music / Columns

The Top 20 Songs About Growing Old

August 22, 2019 | Posted by David Hayter

It’s my birthday this week. So I thought, what better way to celebrate than by going down the pub with all my… no scratch that, by writing a list of the best songs about growing older.

Disclaimer: This week I’m very much not going for a historical best of, these are songs that have helped me reflect on and understand  the aging process and I am consciously picking songs that represent the different stages of life and thought process we all go through as we age. As such, they are ranked in accordance to their meaning to me.

I could have done one track for every year of my life, but that would have been depressing, so you’ll have to settle for 20.

20. Mistaken For Strangers – The National

“You get mistaken for strangers by your own friends when you pass them at night”. There’s no feeling stranger or more unsettling than growing apart from people you genuinely loved. This is an essential aspect of aging. The moment when you sit down with someone who you know inside and out and – after a number of years – you can barely hold a conversation. You cannot go beyond niceties and platitudes. Its horrible, the death of a friendship, not by malice or neglect, but by the glacial drift of life and time.

19. Dammit – Blink-182

Not all songs about aging, require the protagonist to actually, you know, be old. Some of the most crucial steps in the aging process happen in your formative years (hence the name) and, oh yes, that brings us to…

…getting dumped (most likely for being immature). “Dammit” captures the moment when you find yourself running around in mental circles trying to undo the damage you’ve done. Thrown into confusing and doubt, you wonder about what could have been, before finding solace in the arms of a friend as she helps you accept that its over – and, suddenly, you come to the realization that, hey, “I guess this growing up”.

18. Dream On – Aerosmith

“Dream On” is a beautiful acknowledgement that much of life has already passed us by. What’s done is done. You cannot have it back, nor can you rewrite it and, sooner rather than later, you’re going to forgot most of it. So what should we do, well that’s simple: “Sing for the year, sing for laughter and sing for the tears, sing with me, it’s just for today”.

17. Gravity Is A Bitch – Miranda Lambert

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Miranda Lambert is at her pithy and acerbic best as she rails against that bitch called gravity (not to mention that bastard mirror):

“Conversations turning from Rock and Roll, to kids and politics and how much money you owe/Got bags under your eyes, bigger hips and bigger thighs, you’ve got places you can’t even itch/You can nip it, tuck it, squeeze it, but you’re never gonna beat it/Because gravity’s a bitch”.

16. Help The Aged – Pulp

Jarvis Cocker’s “Help The Aged” might seem like a crafty joke, but of course it’s a reflection on a generation of a new rock stars who were passing him by as Britpop died. “Help the aged, one time they were just like you: drinking, smoking cigs and sniffing glue…don’t just put them in a home”. The fear of being put on the shelf and left to rot creates a wonderful allegory for the quarter-life-crisis – for a brief moment the loss of youth feels as terrifying as the prospect of being jettisoned from society itself.

15. My Generation – The Who

“I hope I die before I get old”. Of course this song was going to feature. Naturally, it’s not directly about aging, it’s actually about the older generation’s disparaging view of youth culture – but that makes it one of the great aging anthems. Each and every year I hope I don’t become that curmudgeon (you know the one), even as I witness my best friends complaining about new music, hipster fashions, GenZ and YouTube culture (I admit, I can’t stand the latter).  “My Generation” is an internal credo, not to literally “die before you get old”, that misses the point entirely, but to never be that blowhard who tried to shit all over your generation’s culture.

14. When I’m 64 – The Beatles 

McCartney is obsessed with aging and, between “When I’m 64” and Elvis Costello’s “Veronica”, he mastered the art of writing pop about being wrinkly and withered. “When I’m 64” is of course a projection from a very young man, but therein lies its deepest insight. He’s observed retirees pottering around in the garden and imagined him and his wife in their shoes. What’s amazing, is that’s he turned this dream of having grandchildren on his knees into one of the most charming and utopian love songs of the pop era by asking that existential question: would you still love me, when I’m 64?

13. “Losing My Edge” – LCD Soundsystem

The ultimate snarling hipsters shrug in the face of a newer, fresher, better dressed and more influential generation. So what if you’re what’s hip! I was there when the scene was formed! It’s my fucking scene! I built the house of cards upon which you stand, punk. Of course, as the resentment and sarcasm grows more caustic, James Murphy lists more and more improbable events – sure he might have played Daft Punk to the rock kids in the early 2000s, but he most certainly wasn’t at the first Suicide sessions.

This song always strikes a chord with me because, I can’t lie, I’ve pulled the “I was there card” before, be it with Pink Floyd, Amy Winehouse, Pantera or a million others.

12. The Story Of O.J. – Jay-Z

If you don’t think this is a song about aging, then you’re probably not old enough to have regrets about say…the property market or the money you frittered away on god knows what in your youth.

Of course, “The Story Of O.J.” is a manifesto for how young black men can avoid the trap of commercial slavery (see Kanye West’s “New Slaves”), but in explaining how to achieve true wealth, Jay accidentally expresses the regrets of an entire generation (generation rent, in fact) – who wished they’d brought that certain property, back when it was actually affordable:

“I bought every V12 engine, wish I could take it back to the beginning/I could a place in Dumbo, before it was Dumbo, for like 2 million/That place today is worth about 25 million, guess how I’m feeling: Dumbo”.

11. Do You Realize? – The Flaming Lips

So my dad died of cancer a couple of years ago, so I’d be remiss if this list didn’t include at least one song about coping with grief and understanding mortality. It is a hallmark of aging that is utterly unavoidable. There are so many beautiful songs about this topic, but they tend to dwell on the specifics. “Do You Realize?” by The Flaming Lips captures something greater. It embraces the scientific reality of decay and death – it takes that shocking realization and, rather than reaching for religion or embracing nihilism, in the face of that tragic sense of finality, it leads them to wholeheartedly embrace life itself – both the memory and vitally the moment:

“Do you realize everyone you know, someday, will die? And instead of saying all of those goodbyes, let them know you realize that life goes fast, it’s hard to make the good things last, you realize the sun don’t go down, it’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round”

10. Evening Sun – The Strokes

This is a song that probably won’t feature on anyway else’s list, but, as I’ve previously stated, it’s my birthday and my rules. “Evening Sun” is a wonderful act of rose tinted reminiscence. Sitting in the evening sun, in the twilight of youth, Julian Casablancas is dossing around, lost in retrospection as the world passes him by – but, in this reverie, he stumbles on a truism: there might be nothing more beautiful than the naivety of youth, but he wouldn’t trade it for prospect growing old with the one he loves.

“All actors they’re pretending and singers they will sometimes lie/Kids are always honest ‘cause they don’t think they’re ever going to die/Oh, you’re the prettiest, smartest captain of the team/I love you more than being seventeen”

The awkward forced rhyme (captain of the team?) was worth it for the single best line The Strokes have ever written. (Naturally, The Strokes are a hugely nostalgic band for me).

9. Still Crazy After All These Years – Paul Simon

Of course age changes you, but you don’t actually have to change. The premise of this Paul Simon classic is simple. One day, walking the streets of New York, he bumps into an old lover and rather than being awkward and uncomfortable, he finds age has dampened resentment and they go to a bar and disappear into nostalgic reveries. This experience teaches Paul not to pine for the days of yore, but to shake his head in bewilderment at all those years he spent lost in anxiety and despair over decision made and not made. It didn’t really matter in the end and was never really worth the worry. He’s lived one hell of life, left plenty of emotional wreckage in his wake, but he wouldn’t change a god damn thing and you’d be foolish to believe he’ll changing his ways anytime soon.

8. Hurt – Johnny Cash 

Hardly in need of an explanation, Johnny Cash’s masterful cover of this Nine Inch Nails’ hit transforms the song from an ode to nihilistic drug fuelled destruction to a weathered and desperate cry from a man facing his own mortality. He’s outliving his loved ones, he’s medicated to within an inch of an eyeballs, but the tragedy is not that he’s lost to dementia, but that he’s stuck with his mind and memories, seeing the damage his physical deterioration has wrought on his loved ones, while being forced to stew on his every last regret, ad infinitum.

7. Fluorescent Adolescent – Arctic Monkeys

“You used to get it in your fish nets, now you only get it in your night dress”. What more need be said, that is aging incarnate – and, whether we care to admit it or not, true love too. We all, damn you biology, land in Alex Turner’s “very common crisis” where we’ll be “flicking through a little book of sex tips” to spice things up and remembering “when the boys were all electric”. So what should we do? Well, nothing truth be told. We can wonder where our youthful spirit went, but if we could have it back, would we really want it? Memories truly are a misery.

6. Landslide – Fleetwood Mac

Could there be a better metaphor for time itself than that of a landslide. Love and life being swept along and aside by a force that cannot be denied, nor resisted. So what is a woman to do? Well if you ask Fleetwood Mac, you might be terrified of moving on from lovers and your children a like, but you have no choice. You must ride the waves and be swept along in the landslide, wherever it may take you. The message should not be read as “enjoy the ride”, that misses the point entirely (“Landslide” is steeped in both remorse and teary-eyed memory), instead its about persistence, acceptance, self-doubt and forces beyond our control as we ask: “can I handle the seasons of my life?”

5. 22 – Lily Allen

“When she was 22 the future looked bright, but she’s nearly 30 now and she’s out every night” – I might not be Lily Allen, but these thoughts went through my head on more than one occasion (especially doing my job!). There’s nothing quite as terrifying as being single and out at a bar surrounded by people nearly a decade younger than you, but don’t worry, you’re older and wiser – oh well not really, I’m stuck in the same cycle they are, expect I’m not enjoying it half as much as them. Okay, well at least I’m richer and more qualified, right? Ah, not according to Lily: “She’s got an alright job, but it’s not a career/Whenever she thinks about it, it brings her to tears” – fuck.

Well lucky for me, when I was a flummoxed 28-year-old, I was a bloke so I didn’t have to worry about the most depressing part of the song: “It’s sad, but it’s true, how society says her life is already over”. Thank fuck for the distinguished older gentleman stereotype.

4. Step – Vampire Weekend

Not only does “Step” capture Vampire Weekend at their most beautiful and wistful, the song represents the hard earned maturity that comes along with aging process. There’s plenty of nostalgia for youth running through this track’s veins, but there’s more strength to be found in growing old with your life partner than any memory of yesteryear. Erza alites upon a selection of wonderful incisive lines, from the glorious goofy metaphor hidden in “Step’s” chorus (“The gloves are off, the wisdom teeth are out”) to the track’s heartbreakingly beautiful conclusion:

“Wisdom’s a gift, but you’d trade it for youth/Age is an honor, it’s still not the truth…The truth is she doesn’t need me to protect her/We know the true death, the true way of all flesh/Everyone’s dying, but girl, you’re not old yet”

In short, just because we fully understand the profundity of reality, doesn’t mean we have to let it drag us down: we’re all dying, but no one reading this is dead yet – the glass remains half full.

3. Leaving The Table – Leonard Cohen 

Leonard Cohen’s final album may just be his finest: a ferocious and unflinching reflection on aging, loves lost, women ruined and the unremitting pace of change. What makes “I’m Leaving The Table” so terrifying is that it deals with what is often a taboo subject, especially in rock and roll circles: the death of libido.

“I don’t need a lover/The wretched beast is tamed” – that is a direct reference to 1988’s howling and lustful “I’m Your Man”. The unremitting lothario of legend is dead and buried and Cohen is now forced to reflect. He is sorry, but never remorseful. He’s loved the life he has lived and he is taking responsibility for each and every one of his actions – and therein lies maturity. He has no interest in rewriting history to make himself look better, he only seeks to accept and understand:

“I don’t need a reason for what I became/I’ve got these excuses, they’re tired and lame/I don’t need a pardon, there’s no one left to blame/I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game”

He has baggage, but he has absolutely no interest in carrying it, what would be the point?

2. “Home” – LCD Soundsystem

Yes two LCD Soundsystem songs, it’s my list inspired by my birthday, deal with it (consider yourself lucky I didn’t thrown in “New York I Love…” and “American Dream” while I was at it). “Home” is masterpiece and probably Murphy’s most unashamedly heartfelt statement. The scene of his youth has passed him by, if not faded from existence entirely. His New York City has been boarded up and painted over (hey, didn’t that vape shop, used to be our favorite bar?). His friends are drifting away, moving on and settling down, but for one last shining moment he and his loved ones are going to “stumble into the night”, shut out their woes and dance like they’re 17 all over again.

This is not a nostalgic song. It is entirely accepting of the changes that are taking place, instead it is one a last hurrah. The formation of one last immortal memory and chance to climb into the shoes of those beautiful trailblazers that we once were, for the very last time. After the glory of a youth relived, Murphy forces his friends to make one solemn promise:

“You might forget, Forget the sound of a voice/Still, you not forget, yeah, don’t forget/The things that we laughed about”

…and therein lies the beauty, it’s not the pictures, it’s not the details: it’s the silly little asides, in jokes and anecdotes that immortalize a friendship and stick with you long after you and your buddies have grown apart.

1. Watching The Wheels – John Lennon

I love this song: truly, madly, deeply I do. It’s such a simple concept from one of John Lennon’s most poignant solo albums. Lennon has given up the rock and roll lifestyle. The press are absolutely baffled, he’s abandoned the parties and celeb circuit at the height of fame, but for what exactly? And why on earth would anyone do that?

The answer is simple: he’s ditched the glitz and the glamor in favor of, well, just sitting at home “watching shadows on the wall”. Lennon has forsaken superstardom for the love of family, privacy and the chance to watch his son, Julian, grow up in glorious slow motion.

“Watching The Wheels” is magnificent precisely because it rejects nostalgia and it has no time for retrospection. Lennon is old, settled and happy. The only hint of tragedy comes from the context – this man, so in love with his wife, so adoring of little boy and so content doing absolutely nothing at all (while harming no one), would be gunned down in short order.

So that’s my very personally list, but which songs define aging for you and may have even helped you mature?

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David Hayter