‘It was a pretty good run’: Musician Ben Folds on what it’s like to be an aging rocker

Ben Folds.

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Ben Folds.
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Joe Vaughn

  • Musician Ben Folds has seen massive success across genres. He was the first ever artistic advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in 2017.
  • As part of the Ben Folds Five, he released pop albums. Now, however, he’s come to see popular music as the music for the “mating age” and learned that artists should fear the known, not the unknown.
  • The following is an excerpt from his new book, “A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life Of Music And Cheap Lessons.” In it, he interrogates the role of the “aging rocker.”
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It’s a legitimate worry for an aging rocker that your music will become so out of date and toxically uncool, it will get your kids beaten up at school. But, hey, it’s your job. I used to see all those old guys with stringy long hair, pouring their fat butts into leather pants year after year, and think to myself, That’ll never be me! That’ll never be me! But it’s really understandable. How fair is it that, like in dance or sports, a rock-and-roll artist can expect to have to retire in his or her mid-30s? That’s just the way it is.

But there’s another world out there for them, if they’re so lucky. They can become a Heritage Artist and keep reliving the magic, make the house payments, and send their kids to private schools with a security guard.

It’s important to remember that after an artist has made a few records, the entire music business and its audience must decide whether there’s really any space on the shelf for this artist anymore. Any new record you release after your first few albums can be used as evidence that it’s time for you to go. It’s not evil, or personal. It’s that there’s so much new music and so little time and space. We all have to make room in our lives for new artists and new ideas. But an artist like me, in his second decade of making records, better not get stuck in any ruts.

As satisfying and safe as it can feel to have mastered a craft, it also can be a sign that it’s time to learn a new trick. It’s the known that the artist should fear, not the unknown. All that terrain that’s been well illuminated should scare you artistically. Because the known is where boredom takes root. Staying in the well-lit areas is what gets you stuck. I felt a strong urge to lurch into the dark and leave pop music behind, but of course we all resist change, we all want to keep our job. So what about the middle-aged making pop music?

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Pop music is the soundtrack for the mating age

Sure, it’s allowed. But let’s be honest about what pop, or popular, music is. It’s music for the mating age. It’s a soundtrack for that yearning, that youthful anger, those ideals and inside jokes of the teenagers and young adults as they experience the rough ride together. It fills an important need. It helps get us through to adulthood

Pop music can be a life jacket, a sexy security blanket, a hipster Hallmark card. And it communicates very real things. It also requires serious craft and is a competitive business, worthy of great respect. Pop music saved my a– as a kid, paid the bills in my earlier career. And I love to make fun of it. Good pop music, truly of its moment, should throw older adults off its scent. It should clear the room of boring adults and give the kids some space.

If you’re post-mating age, you might enjoy new pop music to a degree, but it’s not really for you. Post-mating-age adults have a whole other heap of problems, the likes of which the sickest beat and saddest rhyme are woefully unequipped to solve. You don’t need an earful of sexy when navigating your aging parents into an old folks’ home or when you’re worried your kids might be trying drugs at their delinquent friend’s house. There is music that speaks to adults, but it probably ain’t mating beats. When they’re in heat, they usually reach for music of their own era, the stuff they consumed back when they were mating age. They spring for high ticket prices for a magical night with their favorite Heritage Artist.

A Dream About Lightning Bugs.

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A Dream About Lightning Bugs.
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Courtesy of Ballantine Books

I, for one, don’t feel the need to try and relate to younger music that’s not for me anymore. I appreciate it, but I don’t try to like it or relate to it. Why should I? I view pop music the way I do a children’s television show, with its cartoons and bright colors – it’s for kids. I’m no more riveted by a grumpy puppet who lives in a garbage can than I am by a horny auto-tuned journal entry edited over a lonesome computer loop. I don’t hang around playgrounds, so why, at my age, should I be wandering around Burning Man shirtless, tripping on ecstasy? Or speaking in vocal fry like middle-aged men and women I overhear every day in the coffee shop down the block? If I’m being really honest? Really feeling my age and unafraid to admit it? Here we go: I’m actually repulsed by overly computerized music, which dominates pop music now. It makes me feel ill.

Canned bass drum that dry-humps my eardrums four-on the floor in the back seat of an Uber while an overly gymnastic auto-tuned vocal holds me down … It just isn’t my cup of tea. There’s something sad about a singer pouring his heart out over a quantized machine. That heartless machine would keep playing out for days in an empty room, long after the singer keeled over. Hey, kid! That loop doesn’t love you! I want to tell the singer. I’m reminded of those horse insemination machines where the poor stud is humping away into a horsey robot. It’s just sad. Now, that’s some old-man s— I just laid down, but it’s about being honest, because I know that I cannot grow artistically if I am beholden to the opinions of an industry I’ve outgrown. If I require the approval of children.

I have equal respect for and interest in Cardi B and Teletubbies, which is to say I have incredible respect for both, because they’re both brilliant, and little interest in either, because I’ve aged out of it. I too made my mark in the business of mating music of a now-bygone era, but I wasn’t nearly as good at it as the two examples I just mentioned. Still, my music was peddled by purveyors of fine procreation hullabaloo, and I happily signed on the dotted line. It was a pretty good run.

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“We threw him off the scent. It’s what kids do.”

Back when we started, there were sometimes a few middle-aged people in attendance for the early Ben Folds Five shows. They came hoping to see some younger musicians doing “real music,” but they often walked away disappointed. They came for those seventies’ chords and mannerisms that warmed their hearts, only to find we used them all wrong. I recall one lone 40-something man who pulled me aside after some gig in the early days and told me, “I saw Elton back in 1971, and the big difference was that everything wasn’t some kind of inside joke to him. It was real music. He meant it. When he stood on the piano it was a celebration, it was triumphant. You do it and it has to be so ironic and clever. You boys need to tighten up. What was all that distortion? I had high hopes before tonight.” I told him I was sorry he didn’t enjoy it. But, honestly, mission accomplished. We threw him off the scent. It’s what kids do.

Ben Folds Five happily made glaring mistakes, approaching great craft with the attitude of the drunkest two- chord punk band. We sounded our mutant mating call. No different from any generation before. So as I approached Heritage Artist age, I had to decide: Did I want to adopt the affectations of the new generation in hopes of remaining relevant, begging for attention with each new release? Or did I want to get out of that business, head to Vegas, and just keep reliving my old shit? Well, somehow neither of those binary options seemed very attractive. So, then what? What to do with the Script? The answer was in the dark somewhere, where it always is. After all, the dark is where we mated for the first time.

Ben Folds is an American musician who has created an enormous body of genre-bending music that includes pop albums with Ben Folds Five, multiple solo albums, a classical piano concerto, and collaborations with artists ranging from Regina Spektor to William Shatner. Folds, who was also a judge for five seasons on NBC’s acclaimed a capella show The Sing-Off, was named the first ever artistic advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in 2017. He is an outspoken champion for arts education and music therapy, serving on the distinguished Artist Committee of Americans for the Arts, and as chairman of the national ArtsVote 2020 initiative.

From the book A DREAM ABOUT LIGHTNING BUGS by Ben Folds. Copyright © 2019 by Ben Folds. Published by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.