Why artists often lose their sparkle as they get older

It’s Theory Time, girls and boys…

So what do I mean when I say artists who lose their ‘sparkle’ as they get older? Like they’re unicorns or something.

Well, I struggled to find the right word. I originally put ‘why artists often lose it…’ but that can mean so many things. What I mean is that so many artists begin their career with a kind of energy to their work. (And by artists I’m talking musicians, writers, film-makers, comedians, painters… whatever.) And when you compare their later work to their early work, the later stuff feels lacklustre somehow. Like they don’t care as much. It’s something I was always aware of growing up. As a theory it was very much in the air in the 90s — as “beautifully fucking illustrated” by this clip from the film Trainspotting:

And recently, as it has finally dawned on me that despite all the various excuses that I’ve given myself for the last few years I am still in the middle of a writer’s block, I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

Something that Ewan MacGregor’s character says in that clip is that you get old and you can’t hack it anymore. I always wondered how that could happen. In football, or some athletic sport where you are competing with much younger people, sure, I can understand that there comes a point where the physical limitations of ageing outweigh any experience you might have acquired. But for everything else… it’s not like older poets are doubled up by the side of the stage, their arms resting on their knees, gasping for breath. Surely… as you get older you must learn how to do your work better, right?

Well, let’s qualify a bit, shall we. I don’t think this ‘lacklustre-ing’ happens to everyone. And when it does happen, it might happen for lots of reasons. And I’m probably only aware of it when it happens to famous people, and there are all sorts of pressures that fame can provide.

But aside from any of that, there is something specific that I have only just recently realised, which I think makes the making of art more difficult as you get older. And I think it’s worth mentioning, because I don’t remember hearing anyone else talk about it before.

The skills that you need when you’re starting out are not the skills that you need 10 or 20 years down the line. And if you don’t notice that shift, it all starts to fall apart.

Two things happen over time that cause surprising problems:

  1. Your artistic skillset gets much broader
  2. Your tolerance for sloppiness gets much lower

So, on the one hand, you develop many many more interests. When you were starting out you were focused on channeling a handful of core artistic influences, and putting your own spin on the result. And quite possibly, you were very happy with the result. Now though you’re interested in Opera, in street art, in Japanese military history, in Caribbean cuisine. Now you’re obsessed by Edith Piaf and the films of Alfred Hitchcock. And instead of channeling the works of a few artistic heroes who worked in broadly the same field, you are now infusing your work all of these different interests. Added to this, you’re just better at your craft. You can now play drums pretty well, and do a convincing Australian accent. You can write believable historical fiction, and you have a keen sense of how to put a team together. You know more, and you’re better at what you do. The problem isn’t that as you get older you have too little to say; the problem is that you have too much to say. And if you can synthesise all of these things together into something that’s coherent then that’s great, and you can potentially create something that audiences really love. But it requires learning a completely different discipline: that of ruthless editing. It requires being able to cut and cut and cut until you are actually communicating something clear and coherent to your audience, even if it’s only a fraction of all you want to say.

So you have all these new interests and skills. And on the other hand, your awareness for mistakes becomes much more acute. If you’re very confident about what you’re working on then that might not be a problem. But if you’re adding all of these ingredients into the pot in the certain knowledge that each of them is amazing, and yet you find the result is less than the sum of its parts, it’s very easy to lose confidence. And that loss of confidence will be evident in your work, which you can notice, and that can cause a feedback loop. And yes, this can look like you just don’t care as much about it as you did, even though you care a great deal – you just can’t see why it isn’t working when you feel it really should be.

To put this theory simply: the older you get, the broader your skills are, and the more tempting it is to use them. But the wider your ambitions, the more difficult it is to do ‘depth’. The more difficult it is to focus.

Incidentally, I think this might be why working specifically in a genre can actually be a ticket to a long career. Val McDermid, for example, is a crime writer who has also written non-fiction, children’s books, and regularly appears on radio and television — but at the end of the day she still has the restriction (or perhaps liberation, depending on how you look at it) of the crime fiction genre to keep her work focused. Genres allow artists to get very good at one particular thing, and incorporate the bulk of their interests and ideas into that one thing, rather than get lost in the labyrinth of shiny possibilities.

Sometimes artists do lose their way though, and manage to pull it back.

If you know me you… might have gathered I’m a bit of a Tom Waits fan. There was a point in his career, about 6 or 7 albums in, when there was a general consensus that he was maybe running out of ideas. I can’t find the quote but I remember reading Elvis Costello saying that Waits (a personal friend of his) was trapped in his own persona at this point, as a sort of alcoholic beatnik poet, and it was sad because he was just starting to repeat himself. Waits had carved out this very distinct identity, but he needed to do something new, and I get the sense that from Foreign Affairs to Heartattack & Vine he couldn’t find a sound that he was happy with. He ended up moving more and more towards being a conventional 80s rocker. Added to this, the persona of the drunk poet came with the price of actually becoming an alcoholic, which wasn’t helping him get his shit together any.

This is the cover of the Heartattack & Vine album:

Now, I’m a die-hard Waits fan, and to me even a lesser Waits album is better than most artist’s best albums. But looking at it now, it does seem… kind of unclear what he’s about. It seems kind of a mess.

Then his luck changed.

While making a soundtrack album for a Hollywood film, he met a story analyst called Kathleen Brennan. They fell in love and got married, and have worked as an artistic duo ever since. She got him off the alcohol. But she also helped him solve his lack of artistic focus. She persuaded him go way, way more experimental. She recognised that he just wasn’t challenging himself anymore, and she brought a whole host of avant garde influences that he had never heard of. She recognised that, for an artist in the music business at that point in his career, if he wasn’t really going right off the map then no one was going to be interested anymore.

The next album was called Swordfishtrombones. And the cover looked like this:

Gone was the macho 50s greaser look he’d been hovering around for the last decade. Here he seemed to be wearing makeup (in 1983, remember). And who were these weird looking people? Where was he? And what the fuck is a ‘Swordfishtrombone’?

Lots of people found the album unlistenable at the time, although it’s now considered a classic, and underneath the strangeness there are still narratively coherent stories with catchy melodies and surprising moments of emotion. I like it a lot, although I think the albums that came afterwards were even better. And I wonder if that’s because he had been through this ‘crisis of focus’ once, and he and Kathleen had methodically dug out of it, and that made it easier to be focused in future.

So anyway.

If, like me, you’re a little long in the tooth…

(What a weird fucking expression that is, by the way, but anyway…)

… maybe you need to declutter your ambitions. Because here’s the thing: you probably can’t go back to those core artistic influences who inspired you when you were young, because you’ve moved on, and so has the world. You probably need to limit your options. You probably need to go deeper, and narrow your focus.

Oh, and you probably need some kind of trombone.