Adults Rock to Younger Musicians

Brace yourselves, kids — your daddy does dance and your mama loves rock 'n' roll.

The face of adult contemporary music is changing as the middle-aged set increasingly tunes in to crooners young enough to be their children — and boosts record sales. Easy-on-the-ears stars like Norah Jones (search), Clay Aiken and Alicia Keys (search) are benefiting from older listeners' disposable income and artist loyalty.

"Fifty-year-olds aren't going to buy 50 Cent," said Kirk Miller, associate editor of Rolling Stone. "It's more likely an older music fan is going to gravitate toward musicians who sound like something they are used to and have a softer sound."

Jane Zemel, 52, said she listens to Norah Jones, Beyonce (search) and Stacey Earl because they have simple styles and quality voices.

"It's not about special effects or the video or so much computer background you can't even tell if they're singing," she said. "It's about the music and the melody."

Middle-aged music fans have long been underserved by the youth-obsessed music industry, said Miller, which isn't wise business because adults "will go out and buy the album and not download the songs."

In fact, older adults may be the troubled music industry's best customers. According to the Recording Association of America's (search) Web site there was a slight increase in music purchased by teens and a larger increase purchased by buyers over age 45 in 2001 and 2002.

Norah Jones' "Feels Like Home" has sold 2.2 million copies, Clay Aiken's "Measure of a Man" has sold 2.4 million and Alicia Keys' "Diary of Alicia Keys" has sold 2.5 million, according to Nielson SoundScan.

With numbers like these, Miller said he's surprised labels haven't focused more on artists who appeal to both older and younger music lovers. Artists with crossover appeal are "usually a happy accident," he said. 

These middle-aged music magnets appeal to the older set because of song choice, style and the substance of their tunes.

"American Idol" star Aiken is "probably the least threatening pop star since Pat Boone," said Miller. "More 50-year-olds than 13-year-olds seem to be into him. ... He's going for adult contemporary style and not doing anything that couldn't have been done 20 years ago."

Aiken has actually become something of a heartthrob for the over-50 crowd. A column in The Orange County Register entitled "My Mother Has Gone Gaga for Clay Aiken," about a 57-year-old mother's addiction to the young singer, garnered a multitude of enthusiastic responses on the newspaper's Web site.

Claire in Long Beach, Calif., wrote that she's in her 50s and "crazy over Clay!"

"Watching Clay takes me back to the beginning of Elvis' career, for no one since then has ever had that kind of an impact on me," she wrote, adding that Clay "is the boy every mother would love to have as a son, the boy every mother would love to have her daughter bring home and, dare I say, were we maybe 25 years younger (!), the man we'd love to bring home for ourselves!"

A slew of sites offer Claymates (as the fans call themselves) a community where they can ache for Aiken together. "Lecherous Broads for Clay Aiken," "Aiken 4 Clay," and "Weapons of Mass Seduction: A Clay Aiken Message Board," are just some of the sites where women discuss the singer's ability to make them weak in the knees.

But not all boomers find contemporary soft tunes inspiring.

"Forget Clay," John Floeter, 59, of Dallas, Texas, said in an e-mail interview. "[But] Norah's great for Sunday afternoon naps when golf is not on TV."

Keys and Jones have both earned older fans with their talent as musicians (both are piano players), their vocal abilities and their heartfelt lyrics.

"[My generation] actually thought lyrics could stop a war," said Zemel of Tulsa, Okla. "The message is important."

And some boomers are getting hints from their Gen-X kids who help them discover new artists.

Brooke Wilson, 27, of Atlanta, Ga., said she helps her parents pick out new albums.

"Usually I pop something in and they give it a chance," she said. "They both like Norah Jones a lot. I picked it out because I knew they'd like her voice."

Wilson was inspired to help mom and dad get hip because she was tired of them listening to the same old stuff, which ranges from opera and classic rock to her dad's "weird taste for ABBA, which is disturbing," she said.

The times, they may be a-changing, but sometimes the more things change the more they stay the same.

Wilson said while her parents now enjoy Dave Matthews (search), John Mayer and James Taylor's son Ben, it's really because they remind them of the music of their youth.

"Ben Taylor has a band and they like him — because he sounds like James Taylor."