Unfinished and Unclear

The following is an abandoned (because I didn’t really believe in it, and especially not where it was going) piece for Time. Yes, it stops mid-sentence; that’s how clear it was that this was getting away from me.

Listening to the new David Bowie album the other day, my thoughts wandered to another recent comeback of a legitimate Pop Culture Icon, Prince. For those who are unaware, Prince has formed a new band, recorded new songs and will be touring both later this year. Like Bowie, Prince is one of those artists whose earlier work defined generations and changed pop music as we knew it. And, like the new Bowie album, the new Prince material really doesn’t hold a candle to the old stuff. It got me thinking: Wouldn’t it be great if there was a mandatory retirement age for pop icons?

I should immediately clarify: I’m not suggesting that there is a set age at which musicians are forbidden from making music, or that the music industry comes up with some arbitrary number above which no musician gets to have any music released or promoted. Instead, I’m really addressing the way with which the music is received by the audience and, more importantly, the critics and media.

Consider the build-up the Bowie album was given, pre-release. The first two songs were released with little fanfare via Bowie’s VEVO account on YouTube, but the Internet quickly filled up whatever hyperbole void was left by the artist’s lack of promotion, declaring it the “perfect comeback” that put him “right back at the center of the whole shebang.”

The buzz quickly grew. “The Next Day,” the comeback album, would be his best in decades, with the presence of former collaborator Tony Visconti meaning it was a return to the sound and atmosphere of their famous 1970s work together, it was decided before anyone had heard it. When the album actually arrived, the response wasn’t exactly what everyone had been hoping for, with the result described as “an ordeal and a struggle of initial indifference,” if ultimately rewarding.

All of this is more positive than response to the new Prince material, which can best be described as… workmanlike, perhaps, or professional. Such polite terms are ways to get around saying “Kind of dull and sounding like a Prince tribute band,” which remains the worst-case scenario for any kind of musician, but especially one who was at one point as vibrant and compelling – if not exactly original, per se – as Prince.

I suspect the fault with both of these comebacks lies less with the musicians themselves than with the expectations surrounding them. It’s a failure of promotion as much as