The Prevailing Stereotypes of Old Age in Pop Music - Pacific Standard

The Prevailing Stereotypes of Old Age in Pop Music

The barrage of tuneful negativity may have health consequences for elderly listeners.
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Not even Bob Dylan himself could stay forever young. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Not even Bob Dylan himself could stay forever young. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

They tend to be invisible in the pop-culture universe, and when their lives are depicted, it's often in ways that reinforce negative stereotypes. As a result, some gradually adopt a narrow view of themselves and their potential, with harmful long-term consequences.

Blacks and Hollywood? Well, sure, but today we're talking about senior citizens and pop music.

Recently published research that examined the way aging is depicted in widely played songs finds "mainly negative representations" of the process of getting older.

This can be "dispiriting, confidence- and esteem-lowering for older people," a research team led by Jacinta Kelly of Anglia Ruskin University–Cambridge, writes in the Journal of Advanced Nursing.

Kelly and her colleagues searched an array of music-lyric websites, looking for references to age and aging. They came up with 74 songs written from the 1930s to the present day. In terms of genre, 40 percent were classified as rock, while another 27 percent were pop.

"Most of the music texts were generated from a young person's perspective, and their imaginings of old age."

The vast majority of these songs—55 of the 74—portrayed aging in negative (often harshly negative) terms, while only 21 conveyed a positive message.

"Themes which emerged from the positive category related to expressions of contentedness and esteem," they write. "The negative themes revealed concerns with how age and aging was viewed by society; the negative feelings age and aging evoked; and the adverse changes which were thought to inevitably accompany age and aging."

The researchers found the songs divided into three categories: "Contented and celebrated aged," (Bob Dylan's "Forever Young," Dusty Springfield's "Goin' Back"); "Pitiful and petulant pensioners," (Kris Kristofferson's "Feeling Mortal," Leonard Cohen's "Because of"); and "Frail and flagging old folks" (Death Cab for Cutie's "No Sunlight," Celion Dion's "All By Myself").

Songs in the "pitiful" category tend to identify old age with "embarrassing physical decline and unattractiveness," they write, while those in the "frail" category portrayed older people as "ignored, unwanted, and alienated."

Now, many of these lyrics surely reflected the fears and concerns of their authors. But with more than two-thirds of such songs portraying aging in starkly negative terms, older listeners could easily start to incorporate their depiction of feebleness and exclusion into their own self-image. And such negative emotions have been linked to poorer mental and physical health.

Why are so many of these songs so bleak? Here's a clue: "Most of the music texts were generated from a young person's perspective, and their imaginings of old age," the researchers note. The best way to counter this, they add, may be to give older people the opportunity to write songs from their own perspective, providing a more nuanced account of the good and the bad.

In other words, if you want honest portrayals of the experiences of an often-marginalized population, the easiest way is to give them the ability to use their creativity and tell their own stories. Sound vaguely familiar?

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Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.

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