Pop-stars get a raw deal. As Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep bask in the glory of A-list ageing, picking up Academy Awards and starring roles in the process, Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna, who all turned 50 last year, are an embarrassment to the world of music. They are the drunken uncle at your wedding, or the last singer at karaoke night that belts out ‘Every Step You Take’ to an empty room. There is simply no place in show business for the pop-star with a pension.

The past month has seen successful releases from two of the guiltiest parties in this department in The Prodigy and U2. Their respective albums will slug it out at the top of the download charts over the coming weeks just as they are critically dismissed as commercial and, worst of all, irrelevant (See our review of No Line on the Horizon below). It begs the question: why do they bother?

Well, pretty obviously, if we still go to their concerts and get their albums, both bands would agree: why not? After all, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb won eight Grammys – as many as Michael Jackson’s Thriller – and sold 9 million copies worldwide. But U2 should know better than to take these statistics to heart; the Big Lebowski’s most hated band and the softest of all soft rockers, the Eagles, won 6 Grammys and sold over 40 million copies of their Best of… alone.

In any case, when each member of the band likely has enough money to buy a dozen Pacific islands and U2 tickets still command inflated prices, the average music fan would be forgiven for feeling harshly done by.
So, what’s the alternative? If credibility, or simply ‘cool’ were all that mattered, surely all our pop-stars would be dead in their prime, the closer to Sid Vicious’ benchmark of 22 the better.

Jim Morrison, an average poet while alive, practically wrote the book on timely rock star death. His bandmates and the benefactors of his estate still reap the financial benefits of his selfless overdose almost 40 years on, every time another filmmaker, author, or record company is seduced by his manufactured myth.

It could be, of course, that we just aren’t ready for such a dramatic step. After all, mortgages on Manhattan penthouses and sex dungeons don’t just pay themselves. We could certainly do worse than looking to that elder statesman of the alternative, Frank Black. Although Black’s ample frame may only make up half of Grand Duchy’s husband-wife line-up, Petit Fours, released well under the radar a couple of weeks back, may as well be another solo release from the former Pixies front man. It’s no Doolittle, but the refreshing lack of cynicism or self-consciousness in the charming interplay between the happy couple genuinely make years of new Grand Duchy material a tantalising prospect.

Indeed, they are not alone. The consistent quality of Radiohead’s In Rainbows proved that even hugely hyped ‘experienced’ artists can impress, whilst allowing their fans to name a price for the album demonstrated a generosity in marked contrast to their more pop-tastic contemporaries (I, for one, paid nothing for the album).

Even Neil Young’s more patchy output has gained him critical respect, if recently only for his bloody-minded idiosyncrasies, while Bob Dylan’s excellent recent material, 2006’s Modern Times in particular, has shown off his considerable pop survival instincts.

So what makes a grand old person of rock? Why do Patti Smith and Leonard Cohen have our eternal respect, whilst Bono and the rest come off as mere attention seekers, playing to a bored public from the roof of the BBC? It could be arbitrary – the music industry is notoriously fickle, even unfair, but there is something about the complacency of expecting the world to hang on their every word that is shared by so many of those mature acts.

If Liam Howlett opening The Prodigy’s new album with ‘We are the Prodigy’ as if adressing yet another adoring festival crowd wasn’t bad enough, Bono rather sums it all up: ‘U2 is an original species…there are colours and feelings and emotional terrain that we occupy that is ours and ours alone’. If that doesn’t make you yearn for another Neil Young electronica album, then it should.