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Summer’s Gone: Late Style and Popular Music

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 September 2021


The Beach Boys’ 2012 album That’s Why God Made the Radio is typically nostalgic, filled with seemingly sunny reminiscences and retreads that hark back to the 1960s. And yet other parts of the album look back in a more critical fashion, exploring unresolved melancholy through a rich musical language. What makes this even more complicated is the fact that it is possible to hear these two ‘sides’ of the album differently, for the retreads to feel like eerie simulations and the melancholy parts to align with earlier, similarly complicated Beach Boys music. This ambivalence embodies the album’s dual relationship with what I describe as the primary strains of late style: Goethean serenity and Adornian intransigence. In exploring this contention and in applying late style to other examples of popular music, notably David Bowie’s 2016 album Blackstar, I argue that the late-style lens helps to shed new light on popular music’s increasingly complicated knots of nostalgia, ageing and death.

© The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Royal Musical Association

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1 Said, Edward, On Late Style (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2007), 3 Google Scholar.

2 Adorno, Theodor, ‘Late Style in Beethoven’, Essays on Music, trans. Gillespie, Susan (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002), 564–8 (p. 564)Google Scholar.

3 Adorno, Theodor, ‘Wagner’s Relevance for Today’, Essays on Music, 584602 (p. 588)Google Scholar.

4 Adorno, ‘Late Style in Beethoven’, 567.

5 Amir Cohen-Shalev, ‘Sailing on Seas of Uncertainties: Late Style and Puccini’s Struggle for Self-Renewal’, International Journal of Ageing and Later Life, 3/1 (2008), 77–95 (p. 80).

6 Ibid., 78.

7 Margaret Notley, Lateness and Brahms (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 73.

8 Anthony Barone, ‘Richard Wagner’s “Parsifal” and the Theory of Late Style’, Cambridge Opera Journal, 7 (1995), 37–54 (pp. 50, 53).

9 A. Hyatt King, ‘Mozart’s “Prussian” Quartets in Relation to his Late Style’, Music and Letters, 21 (1940), 328–46; Lorraine Byrne Bodley, ‘A Place at the Edge: Reflections on Schubert’s Late Style’, Oxford German Studies, 44 (2015), 18–29; Kimberly Fairbrother Canton, Amelia Defalco, Linda Hutcheon, Michael Hutcheon, Katherine R. Larson and Helmut Reichenbächer, ‘Death in Venice and Beyond: Benjamin Britten’s Late Works’, Operatics: The Interdisciplinary Workings of Opera, ed. Katherine R. Larson, Sherry D. Lee, Caryl Clark and Linda Hutcheon, special issue, University of Toronto Quarterly, 81/4 (2012), 893–908.

10 See Barone, ‘Richard Wagner’s “Parsifal”’, 40–4, for an overview of Winckelmann’s introduction of organicist late-style theory in Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums (1764) and Goethe’s radical epistemological updating of the theory a few decades later.

11 Said, On Late Style, 3.

12 Cohen-Shalev, ‘Sailing on Seas of Uncertainties’, 78.

13 Carl Dahlhaus, Ludwig van Beethoven: Approaches to his Music, trans. Mary Whittall (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); Maynard Solomon, Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004); Michael Spitzer, Music as Philosophy: Adorno and Beethoven’s Late Style (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006).

14 Susan McClary, Conventional Wisdom (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2000), 119.

15 See in particular Dahlhaus, Ludwig van Beethoven, 30–42.

16 Gordon McMullan and Sam Smiles, ‘Introduction’, Late Style and its Discontents: Essays in Art, Literature, and Music, ed. McMullan and Smiles (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 1–12 (p. 1).

17 Adorno, ‘Wagner’s Relevance for Today’, 586.

18 Said, On Late Style, 1.

19 Cohn, Nik, Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom (London: Vintage, 2016)Google Scholar; Bennett, Andy, Popular Music and Youth Culture: Music, Identity and Place (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000)Google Scholar.

20 Collins, Phil, Not Dead Yet: An Autobiography (New York: Penguin Random House, 2017)Google Scholar.

21 Jennings, Ros and Gardner, Abigail, Rock On: Women, Aging, Popular Music (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012)Google Scholar; Haworth, Catherine and Colton, Lisa, Gender, Age and Musical Creativity (London: Routledge, 2016)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Froneman, Willemien, ‘After Fame: A Micro-Ethnography of Popular Late Style’, Popular Music and Society, 41 (2018), 424–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Richard Elliot, The Late Voice: Time, Age and Experience in Popular Music (London and Oxford: Bloomsbury, 2015); Nick Stevenson, ‘David Bowie Now and Then: Questions of Fandom and Late Style’, David Bowie: Critical Perspectives, ed. Eoin Devereux, Aileen Dillane and Martin J. Power (New York and London: Routledge, 2015), 283–93.

24 Bennett, Andy and Taylor, Jodie, ‘Popular Music and the Aesthetics of Ageing’, Popular Music, 31 (2012), 231–43 (p. 232)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 For examples of such reviews, see Alexis Petridis, ‘The Beach Boys: That’s Why God Made the Radio – Review’, The Guardian, 31 May 2012, <>; Will Hermes, ‘That’s Why God Made the Radio’, Rolling Stone, 5 June 2012, <>; and Randall Roberts, ‘Album Review: The Beach Boys’ “That’s Why God Made the Radio”’, LA Times, 5 June 2012, <> (all accessed 27 April 2018).

26 Philip Lambert, ‘Preface’, Good Vibrations: Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys in Cultural Perspective, ed. Lambert (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2016), v–viii (p. v).

27 Daniel Harrison’s article on the Beach Boys, ‘After Sundown: The Beach Boys’ Experimental Music’, Understanding Rock: Essays in Musical Analysis, ed. John Covach and Graeme Boone (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 33–57, surveys many of these tropes, particularly harmonic complexity, in Wilson’s 1960s music.

28 Larry Starr, ‘A Listener’s Smile’, Good Vibrations, ed. Lambert, 242–62 (p. 256).

29 Tonal pairing, to be clear, is music organized ‘not on one stable sonority, but on the tension between two tonal centers’. William Kinderman, quoted in Rob Schulz, ‘Tonal Pairing and the Relative-Key Paradox in the Music of Elliott Smith’, Music Theory Online, 18/4 (2012), <> (accessed 9 December 2020). Fragile tonics, meanwhile, are tonics that are stated but whose normal hierarchical status is weakened somehow – in Wilson’s case, often through the use of elaborate extended tonic chords: see Mark Spicer, ‘Fragile, Emergent, and Absent Tonics in Pop and Rock Songs’, Music Theory Online, 23/2 (2017), (accessed 9 December 2020).

30 Harrison, ‘After Sundown’, 35.

31 Ibid., 36.

32 Doo-wop chord progressions are a ‘defining feature’ of Wilson’s songwriting, according to Philip Lambert (‘Brian Wilson’s Harmonic Language’, Good Vibrations, ed. Lambert, 63–104).

33 Kirk Curnutt, ‘“Brian Come Alive”: Celebrity, Performance and the Limitations of Biography in Lyric Reading’, Good Vibrations, ed. Lambert, 3–30 (p. 9).

34 Harrison, ‘After Sundown’, 46–9.

35 A slightly different case from these two would belong to the third type of late style identified earlier. In popular music, we might point by way of parallel to the unflagging creative energies of Bob Dylan or Neil Young, where all sorts of styles and reference points are engaged in these artists’ later years, or indeed to the Rolling Stones, who continue to sell out stadiums well into their seventies. This third late style, as already mentioned, is interesting when looked at from the perspective of ageing and creativity, but in terms of a study of late style does not offer all that much to analysis.

36 Jim Farber, ‘Dying Words: When Musicians Turn their Last Albums into Self-Eulogies’, The Guardian, 13 November 2017, <> (accessed 27 April 2018).

37 Christopher Doll, ‘David Bowie’s Final Descent’, Musicology Now, 18 January 2016, <> (accessed 30 March 2021).

38 Stevenson, ‘David Bowie Now and Then’, 288–9.