It’s an age-old maxim in the movies that there are no great parts for older actresses. Infact, the general ascent/descent of the average Hollywood starlet can be summed up in the following five steps:
1. Who is Megan Fox?
2. Get me Megan Fox.
3. Get me a Megan Fox-type.
4. Get me a young Megan Fox.
5. Who is Megan Fox?
Along with this well-honed pearl of wisdom comes another: the notion that, for male actors, things are very different. They are allowed to embrace their wrinkles, face their twilight years with gravitas and dignity, wear their decades of accumulated wear-and-tear with pride. But – do these same rules apply to the music industry?
As has been widely reported, Bob Dylan turned seventy this week. The write-ups across the press have been (quite rightly) universally positive, full of praise for a man whose artistic output helped define a half-century. None of these articles (again, quite rightly) have been graceless enough to comment on the fact that Dylan isn’t looking too grand these days. The analysis has been purely about the music, rather than his greying wiry hair or haggard features. Good.
Compare that, then, to the experience that undoubtedly awaits Debbie Harry. Now 65, she is recently quoted as saying:
Regardless of what I say about trying to be better at what I do, I rely on looks a lot. Women’s calling cards, unfortunately, are based on their looks.
Is this the case? Is the media incapable of looking beyond physical appearance in female artists, or at least flagging it up as a major interview subject? Brian Wilson’s increasing years hardly ever pops up as a talking point, but the majority of articles concerning the modern-day Kate Bush seem to carry an astonishment that a woman even exists after the age of fifty.
There is, naturally, an argument that Debbie Harry’s looks were an integral part of her fame. No-one’s denying this: she was an ex-Playboy bunny, after all, and undeniably beautiful. (It is worth noting, however, that – unlike a modern era in which uncomfortably ‘sexy’ pop starlets are barely out of their teens – Debbie Harry was a pensionable thirty-two at the time of Hanging On The Telephone. Imagine that! A real-life woman – not a girl, but an actual woman. It’s madness, we tell you, madness!)
Harry is no artistic slouch though, and was also one of the primary musical figureheads in Blondie. She’s no Britney Spears, no Miley Cyrus. There’s substance. Her incredible looks were, in the scale of her overall talent, incidental. And they should be treated as such to this day, the same treatment as befits any significant good-looking male artist of the same generation.
One can only hope things change. Conor Oberst, Kanye West and Avey Tare are sure to see a lifetime of people fawning about their growing body of work, and not paying the slightest bit of attention to how they look. It would be terrible to see a world in which artists like Cat Power, Dot Allison, PJ Harvey and Charlotte Hatherley – all attractive women, but more importantly all extremely talented – have to face a future of interviews in which ‘the aging question’ is the first thing they deal with.