“Thinking about how we mourn artists we’ve never met. We don’t cry because we knew them, we cry because they helped us know ourselves.” (taken from Huffington Post, 15/01/2016).
2016 has been a strange year which saw fans bid goodbye to their favourite artists like Prince, Bowie and Leonard Cohen. In the wake of their deaths, what can we learn about how their music and image are presented in the afterlife?
Words like ‘legend’ getting banded about, specials on radio and TV and a feeling of devastation being evident in social media are all commonplace when a pop icon dies. Tributes, shrines and stories that dominate the media over politics can all be seen. Death becomes a vehicle for us to outpour personal emotion en masse. The potential arises for the ‘music industry’ and media to create a narrative history and commodify an artist’s passing. Looking at Prince and Amy Winehouse as examples, how does post-mortem pop play out?
When a so-called legend dies, there are immediate social media posts galore, with people seemingly clamouring to define what the artist meant to them. An interesting and humorous take on this phenomenon is written about in Michael Legge’s blogpost from 2016, following Prince’s death, where he waxes lyrical about the tendency to make the death of someone we never knew all about us. This is unavoidable though, given the nature of music and its effect on individual meaning and identity-making. Schutz (1951, p88) speaks of the evocative nature of music existing in “inner time”, which is inter-dimensional; the stream of consciousness participates in an interplay of recollections, retentions, protentions and anticipations meaningful to composer and beholder that in its essence goes beyond the temporal boundaries of life and death. The legend in that sense lives on, and the person appreciating the music has feelings which are conjured up each time pieces of music are played. What Schutz probably could not have envisaged in 1951, however, was that the image of the composer, helped (and hindered) along by media proliferation, becomes the ‘star of the show’ as opposed to the music itself. Music, a powerful badge of identity, particularly strong when created through adolescent ‘fandoms’ is coupled with a ‘plurudimensional’ relationship between listener and artist that goes beyond the music. Music makes us ‘feel something’ (Frith 1998) and the “inner and private soul” which it expresses has an origin. That origin is the artist that creates or communicates it. It is that artist then, that becomes the object of worship.
Creating a history…
Amy, about the late Amy Winehouse, offers an individual life story. As a viewer, we are in danger of falling into the trap of being presented with a ‘full’ history, which is, of course, impossible. We are always watching a film maker’s vision, a piece of art, a point of view, an author-driven project. The Britannia series, as well as the ‘rockumentary’ style, all-encompassing totalising histories, like The Joy Of Disco, are often full of sweeping statements to fit a given narrative. In the case of Amy, we are not only presented with a certain degree of totalising history regarding her music, but see an example of how music documentaries become more about the personal lives of artists, a narrative whereby music becomes a ‘secondary feature’, sometimes ‘relegated to the soundtrack’ rather than the main focus (Long and Wall, 2010, p16). Simon Frith, as cited by Long and Wall, has suggested that ‘music is omnipresent on television in short, but the television experience is rarely just about music’ (Frith, 2003, p280). Certain events are highlighted over others, with cause and effect interwoven into an unfolding story. In the case of Winehouse, it is easy to see how ‘storylines’ of love affairs and drug abuse become intertwined with the overall narrative of her as a musician. Given that her music owes so much to these influences, which are presented as all consuming and an integral part of her musical make-up, that may seem inevitable.
References / Bibliography
Frith, S. ‘Look! Hear! The Uneasy Relationship Of Music And Television’, Popular Music 21/3 (2002), p. 280.
Frith, S. 1998, Performing rites: evaluating popular music, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Legge, M. 2016. “Arsehole formerly known as David” http://michaelleggesblog.blogspot.co.uk/2016/04/arsehole-formally-known-as-david.html
Long, P. & Wall, T. 2010, “Jazz Britannia: mediating the story of British jazz on television”, Jazz Research Journal, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 145.
SCHÜTZ, A. 1951, “MAKING MUSIC TOGETHER: A Study in Social Relationship”, Social Research, vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 76-97
Thornton, S. 1990, “Strategies for reconstructing the popular past”, Popular Music, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 87-95.