Ageism and the entertainment industry
Let's Talk ReggaeSunday, March 21, 2021
IT was in 1995, while I was signed to East West, a division of Elektra Records, that I realised that shaving the age of an artiste was a well-established marketing ploy. Many of the artistes signed to record labels were presented to the public as being younger than they really were. I can remember clearly a marketing campaign in which a particular female artiste was said to be 19 years old, but who was really 26.
In our society, for some, aging is one of the most feared biological processes. The prospect of growing old can be daunting. It represents the possible loss of everything we cherish, a feeling compounded by the advent of social media. Many music marketers see the young and edgy demographic (the age cohort between 15 and 25) as their primary target audience. Some pejoratively refer to the older artistes as “has beens” or “past their prime”.
For clarification, the term has been is not age-specific, as is the case in the entertainment industry. There are children who are called has beens. The term is used when you are considered to be “washed up”, that is having had some degree of success in the past but deemed never to see this return.
The focus on youth drives much of modern popular culture. Many of the decisions made by some of the gatekeepers are seen through the prism of wanting that which is “new” and “fresh”. I have seen people in the music industry attempting to age-shame older artistes, goading them to take early retirement. I have witnessed some aging artistes allowing this negative energy to take hold of their consciousness, letting these discouraging voices sit in their spirit, and sometimes causing them to languish in despair and depression.
I am in agreement that there is always a need for fresh, young artistes to rejuvenate the talent pool; however, embracing new acts does not have to be at the expense of talented, older artistes who could not be accurately described as fresh. It should be borne in mind that older acts can bring fresh sounds to the landscape. Some older acts are restless experimenters. So, it is not a question of age, but more a matter of stage and energy.
In the industry it can be seen that there is still a passion for the old, even among the young. Toots Hibbert had a following which consisted mainly of white teenagers who were sometimes younger than his own grandchildren. Another point of reference was the response to the appearance of Beenie Man/Bounty Killer on Verzuz. These scenarios are proof positive that mature artistes with a large catalogue have significant entertainment value. In fact, the entire Verzuz series so far has been somewhat of a social experiment, proving the value older acts bring to the entertainment industry. I must add that there are artistes who, by their sheer talent, mystique, catalogue, and genius, become trans-generational.
One only has to look at some of reggae's elder statesmen and stateswomen, such as Marcia Griffiths, Judy Mowatt, Beres Hammond, Big Youth, and Freddie McGregor, and there are many more, who have just as much to offer to an audience as the youngest, most current act on the scene at this time.
I know that sometimes, as some artistes age chronologically, if they treat themselves well their voices can grow to be richer and fuller. A songwriter's work can become deeper and more textured as the artiste ages because of the extent of one's life experiences. Usually, artistes who are true to their craft and career can become better with maturity and age.
Conversely, some artistes do worsen. There are several factors that can contribute to this deterioration. Some artistes do not realise that aging requires additional attention to the demands of their bodies. Some abuse their voices through smoking or the excessive consumption of alcohol. Others become complacent and do not adhere to the standards which were responsible for their success.
The trajectory of a struggling artiste getting a break and eventually stalling seems to be the natural course however, there are notable exceptions, and each artiste should be judged on individual merit, rather than on generalisations often spouted by the media and other gatekeepers. We should refrain from conflating success and energy with youth, while attributing failure and decay to aging.
Nadine Sutherland is a recording artiste and performer whose talents are respected and admired by all age groups. Throughout a career that spans over 40 years her stage performances and hits continue to captivate new fans while still maintaining the love and respect from those who witnessed her rise from teen sensation into her new legendary status. Her multi-dimensionality has seen her embracing different aspects of herself. She boldly embraces dancer, singer, songwriter, producer, feminist, environmentalist, a voice against ageism and sexism and a political activist. Her political activism was seen recently in the November 2020 USA elections during which she used her image and talent to galvanise members of the Caribbean American population towards the process of voting.
The former child star made her stage debut in 1979, at the age of 11, as the first winner of Jamaica's popular Tastee Talent Contest. International reggae superstar Bob Marley signed her to his Tuff Gong label. Nadine was then described as reggae's Teen Queen, with hits including Starvation and Until. She has garnered international success and acclaim as the co-lead for the dancehall anthem Action with Terror Fabulous, and Anything for You with Canadian artiste, Snow.
Throughout the 90s Nadine remained centre stage in the dancehall with solo hits including Rainbow/I'm in Love, Babyface and Wicked & Wild. The hit ballad Pair of Wings highlighted her songwriting abilities.
With no intentions of slowing down, Sutherland continues to work in the studios and appear on stages worldwide.