Madonna and Bruce Springsteen are 2012's Richest Musicians: All the Money's in Touring

I don't know how much else Madonna and Silvio Berlusconi have in common--her extremely visible fight against aging is going much better than his--but here's one connection: This weekend Italy voted in an election that's serving as a referendum on a decade of economic stagnation caused by, among other things, an intersection of cronyism and regulation that's led to massive youth unemployment. Meanwhile, Billboard announced that the top-grossing pop stars of 2013 were 54-year-old Madonna and 63-year-old Bruce Springsteen.

While we wait for an Ezra Klein think-piece on the subject, it's worth considering the plight of poor Justin Bieber, who finished No. 10 on the list. Will pop culture's leading symbol of its own youth-obsession be able to beat the long-reigning kings and queens of pop in 2014, or will he have to be 50 himself before he tops this chart?

If this year's list is any indication, it might be a while. The top acts are all either nostalgia trips or country music acts, who've built up enormously successful tours and still sell a lot of physical albums. The only outliers ahead of Bieber himself are Dave Matthews Band, a well-oiled touring machine, and Coldplay, who seem to have taken it upon themselves to be the last globally successful rock band.

Even Taylor Swift, who apparently sold nearly 16 million digital songs last year and was last not in an issue of People magazine sometime in 2008, clocked in at No. 15. Unless you have a devoted niche or first achieved global fame some time before Bill Clinton became president, it's tough to break into the first rank.

All of this is maybe a little more exaggerated than ever--the baby boomers are an enormous, incredibly wealthy generation, they came of age at the peak of the pop monoculture, and they're uncommonly interested in their own history. Succeeding generations have been more fragmented from pop-culture-birth, which has artificially extended boomer stars' reigns as pop symbols; even now 18-year-olds who feel locked into small-towns and doomed to humdrum lives turn to the Bruce Springsteen instead of inventing their own. Even though they might not care about motorcycles; even though they weren't born until after Human Touch came out.

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(Related boomer-hegemony note: Does that "Faster is better" AT&T TV commercial where a girl who can't be more than eight years old makes a jokey disco reference unnerve anybody else? Her grandparents are probably the only people she knows who were alive in 1977. Will I have to show my children all the goofy things we did in the aughts myself?)

That is, it might be unprecedented that Madonna is so far out in front of this generation's stars so late in her own career, and it might be strange that the nearest non-country competitors from the 90s are Dave Matthews Band, an incredibly successful niche act.

But this sort of thing is inevitable: Pop culture may be permanently tilted toward the youthful and novel, but the pop culture tastes of actual, job-holding adults are just as locked on what was youthful and novel when they were young.

Madonna has had 30 years to work out her image and figure out how to make money. And aside from touring, which remains lucrative for everybody, newer acts will find her particular blueprint unworkable for anybody whose primary demographic hasn't aged at the same rate they have.

Younger acts are constrained by allowances, then, like always. But they're also constrained by their unlucky position on the front-lines of a rapidly changing music market: Maybe the most surprising thing I learned from Billboard's article was that Justin Bieber made almost exactly as much money selling CDs as he did digital downloads. In 2012! Justin Bieber! Where are Justin Bieber fans even buying CD players?

If a man who wakes every day to find new hashtags constructed in his honor can't work out how to make more money on the internet than he does at what's left of Best Buy, we're still a ways away from anybody reaching Madonna heights.

But someone from his generation will do it. And when they do, all the Beliebers and Directioners asking for iTunes gift cards for Christmas will be just getting out of law school or their residencies and ready to spend real money trying to relive the eighth grade.

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