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The Difficult Afterlife Of Pop Stars When The Spotlight Is Gone

pop stars
Suzanne Vega

Nick Duerden published an interesting article in The Guardian asking the fundamental question: What happens to pop stars when the spotlight moves one? If some pop stars have had a long career, many others have simply vanished after a few years of intense success, after the audience has moved on to the next teen du jour.

In his book “Exit Stage Left: The Curious Afterlife of Pop Stars,” Duerden examines the case of a few forgotten pop stars who were once hitmakers: people like Bob Geldof, Robbie Williams, Lisa Maffia… Inspired by Viv Albertine’s book, “Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys,” he was curious to understand what happens to dethroned pop stars. In her book, Viv Albertine wrote about her punk band that split in 1982. “The pain I feel from the Slits ending is worse than splitting up with a boyfriend. This feels like the death of a huge part of myself, two whole thirds gone … I’ve got nowhere to go, nothing to do; I’m cast back into the world like a sycamore seed spinning into the wind.”

Pain, misery, idleness, helplessness… the afterlife of pop stars is not easy, especially for those who managed to reach great success. The end of a career is basically seeing a dream die. Albertine returned to education when her music career ended, she studied film, but also underwent IVF and endured both illness and divorce, but like many musicians, she never fully let the music go.

Musicians are haunted by the idea that people write their best songs when they are young, “between the ages of 23 and 27” as Bob Dylan wrote, even though his long career tends to demonstrate that some will continue to release valuable material way past 27. Nevertheless, there must be something true to this since many bands peak with their first album then it is either a repeat or a downfall. Thus, what’s the point to continue? asks Duerden. What happens when you do not continue? To get answers, he reached out to musicians from various genres and eras and got 50 answers in total. Here are a few examples.

Terence Trent D’Arby was at the top of his career in 1987 and achieved huge fame in the 80s, but he now lives quietly in Italy as Sananda Maitreya, happily married with young children. “I wanted adulation and got it,” D’Arby tells Duerde “but I had to die to survive it.” His story was the usual tale of a record company tormenting an artist and requesting hits after hits. He is still making music that he releases on his own label but he also doesn’t care whether people listen or don’t listen to it.

You may remember the Dexys Midnight Runners since their song “Come On Eileen” was huge in 1982. But frontman Kevin Rowland didn’t want to be pigeonholed. “I just knew that I couldn’t write the same songs again, and so I never even tried,” he told Duerden. Their new music described as “mournful and ruminative” with “an introspective tone,” was not a success, and triggered a drug and rehab episode, followed by a humbling lesson.

Suzanne Vega, despite her big 1987 hit “Luka,” has almost been forgotten. Like the previous artists mentioned, she achieved great success in the late ’80s. “But by 1987,” Vega recalls, “every door was open to me, every gig I did sold out.” However, three years later, she realized the hard way that things had changed. She was far from selling out venues during her last tour and the tour was cut short. When she arrived back at JFK, she looked out for the car her record label would always send, except that, this time, there was no car. “I took a taxi,” she says. That has to be brutal.

Not everyone takes a hard fall, there are also those who find other centers of interest: Tim Booth (James) became a shaman and studied the practice of “consciousness expansion,” Róisín Murphy (Moloko) focused on motherhood and the Mediterranean, Billy Bragg got married and had a child, 10,000 Maniacs’ Natalie Merchant now teaches arts and crafts to underprivileged children in New York state. “I look at people like Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney,” she says, “and I think to myself: ‘If I were you, I’d just go home and enjoy my garden.’ It’s a question of temperament, clearly.”

Other ones try to go back to music again and again: Bob Geldof’s musical career with the Boomtown Rats was already behind him when Band Aid and Live Aid gave him a new focus. However, Geldof only wanted to go back to music, and in 2020, the Boomtown Rats released a new album. “In my passport, my profession is listed as a musician,” Geldof said, “not a saint.” He is not the only one, all the bands that have disbanded eventually reform or at least try, and many of the artists who have found other focuses still entertain the idea of making music again.

It could be for the rush of competition. “Do I unashamedly want to still be one of the biggest artists in the world? Yeah, I do,” says Robbie Williams. The spotlight addiction may explain why you see so many midlife pop stars judging TV singing competitions or appearing on reality shows. Eventually, any musician will try to come back one way or the other under the spotlight.

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