Popular music is the music of the “mating age”

  • Musician Ben Folds has had huge success across all genres. He was the first-ever artistic advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in 2017.
  • As part of the Ben Folds Five, he released pop albums. Now, however, he has come to see popular music as the music of the “mating age” and learned that artists should fear the known, not the unknown.
  • The following is an excerpt from his new book, “A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life Of Music And Cheap Lessons”. He questions the role of the “aging rocker”.
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It’s a legitimate concern for an aging rocker that your music will get so outdated and toxically uncool that it’ll have your kids beating up in school. But hey, it’s your job. I used to see all these old guys with long, stringy hair pouring their big butts into leather pants year after year, and I was like, this is never going to be me! It will never be me! But it’s really understandable. How fair is it that, as in dance or sports, a rock and roll artist should expect to have to retire in their mid-thirties? It’s like that.

But there’s another world for them, if they’re so lucky. They can become a heritage artist and continue to relive the magic, make house payments, and send their children to private schools with a security guard.

It’s important to remember that after an artist has released a few records, the entire music industry and its audience must decide if there really is room on the shelf for that artist. Any new records you release after your first albums can be used as proof that it’s time for you to go. It’s not bad, or personal. It’s that there’s so much new music and so little time and space. We all need to make room in our lives for new artists and new ideas. But an artist like me, in his second decade making records, better not get stuck in ruts.

As satisfying and safe as it may seem to have mastered a craft, it can also be a sign that it’s time to learn a new trick. It is the known that the artist must fear, not the unknown. All that well-lit terrain should scare you artistically. Because the known is where boredom takes root. Staying in well-lit areas is what blocks you. I felt a strong urge to fade into the dark and leave pop music behind, but of course we all resist change, we all want to keep our jobs. So what about middle-aged pop music?

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Pop music is the soundtrack of the mating age

Of course it is allowed. But let’s be honest about what pop or popular music is. This is music for the age of love. It’s a soundtrack for that yearning, that youthful anger, those ideals, and those jokes of teenagers and young adults as they go through the rough ride together. It meets an important need. It helps us reach adulthood

Pop music can be a life jacket, a sexy safety blanket, a hipster Hallmark card. And it communicates very real things. It is also a serious profession and it is a competitive enterprise, worthy of great respect. Pop music saved my life as a kid, it paid the bills for my previous career. And I love to make fun of it. Good pop music, really of its moment, should make old people lose their flavor. It should rid the room of annoying adults and give space to children.

If you’re past mating age, you might enjoy new pop music to some degree, but it’s not really for you. Adults after mating age have a whole other bunch of problems, which the sickest rhythm and the saddest rhyme are terribly ill-equipped to solve. You don’t have to be sexy when you take your aging parents to a nursing home or when you’re worried your kids will try drugs at their delinquent friend’s house. There is music that speaks to adults, but it’s probably not mating beats. When they are in heat, they generally seek music from their time, the one they consumed when they were old enough to mate. They rush for high ticket prices for a magical night with their favorite heritage artist.


A dream about lightning bugs.

Courtesy of Ballantine Books

Personally, I don’t feel the need to try to identify with younger music that isn’t for me anymore. I appreciate it, but I don’t try to like it or identify with it. Why should I? I see pop music like I see a children’s television show, with its cartoons and bright colors – it’s for children. I’m no more fascinated by a grumpy puppet living in a garbage can than by a horny, self-tuned journal entry edited on a solitary computer loop. I don’t hang out in the playground, so why, at my age, should I walk around Burning Man shirtless, tripping on ecstasy? Or talk out loud like the middle-aged men and women I hear every day in the local coffee shop? If I’m really honest? I really feel my age and I’m not afraid to admit it? Here we go: I’m actually disgusted by the overly computerized music, which dominates pop music now. It makes me sick.

A canned bass drum drying my eardrums four on the floor in the back seat of an Uber while an overly gymnastic self-tuning voice holds me back… Just not my cup of tea. There’s something sad about a singer pouring out over a quantized machine. This heartless machine would continue to play for days in an empty room, long after the singer had knocked himself over. Hey, kid! This loop doesn’t like you! I mean the singer. I remember those horse insemination machines where the poor stallion rushes into a horse robot. It’s just sad. Now that’s some old man bullshit — I just asked, but it’s about being honest, because I know I can’t grow artistically if I’m beholden to the opinions of an industry that I exceeded. If I demand the children’s approval.

I have the same respect and interest in Cardi B and Teletubbies, which is to say, I have incredible respect for both of them, because they’re both brilliant, and little interest in the one or the other, because I have grown old. I, too, made my mark in the music mating business of a bygone era, but I wasn’t as good as the two examples I just cited. Yet my music was peddled by purveyors of beautiful procreation noises, and I happily signed on the dotted line. It was a very good race.

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“We kicked it out of the smell. That’s what kids do.”

Back when we started, there were sometimes a few middle-aged people there for the first Ben Folds Five shows. They came hoping to see younger musicians making “real music”, but they often left disappointed. They came for those ’70s chords and mannerisms that warmed their hearts, only to find we’ve all misused them. I remember a lonely man in his 40s who pulled me aside after an early gig and said, “I saw Elton in 1971, and the big difference was that all n It was no joke to him. It was real music. He meant it. When he stood at the piano, it was a party, it was triumphant. You do it and it must be so ironic and clever. You have to stick together. What was all this distortion? Had high hopes before tonight.” I told him I was sorry he didn’t like it. But honestly, mission accomplished. We chased it away from the smell. That’s what children do.

Ben Folds Five happily made egregious mistakes, approaching high art with the attitude of the drunkest two-chord punk band. We have issued our mutant mating call. No different than any generation before. As I neared the age of the heritage artist, I had to decide: Do I want to embrace next-gen assignments in hopes of staying relevant, calling attention to each new exit ? Or did I want to quit this business, go to Las Vegas and just keep reliving my old shit? Well, somehow none of these binary options looked very appealing. So what ? What to do with the Scenario? The answer was somewhere in the dark, where it still is. After all, darkness is where we first mated.

Ben Folds is an American musician who has created a huge body of genre music that includes pop albums with Ben Folds Five, several solo albums, a classical piano concerto, and collaborations with artists ranging from Regina Spektor to William Shatner. Folds, who also served as a judge for five seasons on NBC’s acclaimed a capella show The Sing-Off, was named the Kennedy Center National Symphony Orchestra‘s first-ever artistic advisor in 2017. He’s a strong advocate for arts education and music. therapy, serving on the distinguished Artist Committee of Americans for the Arts and as chair of the 2020 ArtsVote national initiative.

From the book A DREAM ABOUT LIGHTNING FLEAS by Ben Folds. Copyright © 2019 by Ben Folds. Published by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.


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