Why did Homer Simpson age more gracefully than the Red Hot Chilli Peppers?

Do we peak early and it’s all downhill from there? Shane Rodgers explores the evidence around the highs of human performance prompted by a recent Red Hot Chill Pepper controversy.

Feb 08, 2023, updated Feb 08, 2023
Did the Red Hot Chilli Peppers peak when they made a guest appearance on The Simpsons? A recent controversy has surrounded the set list for their recent tour. (Image: The Simpsons)

Did the Red Hot Chilli Peppers peak when they made a guest appearance on The Simpsons? A recent controversy has surrounded the set list for their recent tour. (Image: The Simpsons)

There is a scene in an episode of The Simpsons in which a famous rock singer is on stage and announces that he is going to do a song from his latest album.

Homer Simpson immediately shouts “Noooo!” and declares “only greatest hits”. Faced with the strength of Homer’s insistence, the latest album track is abandoned.

I was reminded of this episode last week when fans of Red Hot Chilli Peppers (who are touring Australia this month) expressed dismay that almost half of the concert set list was from relatively recent albums.

This came at the expense of some of the big hits from 30-odd years ago that fans were psyched to hear.

In an era when music acts can keep on touring into their seventies, and even eighties in rare cases, the controversy raises some interesting questions about the nature of creativity and the way human performance tends to peak at different stages of our lives.

There is a lot of research on the subject and, on most of the available evidence, we do indeed reach high points of achievement in different areas in particular decades of our lives.

In the case of rock and pop artists, in general there seems to be a few years when popularity peaks. This is followed by either gradual obscurity, a slow burn career with bursts of new energy, or effectively becoming a nostalgia “greatest hits” touring act.

If you look closely even at rock and pop artists that have seemingly endured for decades, typically their peak was in a particular decade.

Elton John, for example, has famously had top ten hits across six decades and, as we saw in Brisbane a couple of weeks ago, at 75 he can still fill a stadium and leave the audience wanting more.

However, if you look at the set list for that concert, the vast majority of songs were big hits from the seventies and eighties. And if you look closely at Elton’s chart history, he has continued to have hits but not at the height, regularity or intensity of those early years.

In fact, big chunks of his later top ten hits were repackages of duets of his early mega hits, including the recent Cold Heart with Dua Lipa that was a mash between Rocket Man (1972) and Sacrifice (1989).

The Rolling Stones, one of the most enduring rock bands of the modern era, have continued to produce genuine hits over many decades. According to the Billboard charts, they had a golden period between the mid-1960s and late 1970s, and another big burst of top 10 action in the 80s. For most of the other years it has been singles that chart but do not make the top 10.

In some cases, like The Beatles, bands break up after 10 or so years because they feel like their creative energy has run its course.

Swedish pop group ABBA was the same. During the 1970s they achieved phenomenal sales. As the 80s set in they hit creative and touring burn-out and just did not want to do it any more.

Despite offers of more than $1 billion to tour, it took them 40 years to produce any further new music.

So is the issue that creative genius has limits, or do we just get tired of certain music and move on? There are a lot of theories.

One is that, once an artist or group achieves mega-stardom (which is not easy to do), there is an intense period where they are under pressure to keep producing and eventually they are spread too thin and the quality falls.

Another is that music is effectively a product of a prevailing pop culture mix and, once pop culture moves on, so does the audience. Some years later, the same music can be reborn as the audience seeks to recapture the feeling from an earlier moment of their lives, as with the massive ABBA revival in the 1990s and the plethora of 1970s, 1980s and 1990s acts successfully touring their old hits.

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Rare talents, including Elton John and his ilk, have the capacity to hold audiences over longer periods but this tends to be based around strategic bursts rather than continual new releases.

The more challenging question is whether humans actually have a limited period in which they produce their best work.

Philip Hans Franses of the Erasmus School of Economics in the Netherlands is often cited for his research seeking to determine at what age creative people tend to peak.

His research, which seems to be aimed more at the classical end of the scale, found artists, writers and musicians peaked most often in their 30s, but there were plenty of exceptions to that.

Finance company CashNetUSA released a study in 2021 that pulled together a heap of research on our peak age for various functions.

Notably 22 was our best age to remember names and our mid-20s tended to be the golden age for many things, including creativity, sporting prowess, having friends and building enduring relationships.

Our chess playing ability peaked at 31, our productivity peaked at 35. In our 40s we do our best paintings, maximise our concentration, write our most prize-winning books and have our best leadership skills.

The high points get a little sparse after that with the notable exception of maths skills (in our 50s) and a nice burst of lifestyle satisfaction and ability to enjoy leisure in our 60s.

In the end, for every rule there is an exception and Red Hot Chilli Peppers can play whatever the heck they like and plenty of people will still turn up.

It is unrealistic to be at our peak all the time and there is nothing wrong with having different high points at different stages of life.

Which leads me to my favourite line from a music review. In a relatively recent assessment of a new Paul McCartney album, the reviewer lamented: “Nobody can write songs like Paul McCartney anymore, not even Paul McCartney.”

Shane Rodgers is a business executive, writer, strategist and marketer with a deep interest in what makes people tick and the secret languages of the workplace.

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