Pop music mourns its dead in shades of feeling and opportunism. The tone was set when Buddy Holly and two other rock and roll singers, Ritchie Valens and JP Richardson, died in a plane crash in 1959. A week later a Californian radio DJ called Tommy Dee had readied a tribute record, “Three Stars”, which sold a lot more than 1m copies. (Dee tried the very same when Patsy Cline and two other nation singers died in an additional plane crash in 1963, but the record flopped.)
Over the decades, with the expanding roll-contact of renowned deaths, commemoration has grow to be an market. Archive recordings are tricked out for posthumous release — this year witnessed the 60th Jimi Hendrix album to seem since his demise in 1970. Box-sets act as portable funerary monuments, a mini-necropolis for living-area shelves.
Amongst the most current is a 17-CD collection of Lou Reed’s solo albums, packaged in a tomblike black slab and remastered below Reed’s “direct individual supervision”. It was, intones the label, Sony Legacy Recordings, with grave emphasis, “his last project”.
This year’s crop of deaths has tested pop’s mourning capacity to the limit. It began with David Bowie dying in January at the age of 69. Then Prince, 57, followed 3 months later. Leonard Cohen, 82, died in November. Christmas brought news of George Michael’s death at 53. Each was a shock.
Cohen was frail, while Bowie turned out to have been gravely ill — but each released effective albums ahead of their deaths. The songs have been suffused with an awareness of mortality, yet they possessed a force that recommended that their makers have been somehow inextinguishable. Even though Prince’s current releases had been far more erratic in quality, he remained an apparently ageless live performer. Michael’s health was precarious but he reportedly planned generating new music in 2017.
The quartet’s deaths prompted familiar responses. There were makeshift shrines and impromptu wakes, like these at Graceland following Elvis Presley died in 1977 or at the Dakota Constructing following John Lennon’s murder in 1980. Tribute concerts were held, as they have been for other greats. At Freddie Mercury’s tribute show at Wembley Stadium in 1992, Bowie, who was at that point in the artistic doldrums — held up as the acme of the embarrassing middle-aged rock star — was mocked for falling melodramatically to his knees and reciting the Lord’s prayer.
Yet there was an edge to this year’s mourning. The felling of four key figures from numerous different eras of music gave the impression of an complete tradition under threat. “I know something is extremely incorrect,” Bowie sang on Blackstar, released two days ahead of he died, an album of dislocated, jazz-rock time signatures and topsy-turvy imagery. Our sense of loss at his death, the notion that we would by no means see his like once more, carried a new note of anxiousness. Why will we by no means see his like once again?
Tributes left for George Michael © Getty
Pop music is constantly altering. Unpredictable trends blow across its landscape like climate fronts. The audience is passionate but temporary most folks quit listening to new music in their late 20s. Bowie was a maestro at managing the alterations but the majority of performers are undone by them. Tommy Dee, Holly’s memorialist, is one particular of many thousands of one particular-hit wonders.
Endings loom massive. At the most basic level there is the unit of the song itself, an abbreviated knowledge lasting 3 minutes or so. The finish is often nigh, delivered by a dramatic final flourish of drums or a slow fade into silence. The life or death of the song depends on our willingness to play it again.
Revolving around the weekly battle in the charts, pop is defined by competition. Genres are set in opposition to each other, rivals contending for dominance. “Death to hippies” was punk’s slogan as it vied to kill off progressive rock. “You are now watching the greatest living rock star on the planet,” Kanye West announced throughout his headline set at Glastonbury in 2015, a harbinger of rap supremacy.
Rock and roll’s demise was imagined as early as 1957 when The Maddox Brothers and Rose, advertising themselves as “America’s most colourful hillbilly band”, released a single called “The Death of Rock and Roll”, a sardonic take on Elvis Presley’s “I Got a Woman”. In 1969, The Doors added their own stamp to the theme with a bluesy jam, “Rock Is Dead”, which ended with Jim Morrison announcing: “As long as I got breath, the death of rock is the death of me.”
Morrison died in 1971. That year Don McLean sang about “the day the music died” in his hit “American Pie”. The reference was not to the ill-fated Lizard King, identified dead in a Paris bathtub, but to the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly. McLean viewed it as the juncture when US pop lost its innocence. Even in the peak year of 1971 — music writer David Hepworth argues in his most current book, 1971: Never ever a Dull Moment that it was rock’s high-water mark — even then the music could be portrayed as having lost its way.
Over the previous decade the threnodies have accelerated. Album sales have plummeted, with 2016 shaping up to be the worst-performing year in the US since sales have been first tracked in 1991. Digital streaming and internet platforms represent the largest change to listening habits since the advent of radio in the 1920s. Throughout this intense period of transformation, “death of rock” forecasts have been superseded by other extinction events: “death of the album”, “death of the charts”, even “death of the music industry”.
Insisting that pop is dead is generational hoarding, a belief that it ended when one’s personal interest waned
Amid the accumulation of morbid rhetoric, the deaths of Bowie, Prince, Cohen and Michael felt like a tipping point, the moment when a metaphor became real. Though from different generations and backgrounds, they occupied a equivalent musical climate, primarily based about a cluster of main record labels and a normal stream of revenue from recorded music sales. It was not an excellent planet: Prince and Michael spent much of the 1990s in furious disputes with their record labels. But it was stable. Absolutely everyone knew how it operated, even if they chafed against it.
These days have ended. Pop music now is a confusing tangle of diverse interests. Record labels are challenged by tech companies. The numbers of musicians and recordings develop even though revenues fall. PRS for Music, which collects royalties on behalf of UK songwriters, saw its membership rise from 70,000 in 2010 to 112,000 in 2015.
Uncertain of what lies ahead, it is natural to dwell on the death of what came just before. The mistake arises in assuming that pop music itself is dying.
Every single generation believes the music it grew up listening to is the very best. Condescension cuts both ways. For every traditionalist who abhors the computerised warbling of Auto-Tune, there is a current pop fan to whom anything made before 2010 is prehistoric.
But the dismissal is specifically ungenerous when directed by these who have stopped listening to new music towards those who do. Insisting that pop is dying or dead is a form of generational hoarding, a belief that it ended when one’s personal interest waned.
We will not see the likes of David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen or George Michael once more. The conditions that produced them have changed as well considerably. But the thought that pop is a historical quirk, lasting roughly 40 years from the mid-1950s, diminishes their legacy. They are less wonderful than we thought if the music stops with them.
Illustration by Sarah Hanson
Photograph: Getty Images
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