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29 May 2015

Whither we mature ladies, once our rock-chick years are over?

If I look to the generations above me, the still successful men form a long list – Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Robert Plant, Paul McCartney, Springsteen, the Stones et al.

By Tracey Thorn

It sometimes feels as though there isn’t much of a home in pop music for the older woman, either as performer or listener. The essence of rock is youthful rebellion, and a masculine version of rebellion at that. The role of rock chick is available for a few years, but a mature woman has long been the ultimate scary enemy. In my early childhood the lightest music was relegated to Housewives’ Choice, and a few years later Capital Radio sniggeringly called its rock show Your Mother Wouldn’t Like It.

I got the point, and when I was young it didn’t bother me much. My conservative mum did indeed seem to have square musical tastes, and I never thought to look ahead and wonder what would become of me as I aged and – God forbid! – dared to become a Housewife, or a Mother. Thankfully now I’m here, times have changed, although Mojo and Q and the NME still get stocked in the men’s magazine section. And the music that’s advertised as the ideal Mother’s Day gift doesn’t speak to me any more than it ever did.

But there’s no doubt that things are getting better. If I look to the generations above me, the still successful men form a long list – Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Robert Plant, Paul McCartney, Springsteen, the Stones et al. Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks and Marianne Faithfull have to do a lot of flagbearing for women, and still aren’t accorded the same respect. As Linda Grant wrote in a great piece for the Guardian about being a Joni fan, “What she always lacked . . . was the obsessiveness of the male fanbase: the Deadheads and Dylanologists who catalogue and compete for record-collection kudos . . . Where are the dry, 1,000-page volumes of musical Joni-trivia, the conferences, the PhD dissertations?”

My own age group is better represented. But while many of us cite the UK punk and post-punk era as being rich and inclusive, few of its female performers have enjoyed continuing prominence. Along with the sad losses of Poly Styrene and Ari Up, others I loved have retreated or faded – Alison Statton, Pauline Murray, Lesley Woods, Elizabeth Fraser – leaving a handful of survivors such as Neneh Cherry, Chrissie Hynde and Alison Moyet, and, from the equivalent US scene, the likes of Kim Gordon and Kristin Hersh.

Maybe it’s partly our own fault. For various personal reasons we’ve retired and left the field to the men. But when I do make music now, I at least attempt to be the age I am and write truthfully about it: in a song like “Hormones”, for instance, talking about being a menopausal mother of menstrual teenagers. And Patti Smith and Kate Bush I look to with admiration, for reclaiming the template of rock for the older woman, the mother and the reluctant performer.

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Four years older than me, Madonna must be menopausal, but has chosen the route of eternal youthfulness as the surest way of sustaining her career. I respect that spirit of defiance – no woman has a duty to be a role model – but still, I’d love to hear her sing, or even talk, about hot flushes or a dancer’s fear of bone thinning. How could she? Look at the shit she got after a minor mishap in a dance routine beyond the fitness level of most 30-year-olds.

Outside rock music it has always been easier to age and be respected – genres that weren’t youth cults to begin with are more forgiving. Nina Simone was still putting a spell on Nick Cave at the age of 66 when she performed at his Meltdown gig. The Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora didn’t begin to achieve international success until she was in her late forties, while Blossom Dearie was still playing New York nightclubs in her eighties.

So, to cheer myself up, I listen to Elaine Stritch singing “The Ladies Who Lunch” and Peggy Seeger’s latest album, recorded at the age of 79, and then I go to see Imelda Staunton – practically a teenager at 59 – perform with triumphant energy in Gypsy, a show about thwarted ambition and twisted motherhood, and I think, “You know what? These women fucking rock.” 

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