Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Can you write a hit song after age 50. Losing the writing touch

 Can you write a hit song  after age 50?

A long ago correspondent of mine, Richard Freeman, had an interesting theory. His theory was that popular songwriters, have only  a limited period of time before their songwriting abilities deteriorate.  They are just like sports stars in that regard. Freeman was referring mainly to their ability to connect with the zeitgeist of the marketplace, but also to their  ability  to write hit tunes, to avoid repeating oneself, and to continue to do so in a prolific manner. I argued the point at first, but I soon realized that for the most part he was  correct.  Usually most songwriters can't write their own hits  for  more than a decade.  In the second and third decade their work is very unlikely  to be among their best work, but occasionally they will produce an interesting album.

The great songwriters go longer,  but their later work is also always  weaker. It   is rare for even the best  melody writers  to still be able to write hits after say 25 years.  Think of Paul McCartney,  the most successful  songwriter, of the last half century. His  last top fifteen hit on the  American top 40 was in 1985.  He has recorded some excellent albums since then, but no big hits. The 1989 songs , "Veronica" and "My Brave Face" written with  Elvis Costello were his last top 40 hits  He had hits for 25 years on the American top 40. Bottom line: it's doubtful that McCartney has written any classic songs since the 1970's. (2015 Update: McCartney finally had a hit-"Four Five Seconds" in collaboration  with Rihanna and Kanye West.)

Only a handful of songwriters have been able to write hits over a longer period of time.
 Elton John wrote the melodies for songs  that hit the top 40 every year between 1970 and 1997, he's had  a few British hits since but nothing in America. Madonna has now gone 29 years between her first hit and her most recent hit,  but she usually brings in somebody to write or help write the melody. Madonna appears to be the oldest major artist to write a new hit song.    The Bee Gees went 30 years, but rarely had a hit in the last 15 of those years.   Eric Clapton, might have gone the longest he had self written hits between 1967  ("Sunshine of Your Love") and 1998 ( "My Father's Eyes"). This is odd in that Clapton is only an occasional songwriter. What of more recent artists?  Bon Jovi has written hits since 1983.   Mariah Carey has gone since 1988 or 23Plus  years,  but she always has brought in outside writers, and her  last decade has been less successful.   

Most songwriters slow down well before twenty year mark,  and stop having hits or bring in outside writers to help them write hits, some good examples of the "I need help" phenomena are Rod Stewart, Heart, Aerosmith, Train, Lionel Ritchie, Michael Jackson, Stevie Nicks.

The  Rolling Stones' only radio airplay hit of the past few years was ripped off from  K.D. Lang, they have not had an American Top 40 hit since 1989.   U2 no longer has  big hit singles  in the US, though they still have them in the UK. Springsteen had 22 years of  hits.  Jimmy Page  has not really written much of significance after the demise of Led Zeppelin, Most most mature  artists just simply don't write new music that gets played on the radio after a certain point in their careers.
Some artists just stop recording -Garth Brooks (who often used outside songwriters) , and Billy Joel have  effectively stopped recording new material altogether.

With the advent of American Idol, the era of singer-songwriter ended and a majority of the hits on the American 40  are written in collaboration with / or totally by writers  who are  not the  actual artist on the recording.

The phenomena doesn't necessarily apply to writers of classical music or musicals.  Beethoven wrote his classic ninth symphony  at age 54, and Richard Rogers composed the music for  Sound of Music at age 57. 


  1. I've noticed that too, although I also think musicians feel they have earned the right to experiment with different types of music when they get older, not just mainstream pop-friendly hits. Prince is an example who wrote most of his hits early on, made his fortune and gained a following, and explored other avenues later in his career.
    I also think it has something to do with how much money the record companies are throwing at older artists, I would say they tend to spend more money on younger musicians with more sex appeal. Just my two cents.

    1. Yeah, record companies, and radio stations don't promote singles by older artists, even they are good. As you say a lot of older artists -then different things like theme albums (rod Stewart) working with friends (Elton John, Eric Clapton) etc. So often the older artists can still sell albums, they just can't get on the radio.