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Struggling Superstars Sadden, Sober … and Inspire?

Fading stardom -- how should fans react to their aging heroes?

(Author’s note: The artists mentioned below have generated some music I enjoy to this day – but also other material I find lyrically objectionable and so cannot endorse. Please don’t take my references to their careers as recommendations of all their body of work.)

A recent Clutchpoints column headlined “Jon Bon Jovi disappoints fans in rare post-vocal surgery show” was kinda sad; and sobering.

“The past few years,” writes Andrew Korpan, “Jon Bon Jovi … has had his fair share of vocal struggles. To help those problems, he underwent vocal surgery and has been going to therapy for it.”

Celebrating a Nashville bar opening earlier this month, the sixty-two-year-old Bon Jovi “played a five-song set [in] a rare public performance since the singer’s surgery.”

“Bon Jovi fans”, continues Korpan, “were unimpressed”. Responses to the outing “were largely negative with some asking for the band to give it up. …”

‘Yikes. This is pretty brutal,’ one fan said. …  

 Another user was harsher with his criticism. ‘Give it up dude,’ … 

‘Sometimes you feel it’s just time to move on,’ someone chimed in. ‘There is truly no need for this.'”

I respect the New Jersey legend for giving it a shot, and if his fans want to keep shelling out to participate in-person, well … it’s their dollars. Still …

Friends and family and I have discussed this quite a bit in the past. The topic of the rise and fall of popular public figures and/or their careers has fascinated me for some time. I suppose we could shorthand it the “Bon Jovi Effect”; and I don’t know that anyone escapes it completely.  We ALL get older. Many (most?) perishable skills inevitably recede — at least a skoche — as the calendar days march onward.

Let’s be candid: If Mike Tyson wasn’t fifty-seven-years-old but thirty years younger, there’s virtually zilch chance twenty-seven-year-old “influencer-turned-boxer” Jake Paul would be training to shortly step into the ring with him. Can you say certified suicide? For obvious reasons, Paul regards a Tyson approaching his sixtieth birthday decidedly more manageable than the beast who remorselessly dispatched all comers back in the 1980s.

Consider the “seasoned” Elton John, who wrapped his much-ballyhooed “Farewell Tour” last summer. I confess, I really can’t listen any longer to the British pop megastar render his enduring classics. Reworked to accommodate his presently diminished singing capabilities (keys lowered, tempos jiggered) they’re barely the same songs — and he’s barely the same artist.

Totally understandable, mind you. EJ passed the seventy-seven-year mark last March. That said, his sonic talents haven’t survived unaffected.

The other day, I watched a video of Ian Anderson (“Jethro Tull”) attempting one of my favorite Tull tunes. The clip was actually from 2008 — sixteen years ago! — but even so … tough to watch.  And heart-breaking. He almost, literally, couldn’t sing the piece and was ostentatiously straining to supply whatever rickety trilling he could: sort of a talking, whispering, rasping. And yet, there he was … with fans doughtily cheering.

Curiously and surprisingly, Anderson recently disclosed one of his favorite rock singers is Lou Graham (of “Foreigner” fame). I admire the Scotsman’s choice; although I’d deem Foreigner’s body of work hardly earth-shattering. Their frontman’s vocals at their peak, however? Uniquely rich, gripping, compelling.

Note, I specified “at their peak”. The poor guy had rather serious physical issues in the late 90s and these undeniably dinged his erstwhile blowtorch pipes. From what I can see, he’s never completely recovered. Last time I viewed a couple more recent videos of Gramm behind the microphone, he sounded a mere shadow of his former self. Serviceable karaoke quality at best, but that’s it.

I’ve concluded the human larynx is probably not equipped to go full-out for decades before arena’s filled with roaring ticket-buyers, two to three high-decibel hours straight, for scores of nights a year — at least, not without undergoing substantial wear-and-tear. It’s one thing for a renowned musician to press on masterfully with lead guitar or plying the ivories, (or laying down sublime flute lines!) as he or she grays. But the flesh-and-blood instrument which is the human voice? There the situation gets decidedly dicier.

This has gotten to be particularly true — and definitely more noticeable – since the rock world has grown accustomed to powerhouse vocalists. Showmen like the aforementioned — along with the likes of Robert Plant, Roger Daltry, Steve Perry, et al. — distinctly raised the bar.

Apparently, the current attraction to once-stand-out-but-now-struggling crooners is overwhelmingly and irresistibly sentimental, then? An opportunity for musical camp-followers to remember and revisit what had formerly been, even if — gloomily – it no longer is?

Fair enough.

Mind you, none of this should come as breaking news to anyone who’s paid attention to human experience or human history. Or who has read the Jewish/Christian Scriptures with any diligence.

Individuals have been — very prominently — faltering, fading and finally passing on for as long as people have been people-watching. Three chapters into the Bible, the creation narrative accounts for this unfortunate phenomenon: It’s the grievous result of humanity’s “Fall”. Man and woman defied their Maker (i.e., sinned) which introduced the kernal of death — decay, disease, debilitation — into an order that was not supposed to host it. That is why, throughout the historical record, mankind has grappled with suffering; and ultimately mortality. It hadn’t been God’s original desire, but rebellious humanity opened the door. That changed everything.

The Apostle Paul describes human physiology as an “earthen vessel” (2 Corinthians 4:7). A little further on he acknowledges the “groaning” this condition can occasion (2 Corinthians 5: 2,4).

Some style it “The Second Law of Thermodynamics”: everything eventually exhausts, breaks down, reverts to disorder. And while empiricist scientists acknowledge the ugly phenomenon, its roots are robustly spiritual.

So what’s the “maturing” person to do?

As one Bon Jovi critic groused, in some cases is it time to just hang it up? To concede: “Can’t do this anymore”?

Maybe that’s the condign response. Or maybe not. I admit, I’m torn.

It must be intolerably frustrating for the elderly Ian Anderson, for instance — gurning even more than he’s always done in his public performances — to wince and stretch and grimace to even approach notes he’d have once conquered as a simple part of the job; and even then to fall uncomfortably, unignorably short.

Yet the seventy-seven-year old troubadour continues putting himself out there; seems to be enjoying himself; and enough JT/IA enthusiasts turn up to provide a crowd. So I suppose he figures why not?

I wouldn’t fork over one-hundred dollars (or even half that) to watch it, but evidently there are those who will.

Frankly, the unflagging doggedness of these entertainers is rather beautiful — dare I say inspirational? — in a way an effortless production could never be. Every appearance, every moment, they’re still going after it; calculatedly fortifying whatever proficiencies remain by putting them to use to whatever degree they remain.

No, it’s not exactly “raging against the dying of the light“. But neither is it collapsing before that redoubtable challenge.

Of course, it helps incalculably if one has hope in a Light that will never die (John 8:12); if one channels his/her endeavors – whatever they may be – not simply to make a buck, scratch a creative itch or stroke an ego, but to glorify that Light (1 Corinthians 10:31).

He alone is the way to a living relationship with the Creator who distributes talents and potentialities to each person in the first place (John 14:6); a relationship that will actually endure forever because He has already conquered darkness and death (John 1: 4-5).

One’s voice may peter out. Ticket-sales may plunge. Crowds may stop showing up. But that Light prevails for those who will receive Him.

Steve Pauwels

Steve Pauwels is pastor of Church of the King, Londonderry, NH and host of Striker Radio with Steve Pauwels on the Red State Talk Radio Network. He's also husband to the lovely Maureen and proud father of three fine sons: Mike, Sam and Jake.