MINNEAPOLIS — They are three of the biggest living icons in popular music. Make that aging icons. Still, their images are indelible, their music timeless, and their popularity remarkably undying. In fact, when it comes to ticket sales, these geezers are as hot as Justin Bieber.
Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan all are on tour and are filling arenas and concert halls across America.
The Blonde, 54, is on target to have one of the Top 10 tours of all time. The Boss, 63, has not only the biggest tour of 2012 but the biggest of his career. And the Bard, 71, is having a storied year with a Presidential Medal of Freedom and one of his most universally acclaimed albums since the mid-1970s.
Other than being members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, what do these giants of popular culture have in common? Several qualities, actually:
■ They’re visionaries.
When they started recording, they emulated their influences — Woody Guthrie (Dylan), the Supremes (Madonna) and, for Springsteen, Dylan — but each developed a distinctive vision. The Bard became the reluctant spokesman for his generation, an agitator in words and music, a self-styled enigma on many fronts. The Boss became a working-class hero who put on epic concerts and rallied behind underdogs of various stripes. The Blonde became a fiercely independent, media-manipulating, outspoken button-pusher who kept dance floors jumping and fashionistas drooling.
Even though their visions are disparate, “they take live performance really seriously,” said Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis, who has taught courses on Dylan and Springsteen at Penn University. “They go out there with a sense of purpose, a sense of fun, and a sense that you’re all there to have an experience.”
■ They have drive and a work ethic.
Dylan tried to escape small-town isolation. Springsteen never got along with his dad. Madonna lost her mom at a young age. Is that what drives these superstars? Dime-store therapists might say so.
But no one seems to question the Midwestern work ethic of Dylan (from Minnesota) and Madonna (from Michigan), or the blue-collar pedigree of Springsteen (from New Jersey).
“No one works harder than Madonna,” said George Travis, Springsteen’s longtime tour director who also helmed a tour with the Blonde One. She puts in countless hours of brainstorming, creating, and rehearsing, not to mention time in the gym to maintain that buff body.
The Boss could rival Madge for physical condition. In the 1970s, he became legendary for marathon concerts that often stretched beyond three hours. Now, 3 1/2 hours has become the norm.
But who can rival Dylan, the ultimate road warrior? Since he began his Never Ending Tour in 1988, Dylan has played more than 2,500 concerts, averaging about 100 a year.
“He plays a lot of secondary markets that don’t normally get A-list or iconic artists,” said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert journal Pollstar. “Clearly at his age, he doesn’t need to do it.”
■ They stay in shape.
Dylan puts on gloves and boxes. The Boss doesn’t eat or drink anything not approved by his trainer/nutritionist. And both he and Madonna work out like they’re training for the Olympics.
“The physicality of it is important,” said DeCurtis. “The healthier they are, the better they preserve themselves, the better they look, the better your experience is. There’s a big aspirational element to all of this. You want to look up to all three of them.”
■ They create a mystique.
Build a mystery and fans want to unlock it. The young Dylan made up stories about his background. His interviews are few and far between, his pronouncements from the stage as enigmatic as they are rare. Even his 2002 memoir was as confounding as it was revealing.
Springsteen is clearly more extroverted, often telling tales of his life to introduce songs in concert or giving in-depth interviews to promote his albums. But he doesn’t talk about his children and family, and he shares no personal information in his social-network postings.
While Madonna is the master of media manipulation, who really knows the real Madge? Her interviews are like performance art (see her appearances on the David Letterman show). She loves creating a mystery.
“The secret to longevity, as opposed to just being famous, is they’ve kept something back from their audience,” said consultant Pollack. “I think sometimes today artists share too much with their audience. The great ones don’t sit down and tell you what every lyric means, and they don’t need to tell you they went to Starbucks at 3 p.m.”
■ They don’t do greatest-hits shows.
All three continue to make new recordings that, while not always classics or big sellers, are credible.
On Springsteen’s current tour, he has been performing six to eight songs from his recent “Wrecking Ball” album. Madonna usually offers eight selections from 2012’s slow-selling “MDNA.” Then there’s Dylan, ever the iconoclast, who did not play a single song from his widely acclaimed new album “Tempest” in his first 10 shows after it was released in September.
In concert, each icon has a different kind of impact on their audiences — Madonna gives an erotic charge, Springsteen uplifts, and Dylan provokes.
“These three artists are not coasting,” DeCurtis said. “They’re challenging themselves in some way, and that’s exciting. That’s what people go to see.”