New Review: Everlasting divas

‘Rock On’: Women, Ageing and Popular Music is an essay collection concerned with developing debates around ageing, both in society and within the music world. Laura Way finds it an interesting (if at times heavy) read that shines a much welcome light on a neglected area of research


Ros Jennings and Abigail Gardner’s ‘Rock On’: Women, Ageing and Popular Music is part of the Popular and Folk Music series by Ashgate Publishing and, underpinned by a feminist perspective, focuses on a selection of North American, British and Cuban women performers and the issue of ageing. The introduction sets the context for the book as well as the academic tone which it takes, and the book (which is split into two parts) seeks to contribute to developing debate around ageing broadly, as well as to literature on ageing within music specifically. The inclusion of the phrase “Rock On” in the title risks being misleading as the collection, bar perhaps the essays on Kristen Pfaff and Courtney Love (both of Hole fame), is really looking at popular culture and the performers within this genre.

Part one, ‘Renewal, Recycling and Renegotiation’, considers how notions of nostalgia, re-invention and recycling are utilised in relation to the performance strategies of selection of female performers. The first essay in this section, by Lucy O’Brien, looks at Madonna. O’Brien considers how Madonna’s performance strategies have been impacted by ageing and the relation of this to her star persona. As an academic text, the book as a whole can be a bit heavy, particularly if the reader is unfamiliar with such a style, but I found O’Brien’s chapter one of the more accessible out of the collection.

The following essay by one of the book’s editors (Jennings) compares the performance strategies of Shirley Bassey and Petula Clark, looking at how these strategies might help them both repress and express their ageing. It also considers this from the perspective of their audiences. This is one of the few essays in the collection which considers audiences; I would have found it interesting to have further consideration of that angle, especially as this is alluded to in the back cover blurb.

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Image is ‘Princess or diva?’ by reizenbee. It is being deployed thanks to a flickr creative commons licence

Video commentary: Video is a clip of Shirley Bassey’s set at Glastonbury in 2007. The clip shows her performing the song ‘Big Spender’ (twice) from the show Sweet Charity while wearing a pink dress with sequins and feathered tapered hem. An exuberant performer, Bassey moves about the stage, engages with the audience, and occasionally shakes her hips. She wore customised welly’s for her performance at Glastonbury that year, but these are not in evidence during this clip.