Youth seems to be the theme of the day for me, as far as writing goes.
Like many, I watched the Super Bowl yesterday. It is the one (American) football game I tend to watch each year. I don’t have the patience to sit and watch a lot of sports, and I certainly don’t design my weekends around who is playing. In that sense, I’m not a fan. Even so, I feel compelled to watch the final championship game each year, whether we go to a party or not. Yesterday, we stayed at home. I’ve been dealing with a sinus infection, or at least a recurring one, for nearly all of winter, so I was happy to have downtime.
I won’t lie, one of the biggest reasons I watch the game each year is the halftime show. Typically, I’m not even a fan of whomever they have playing, but I always watch out of sheer curiosity. Most of the time, the NFL hires someone who has incredibly wide appeal, whether that is Prince, Lady Gaga, Madonna, or even Paul McCartney. They typically do a medley of their hits because, with just about ten minutes (give or take), there’s not much else that makes sense. Invariably, people complain. That doesn’t really change from year to year, no matter what.
This year, it was Justin Timberlake taking center field, and not even he could escape the virtual “spin cycle” of justice found on social media. There was drama surrounding the proposed use of Prince’s hologram—regardless of where you sit on the debate—was shot down prior to show time. Instead, there was a giant, larger than life projection of Prince onto a piece of fabric as a tribute, and the lights outside of the stadium appeared to turn purple and morph into the design of Prince’s one time logo/name. I say “appeared” because there is apparently much debate over whether or not it really happened or was just the magic of TV. I don’t honestly care.
While watching his performance though, one thing became crystal clear: Justin, now a father, is no longer a kid himself…and he seeks the same youthful image as every other band and artist out there. While a reasonably large portion of his fan base is in my age range, the “fans” he had surrounding the stage were as youthful as they get. 20-somethings, full of energy, happiness, and style, similar to the odd camouflage-design stage costume Justin wore, likely in a nod to his upcoming album*, “Man of the Woods”. Even with all of that, youth matters to this industry.
My point isn’t to critique his use of a planted audience (they ALL do it), or to talk about his backing track. I don’t care about any of that because these days – it is more commonplace than not, particularly on live TV. I’m far more critical, if that is really indeed the right word for it, of the industry standards themselves.
At 37, Justin is far from the fresh-faced, curly-haired kid in N*Sync. His solo career has done what many might have believed impossible, spanning generations of listeners. Even so, Justin finds himself in the undeniably difficult space of trying to connect with a younger audience in order to create buzz for his upcoming album.
As my husband and I watched last night, Justin ran up into the stadium itself to dance and revel with fans during the few final moments of his halftime performance. Mixed in with the sea of white males was one 13-year old kid named Ryan, who is young enough for braces to be on his teeth. Justin posed for a selfie with him, and social media did its work. Today, and even last night, memes of this kid looking at his phone and appearing “unimpressed” by Justin are all across social media, proclaiming that yeah, even Justin Timberlake has gotten to the point where today’s youth don’t know who he is.
Here’s the thing: Ryan knew who Justin Timberlake was. He was probably as shell-shocked as I might have been to be picked out of a crowd. He probably doesn’t know much about N*Sync or even a lot of Justin’s songs, but that doesn’t really matter.
You know what matters? The same thing that my husband and I commented on last night. Out of all of the fans in that crowd, Justin ran up to a kid. Sure, he did it because: A. Kids are cute and B. That kid was the only one around. But he also did it because like it or not, Justin Timberlake is a shrewd businessman. If you’re gonna stop and take a photo with someone, may as well be the kid who is most likely to buy your music. That’s not a slam against Justin. It’s reality. The industry says that it is kids like Ryan who buy the music, who decide which albums make it big, and which will ultimately be albums that only the hardest-core fan base will remember and embrace. Ryan took a selfie with Justin Timberlake, and that selfie went viral. With one well-timed photo opp, Justin is now likable, accessible, and interesting to a brand new generation of listeners and music-buyers. Bingo.
Is it really just the youth that matter? I’m not sure. Here I sit as a 47-year old that still buys as many concert tickets as she can get away with to see the same band that she’s loved since she was a pre-teen. I’m not the only crazy person out there with multiple copies of Paper Gods, All You Need is Now or even Red Carpet Massacre and Astronaut. I hardly think I’m the gold standard “fan” that the industry wants to think about. In turn, I’m also not the fan that the band wants to brag about – at least not business-wise. It’s frustrating on one hand as a long time fan and now blogger, and yet completely understandable on the other. But anyone who thinks it is only Duran Duran having to adjust their appeal to a younger audience need look no further than Justin Timberlake.
I suspect that at the very heart of it all, once we are past the dollars and cents, the spreadsheets and profit/loss statements, the constant pressure to appeal to younger and younger audiences must be maddening.
*As it turns out, his album was released February 2nd. I’m a few days (and several dollars) short. Sorry about that. 😀