In an era where the elderly are seen as people who need to be looked after and entertained, one chorus in Massachusetts has turned the old age formula upside down. Instead of singing songs to pass the time as bones get bridle and hearts clog up, this group of senior citizens seeks to shake up audiences and make people of all ages, especially younger people, look at art and life in a whole new way. And they’ve been doing it quite successfully for 30 years.
The Young@Heart chorus in North Hampton, Massachusetts features close to 40 active members ranging from age 73 to 89. Some singers have singing or stage experience while others have absolutely none. Which suits the goal of the group just fine, to perform contemporary music in an unorthodox way. You may be familiar with Nirvana’s “Come as you are” or Jimmy Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”, but before they started working on it, most of these brave singers never heard them. But once they work on a song and make it their own, it might be the audience that feels like they’re hearing something wonderful and weird, for the first time- all over again. This is one of the specialties of Young@Heart, the challenge that each member faces head-on. Society often dictates that people of advanced ages should take it easy, relax, and be entertained, but this group of rebels works hard decoding and reassembling music from the world of rock, hip-hop, blues and beyond, featuring lyrics and rhythms that even seasoned music fans can’t recite accurately.
In doing what they do, making art, the group also makes no secret of who they are. While there are plenty of examples in the world television advertising and magazine covers, that feature images of 40 or 50 year olds posing as “elderly”, and give tips on how to look and feel young, Young@Heart comes right at you, straight on – they are old. You may find that charming, unappealing, limiting, exciting, but whatever you think of them, they make no secret about their age. You see the wrinkles, the slow movements, shaking, and everything else that comes with aging for some people. The choir neither hides it nor claims to know how to cure or slow it down. Members do pass away, sometimes in a very sudden manner. On the other hand people also stay with the chorus for a long time; several years ago the chorus celebrated the 100th birthday of one of their members, Anna Main, who’s husband had died in World War I. Just as they make no attempt to mask their age, they also deal with death as it comes. As chorus director Bob Cilman puts it, “Its probably not different then it would be for any other age group; when you’re doing something that you really love and are inspired by it, it keeps you mentally and physically healthy. But people still go through stuff. This is no elixir.”
“This isn’t a social service. We’re not here to make people feel good.” – Bob Cilman
In 2003 the legendary Johnny Cash, at the age of 71 and in very poor health, recorded a video for his cover of the Nine-Inch-Nails song “Hurt”. The video contains clear images of Cash looking tired, weak, and old. It also contains juxtaposed images of him as a young man, and symbolic images from the Johnny Cash museum in Nashville, which had been closed down and in a state disarray for some time. Whereas successful music videos typical consist of images of youth, glamour, and power, Cash’s stripped down performance of “Hurt” went on to become a massive hit. In 2011, Time Magazine declared it one of the 30 best music videos of all-time. He wasn’t part of a chorus and he had a long illustrious career, but not unlike Young@Heart, the video proved that showing age and life in all its forms and stages, can challenge and inspire all kinds of audiences.
When the film Rocky Balboa was released in 2006, a then 59 year old Sylvester Stallone starred and directed a film that, based on the concept, few critics would ever take seriously. The legendary fictional boxer is presented as retiree with a long list of health and personal problems, who decides one day to get back into boxing for recreational purposes. During the course of what would be a classic Rocky training montage, the film lays out all the ailments of an elder Rocky, as a result of old age and a punishing career, among them: arthritis, calcium deposits on his joints, and bad knees. It will never be considered a cinematic gem, but what many may have missed about this film is the unflattering portrayal of a former symbol of power and youth. The brave and in your face character who still has something to say and can still inspire, even if his physical or emotional health has been depleted over time. A depiction made even more interesting by the fact that Stallone himself, a longtime action star who is now 65 years old, still stars in and directs in massively popular films, despite numerous physical injuries that have amassed throughout his career. His characters, like the actor in real life, confront us with an uncensored truth about aging. Whats more, they can still capture our imaginations.
While in the field of science there is ground breaking research to stop debilitating diseases that most effect the elderly and ensure that people of advanced ages can still do more of what they want to do in the near future, the Young@Heart chorus is blazing their own trail in the field of art and humanity. Their story has gone beyond their beloved performances, with special help from the documentary “Young @ Heart: Alive and Well”, directed by Walker George and distributed by Fox Searchlight in 2007. Thanks to that film and the power of sharing content on the internet, Young@Heart inspired groups have taken root all over the world.
Like the New England gang, they’re determined to be something more than a group of old people singing as part of arts and crafts hour. They’re studying James Brown and Lady Gaga and putting their own seasoned spin on music the public may already know and love. Just as artists like Johnny Cash have done in the past, the group does it all without hiding the fact that they are old. Again, in the words of Cilman, “Young@Heart is about being really in-your-face old and not hiding it. Thats the cool thing. These days nobody wants to celebrate that, we just celebrate youth. There’s something very beautiful about people who are older, and its really kind of awful that our society tries to hide that.” Before any discussions about how to be old, improve health through advances in the field of medicine and changes in the politics of research, there is one simple piece of wisdom that comes with this fantastic music, let people be who they are instead of trying to turn them into something that they aren’t.