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Why do we demand music of the dead?

By Chloe Holt

It is no secret that the world’s most famous artists are beloved in both life and death – take Freddie Mercury, for example. He was an incredible vocalist, flamboyant public figure and pioneer in the 20th century gay community, and, despite Bohemian Rhapsody being a film dedicated to the creation and journey of Queen, it inevitably focussed on Mercury as the icon we still love today. Whitney Houston is another on the long list of gone-too-soon celebrities. Alongside the plentiful documentaries and films claiming to be a biopic of the late singer’s life leading to her untimely death, throughout 2019 there was talk of a new Whitney tour. Whilst I appreciate how much technology has advanced, it is unnerving that it has advanced so rapidly that a holographic tour was even suggested – and what’s even worse is that people bought tickets. Due to start touring in 2020 through to 2021, Whitney’s hologram is promised to be the closest people will ever get to seeing her live once again. There’s a very obvious reason that her adoring fans won’t get to see her actually perform live again, but it seems people are in denial, and there’s still too great of a demand for the artists to deliver, even in death.

Elvis Presley was rumoured to be transformed into a hologram back in 2017 for the very same reason. In one respect, I understand why it would be considered: such classic artists made music which would never get old, music which is enjoyed by more than just the generation who were around when the artist first stepped into the limelight, so if you got the chance to see the closest thing to the actual singer, why wouldn’t you? When you watch these documentaries and remakes about a star’s life it is clear that they were very much under the strain of the music industry and, at one point or another, being the most famous person on the planet – the documentary film, ‘Amy’, illustrates this well, and rather than making me want Amy Winehouse reborn in technological form and do a UK tour, it makes me appreciate the music she made that much more, and makes me increasingly sympathetic towards the life she lived and how a hounding fanbase can take a toll on someone (in addition to everything else a person may be going through).

This has come to light after the recent and surprising announcement on the late Mac Miller’s Instagram page. A statement made by his estate (and his family) which discussed the release of a new album in January 2020. This album was apparently well in the works at the sudden death of the artist and has been respectfully completed by his collaborator on the album, Jon Brion. What is admirable is that this album isn’t being released due to incredulous public demand resulting in the artist’s former label compiling an album of discarded or leftover songs which didn’t make it onto previous albums. The family have acknowledged that this is a complicated and surreal process, which appears to be different from other posthumous releases. Reassuringly, there will be no holographic tour. Mac Miller will have released music he was working on, rather than music demanded of him after death.

What is so complicated about this is whether the artist would have released this music had they been alive. Do they want potentially more personal or private music being issued into the world when, in reality, they made it to keep for themselves? When someone’s not around to say yes or no, with their approval ultimately being disregarded or posthumously assumed, it leaves an uneasy taste in the mouth. In the case of Mac Miller, it is music he would have released. But are the “new” collaborations with Michael Jackson’s vocals or Whitney Houston’s riffs which we have seen dominate the charts really moral? It’s rather remarkable that after her death, Amy Winehouse’s former representation, Universal Music UK, demolished the remaining demos for a potential third album so that no one could make a monster out of her legacy. All posthumous albums, or albums which were never albums in the first place, do is highlight what’s missing: the person. It’s like seeing the chalk outline of a body, so why do we want them? Are we lured into false pretences that because an artist died too soon, their best work must have been ahead of them, leaving them fair game for new music releases? I’m not convinced.

(Image from Rolling Stone)

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