Popular culture favors youth. Celebrity favors youth. Many of today’s icons of the Baby Boomer Generation achieved fame before turning 30, certainly by 40.
And unlike older generations, where many youth icons faded away after age 50, Boomer icons persist successfully today: filling stadiums, such as Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Gene Simmons, and Bonnie Rait; and winning starring roles in movies, such as Richard Gere, Jessica Lange, Meryl Streep, and Sigourney Weaver.
The Boomer generation’s cultural hegemony is maintaining, even expanding celebrity status for those well past 50, including all the aforementioned artists who all turned 60 this year.
In Marketing to Leading-Edge Baby Boomers, I raise another possibility for the future of fame, if not a wish: that this generation would be capable of recognizing and elevating artists who do not achieve acclaim until after the age of 45.
I propose this possibility as another tangible sign that Boomer dominance over popular culture will not soon fade as critics predict; rather, the generation would continue to influence paradigm shifts about aging and popular celebrity appeal. Perhaps for the first time in western culture, older artists might step to the international stage, also for the first time—talented individuals who rise above ageism, looks-ism and longstanding social barriers to reach acclaim after reaching a certain age.
Well, this week my wish has been granted.
Last April, an understated woman opened her mouth and sang “I Dreamed a Dream” from the musical “Les Misérables” with nearly perfect pitch and clarity. The judges and television studio audience became enthralled, struggling to find congruency between what their eyes were witnessing and their ears were hearing.
Susan Boyle, age 48, a church volunteer from lackluster Blackburn, Scotland, became an instant celebrity. The YouTube video of her shocking performance on “Britain’s Got Talent,” the UK version of “American Idol,” has received over 33 million views and nearly 90,000 five-star ratings. According to Visible Measures, a company that computes viewings of Internet videos, her catalog of on-online clips has been watched over 310 million times.
Melissa Lonner, senior producer at NBC’s “Today” show, where Ms. Boyle performed on November 23, clarified the meaning of this watershed moment in her comments to the New York Times: “She is the perfect Cinderella story. She connects with the public and crosses over so many socioeconomic platforms. And she made a great record with songs that everyone knows and can relate to.”
But trouncing Simon Cowell, the cynical talent judge, is not the end of this Boomer woman’s remarkable accomplishments. This week her new shrink-wrapped CD, “I Dreamed a Dream,” sold over 700,000 copies in the United States; became the fastest-selling debut album in British history; and soared to the number one sales position in Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, and Australia.
Equally thought-provoking is the manner in which this album has been purchased. Ninety-four percent of the sales have been CDs, not digital downloads, which is counter to the prevailing trend where only 77 percent of music sales today are CDs.
The New York Times speculates why Boyle’s album has been acquired in greater numbers in the form of atoms instead of digital bits:
For many in the music industry Ms. Boyle’s sales are a reminder of a large and often forgotten audience: older listeners who, whether they are less tech-savvy than younger consumers or they simply prefer to hold purchases in their hands, favor CDs over downloads.
Coincidentally, this week Microsoft and AARP released a new study entitled, “Boomers and Technology: An Extended Conversation.” Michael Rogers, the futurist author, concludes: “Boomers want technology to fit the lives they have made and the values they hold dear. If their children are the technology pioneers, the first to explore new territory, Boomers are the settlers, arriving later to set up schools and libraries, to sink deep roots, and to build permanent structures.”
Boomers know how to download music; many own iPods and have scads of MP3’s loaded on their computer hard drives. Yet, the soft touch of Susan Boyle’s voice begets the higher touch preference for a CD over a digital download. And for all those in the technology arena, often shaping their business decisions according to preferences of younger generations, this defining moment should be an adequate reminder that Boomers have the economic might and market dominance to shape the future of technology adoption and usage.
Susan Boyle’s new CD includes “I Dreamed a Dream,” the song that made her famous; religious hymns “How Great Thou Art” and “Amazing Grace”; and covers of popular Boomer rock songs by the Monkees, Rolling Stones, and Madonna.
In my book I also touch upon the underlying psychology that might be driving Susan Boyle’s meteoric rise to fame:
Although this generation’s impact has been significant in the entertainment world, Baby Boomers do not want their legacy to rely solely on the great work of rock musicians and Hollywood actors. They are certainly proud of the accomplishments of two famous Bruce’s—Bruce Springsteen and Bruce Willis—but the people they admire in their everyday lives include thousands of heroes who never achieve mass-market celebrity. These unsung superstars may be famous for their accomplishments in only a single quiet industry—and many prefer anonymity to celebrity—but they are nevertheless as important to the Boomer legacy as its Tinsel Town celebrities.
One of the uplifting possibilities of the Boomer generation arriving in later life is a realization that ordinary older people can achieve extraordinary dreams if given a chance. Society used to erect nearly insurmountable barriers before those who sought fame for the first time after the age of 40.
As the culture of fame finally admits older newcomers—those who have not spent months or years preparing for greatness, but rather have practiced their art and nurtured their dreams for decades, as has Susan Boyle—we witness and celebrate the complete realization of human potential across the lifespan, unimpeded by age or prior socioeconomic status.