While my guitar gently consoles

Bad news, pop pickers. Phil “In the Air Tonight” Collins is hanging up his drumsticks and will be singing and playing no more. His retirement has nothing to do with being the “tormented weirdo” that has been portrayed in the press (he has apparently become rather obsessed by the Battle of the Alamo); Phil says he simply wants to spend more time with his sons. Meanwhile, a rather more problematic pop veteran, Gary Glitter, is reported to have been seen queuing for an audition on The X Factor.

Luckily for those who like the older pop star, there are more positive developments. It is becoming something of a trend among established public figures of a certain age to get in touch with their inner rocker. Indeed, one of them has launched a late musical career with a song co-written and made famous by Gary Glitter.

Appearing in the TV show Glee, Gwyneth Paltrow plays the part of a teacher. The song she chooses to perform to her class of students, writhing about and opening her shirt, may surprise a few viewers – it was written by a convicted paedophile and contains the chorus “Do you want to touch me there? Where? You know where!” – but then rock’n’roll is nothing without the odd moral contradiction.

The bigger question is why a famous Oscar-winning actress in her late thirties should want to sing, strum the guitar and generally make a musical fool of herself. Paltrow has apparently so much enjoyed singing in Glee and in a new film called Country Strong that she has just agreed to record an album of country and western songs.

Her career flip is part of a new trend. Last year the Hollywood actor Tim Robbins released an album of his own songs and hit the road with his band. Kevin Costner is no longer merely an actor but the lead singer of Kevin Costner and the Modern West. Steve Martin, who has always used his banjo as a comic prop, went serious in 2009 and has played at the Festival Hall and the Grand Ole Opry. Over here, Ade Edmondson has reinvented himself as a folk/punk troubadour and tours with his band the Bad Shepherds. Loyd Grossman fronts a punk band called The New Forbidden. Phill Jupitus seems to be edging away from comedy into music. From that other branch of showbusiness – politics – the former Home Secretary Alan Johnson emerged as a frustrated rock star soon after his party slipped from government.

What these people have in common is that, in their different careers, they are no longer travelling hopefully, but have arrived. For each of them, playing in a rock or country band is not a career move. They have seen enough of fame to know that the trappings of a rock lifestyle are utterly worthless.

Tim Robbins described writing and performing songs as a mid-life crisis, but I suspect that the very opposite is going on. Far from childishly clinging to youth, these late-blooming musicians are expressing their financial and professional freedom in a sensible way. They are growing up. Music, they have seen, is good therapy. It’s fun.

Writing and performing songs connects to other people in a way which is more direct, less contaminated by spin and business, than acting, comedy or politics. As Kevin Costner put it, “Fuck it, what do I have to lose but maybe some of the best times of my life?”

If you read the memoirs of any ageing rock star – Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Keith Richards – the same essential message emerges: through all the madness and hype, it has been the music itself which has kept them going. No doubt Paltrow will be mocked by journalists programmed to believe that singing songs on a stage is all about cash, fame and parties, but she and the other high-profile strummers and singers have something useful to teach the rest of us. Forget celebrity. Leave it to Gary Glitter to queue for The X Factor. It is the music that matters.

Independent, Friday, 11 March 2011