By Claire Donzelli
We are constantly bombarded with stories of musicians who achieved success early in life. The legendary Stevie Wonder signed with Motown records when he was only 11. In the 1970s, a young Michael Jackson’s career was already flourishing in the Jackson 5. Five-time Grammy winner Billie Eilish was 14 when she uploaded her viral song, “Ocean Eyes,” to SoundCloud. The Beatles formed when John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison were 16, 15, and 14 respectively, with Ringo Starr joining slightly later on at age 22. But what happens when youth becomes a prerequisite for working in the music industry, rather than something to be celebrated?
What is Ageism?
Ageism is a type of discrimination based on a group or individual’s age. In the book Why Survive? Growing Old in America, Lewis and Butler define ageism as “a process of systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against people because they are old, just as racism and sexism accomplish this with skin color and gender. Old people are categorized as senile, rigid in thought and manner, old-fashioned in morality and skills… Ageism allows the younger generations to see older people as different from themselves; thus, they subtly cease to identify with their elders as human beings.”1 Ageism is prevalent in both the music industry and other fields. Numerous artists have spoken out about how it has affected their lives and careers. For example, in the music industry, ageism can take the form of a record label only signing younger artists, encouraging artists to lie about their age, or giving an older artist less radio play time, but it doesn’t stop there.
Recently, Bebe Rexha took to Instagram to express her dismay at being told she was “too old to be sexy” by a music executive. The 30-year-old singer-songwriter has also spoken out about her experience with body-shaming when designers refused to design a dress for her to wear the Grammys due to her size. Rexha remarked, “No matter if it’s a female or a male, if they walk into a job and they’re good and they kill it, no matter what or who they are, they should have the chance.”2 But the singer remains optimistic on how raising awareness of ageism, body-shaming, and other forms of discrimination may gradually shift peoples’ mindsets. “I just want to be able to speak out and just shine light on it because it’s been happening for so long, and it will always happen, unfortunately, that’s just the way life is: You’re never going to fix something completely, but you can shine light on it and hopefully it will get better over time”.
This same message is echoed in the words of Dolly Parton, who at 71 years old, continues to write music, perform, and inspire many. “After you reach a certain age, they think you’re over. Well, I will never be over. I’ll be making records if I have to sell them out of the trunk of my car. I’ve done that in my past, and I’d do it again”.3 This country icon’s message is a beacon of hope to musicians who have ambitions of creating and performing well into their older years. But what about musicians who didn’t get an early start like Michael Jackson or Billie Eilish? Several artists defied the odds by achieving success in the music industry despite starting out at a slightly older age.
This Grammy-award-winning singer-songwriter released his first single, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” in 1971 at age 32 while working on the factory line. The album cover, which features a smiling Bill Withers holding his lunch pail, was photographed during his lunch break. “My co-workers were making fun of me’” Withers stated in an interview. “They thought it was a joke”4. Before that, his musical career was limited to the handful of times he had sat in with a bar band while serving in the Navy in Guam. It was in his late twenties that Withers purchased an old guitar, and in a surge of inspiration, used any free time he had to teach himself how to play.
According to Withers, his music career lasted a total of 8 years. Racism and ageism were two driving factors behind his decision to leave the music industry. Withers recounted, “‘I met my A&R guy, and the first thing he said to me was, “I don’t like your music or any black music, period”. Withers also reflected on the changing landscape of the music industry. “I grew up in the age of Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Nancy Wilson,” he says, still musing on the Grammys. “It was a time where a fat, ugly broad that could sing had value. Now everything is about image. It’s not poetry. This just isn’t my time.”
Debbie Harry (Blondie)
Debbie Harry attended college and worked different odd jobs before becoming the lead singer of Blondie in her thirties.5 She worked at a radio station, as a waitress, and even a playboy bunny before meeting guitarist Chris Stein in the 1970s and forming the iconic band. Hit songs like “Heart of Glass,” “One Way or Another,” “Rapture,” and “Call Me” topped charts and launched Harry into fame. Harry was instrumental in the emergence of the new wave movement in music and influenced many artists that followed her.
Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten is one of the most revered folk musicians of all time. While this guitarist and singer-songwriter got into music at a younger age, it wasn’t until 1958, when she was 64 years old, that she released her first LP, Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes. Cotten originally taught herself how to play guitar and banjo at age seven and developed a unique style of fingerpicking known as “Cotten Picking,”6 which involves playing the bass notes with her fingers and the melody with her thumb. She began writing songs in her younger years, after her marriage and the birth of her daughter, the pressures of her church and family life caused her to part ways with songwriting and playing guitar for nearly forty years. It was after Cotten had been working as a housekeeper for the folk musicians Ruth Crawford Seeger and Charles Seeger for several years that her long-forgotten musical talents were rediscovered. After releasing her first EP, Cotten continued to write and perform music into her eighties.
Tauheed Epps (2 Chainz)
The rapper Tauheed Epps first began working in the Atlanta music scene under the stage name Tity Boi.7 In 2010, Epps put his solo career in motion and began working with artists such as Kanye West and Nicki Minaj. It wasn’t until 2011 that he changed his stage name to the more widely known and family-friendly 2 Chainz. In 2012, when Epps was 34, he released his debut album Based on a T.R.U. Story, which included platinum hits “No Lie,” “Birthday Song,” and “I’m Different.” The rapper’s next album, B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time, was also a smash success, and Epps has since collaborated with artists like Pharrell Williams, B.o.B., Lil Wayne, Steve Aoki, and Eminem. Now aged 42, Epps has remained one of the most prominent names in the hip-hop community and the music industry.
Folk musician Leonard Cohen was 33 when he decided to put his writing career on hold and delve into the music world. This prolific Canadian singer-songwriter signed with Columbia records and released his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967, and went on to record fourteen more studio albums and eight live albums. Cohen achieved the distinct honors of being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Canadian Songwriter Hall of Fame, and the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. Dubbed the “poet of brokenness”8 by the Rolling Stone, Cohen’s songs are still admired by many for their lyricism, and for tackling issues like depression, isolation, politics, and sexuality.
While breaking into the music industry at an older age can be a daunting venture, artists like Bill Withers, Debbie Harry, Elizabeth Cotten, Tauheed Epps, Leonard Cohen, and countless others prove it’s possible. Only one thing is for sure – the music industry is constantly changing, and it is up to the musicians of today to promote an environment of creativity and inclusivity where artists from a variety of backgrounds can shine.
1. Butler, Robert N. Why Survive?: Being Old in America. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins. University Press, 2002.
2.“Bebe Rexha encourages others to ‘shine light’ on ageism in music.” UWIRE Text, August 30, 2019, 1. Gale General OneFile. https://tinyurl.com/rjjcq8v. Accessed January 30, 2020.
3.“Exclusively in the May/June Issue of AARP The Magazine: Dolly Parton Opens Up About Growing Up Poor, Never Having Children, Decades of Rumors, and How She’s Fighting Ageism in the Music Industry.” US Newswire, 25 Mar. 2009. Gale In Context: Global Issues, https://tinyurl.com/v6pmtl8. Accessed 30 Jan. 2020.
4. Greene, Andy. “Bill Withers: The Soul Man Who Walked Away.” Rolling Stone, July 4, 2018. https://tinyurl.com/tpakjgn. Accessed 30 Jan. 2020.
5. “Debbie Harry.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, August 8, 2019. https://tinyurl.com/suruj35. Accessed 30 Jan. 2020.
6. Frankel, Rachel. She Can Really Lay It Down: 50 Rebels, Rockers, and Musical Revolutionaries. Chronicle, 2019.
7. Jeffries, David. “2 Chainz: Biography & History.” AllMusic. Accessed January 30, 2020. https://tinyurl.com/vv2bfz2
8. Gilmore, Mikal. “Leonard Cohen: Remembering the Life and Legacy of the Poet of Brokenness.” Rolling Stone, June 25, 2018. https://tinyurl.com/udd7tlt.