson, courtesy of Funny or Die:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.