Saturday, April 28, 2012

Do It Again

When I was in ninth grade, my science fair project was to determine the peak age of professional baseball players.  I determined that baseball players peak at age 27. My methodology was to find the age at which every Hall of Famer posted his highest batting average, and then calculate the mean.  Of course, this was a horrible methodology (especially given what we now know about the limitations of batting average as a metric).  And I didn't actually do a science experiment like I was supposed to.  But my answer wasn't too far from the one that recently developed advanced statistical analysis has postulated (somewhere in the 26-27 range).

But while we've pretty much pegged the prime years for an athlete, we still have no idea when an artist peaks.  Obviously, the performance outputs for an artist are much more subjective (though there is some objective data available in the form of commercial sales and metacritic scores).  The canonical authors, painters, and composers are all over the place in terms of what age they attained their most revered works. 

Another difference between athletes and artists is that the latter need not regress.  While bodily ability will naturally diminish over time, in theory the accomplishments that mostly depend on mental ability should be able to be maintained throughout one's lifetime.  Actually, given the supposed importance of practice and experimentation in order to eventually achieve transcendent successes (10,000 hours are required, says Malcolm Gladwell), one would think that a great artist would be able to enjoy a long-lasting plateau.

And that is why I have always been so intrigued by the career trajectory of rock musicians.  Rock stars, whether they have burned out or faded away, tend to peak early.  I am a fan of many musicians who have given to the world great albums long after their initial successes.  I'd argue all day long that Bob Dylan's 2001 album Love and Theft is a masterpiece (even better than 1997's Time Out of Mind, which won the Grammy for album of the year).  But it would be foolish to say that his best work wasn't done in the 1960s.  Even Bob admitted as much, telling 60 Minutes in 2004: "Those early songs were almost magically written...You can't do something forever. I did it once, and I can do other things now. But, I can't do that."

But why can't Dylan write a song like "Like a Rolling Stone" anymore?  Why can't Keith Richards write another riff like the one in "Satisfaction"? Why isn't Paul McCartney capable of turning out another "Hey Jude"?  Heck, why can't Tyler and Perry write another "Dream On" or Eddie Van Halen a riff like the one in "Jump"?

I think the lack of sustainable output by rock musicians points to the power of cultural influence, moreso than pure individual genius, in artistic accomplishments.  Keith Richards wrote the riff for "Satisfaction" in part because of his own musical ability, but in part because he lived in a world where the creation of that riff was possible.  It's not necessarily that 2012 Keith Richards is different than 1965 Keith Richards, it's that the world is different in 2012.

And that brings us to the always curious case of Brian Wilson.  Like the musicians above, I would argue that Wilson's 1960s-era accomplishments were in large part a result of his ability to live in a particular culture.  Exposed to just the right factors (including the other members of the Beach Boys, lest it seem that I am completely disregarding their contributions), and in balance with his innate and developed talent, he was able to construct masterful "teenage symphonies to God." 

It would be overly simplistic to then say that Wilson went into suspended animation, only to be rediscovered and thawed-out decades later, Captain America-style.  But caught in the throes of mental illness, he did become secluded and isolated in a way that few of us can truly comprehend.  This is a man who released a solo album in 1995 entitled I Just Wasn't Made For These Times.  So it really shouldn't come as surprise that a few days ago, when the world was given the first new Brian Wilson Beach Boys song in decades, it sounded like a 1960s vintage Brian Wilson Beach Boys song:

But on the other hand, I maintain that this song is kind of shocking.  In my critical opinion, this is the first time a "legacy" rock band has recorded a song that sounds like it legitimately could have been released during the band's prime.  A reference at the end of the tune to "spreading the love and sunshine to a whole new generation" does blemish things a bit, because it not only reveals that Wilson knows time has passed, but it also shows his self-awareness that the band is "spreading a message" rather than simply dancing, driving, surfing, and listening to music. 

But still, whatever the relation between the Brian Wilson of 2012 and the Brian Wilson of 1965, he doesn't seem to be inhabiting the world of 2012.  And perhaps for that reason, he just may be once again at his peak age.


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