Thursday, November 6, 2014

Death has a funny way of improving musicians

Any time an artist "dies too soon" - Amy Winehouse, Tupac Shakur, Jimi Hendrix - everyone assumes the artist would have gotten better. There is always the assumption of something great on the horizon: "He died at his peak." "He died just as he was truly finding his voice."

How come no one ever assumes they would have gotten worse? Why doesn't anyone proclaim that artistic burnout was just around the bend? Think about it, when people discuss musicians, they almost always say:

"I liked his early stuff better."

"They had that one good album..."

The common term for a disappointing album is a "sophomore slump," not a "seventh album slump."

With all the examples of artists who had one or two good records and then a lifetime of failing to replicate them, does it really make sense to always give dead young artists the benefit of the doubt?

Plus the posthumous stuff is nearly always a mixed bag (at best). Granted, the work may be unfinished or edited in ways the artist wouldn't have chosen. But still...if we're so assured that genius was just around the bend, why isn't the proof ever in the pudding?

What's funny is that we're just as forceful in our ridicule of artists who do keep going! How many times have the Rolling Stones had to answer for wanting to do another tour? Apparently they never learned the marketing lesson of dying early to keep folks pining for what could have been (not that Keith Richards didn't try).

If Axl Rose had died in '92, we would have been saved the cornrows. If Dylan had died at the release party for Blood on the Tracks, we wouldn't have had to suffer through his "Christian period."

Almost no one artist gets better with age, so it seems like a hell of a coincidence that every single artist whose "fire burned out too soon" was just about to give us a triple album of gold. In his farewell letter, Kurt Cobain apparently quoted Neil Young: "It's better to burn out than to fade away." By burning out, Cobain probably saved us the agony of watching him muddle through a twenty-year "experimental phase."

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