It is the tenth anniversary of the death of Amy Winehouse. On 23rd July 2011, her name was added to those of the so-called “27 Club”, famous musicians who died at the age of twenty-seven. Among the others to die at the age are Brian Jones, formerly a member of the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Kurt Cobain. Each will remain forever young figures.
The sudden death of artists seems to bring a wave of interest in their work.
Elvis Presley’s final single Way down, recorded in 1976, was a minor hit the following summer and was falling in the charts when news came of his sudden death in August 1977. Sales immediately escalated and the song reached No 1 in the charts. The murder of John Lennon in December 1980 was followed by massive sales for successive single releases.
Listening to tributes to Amy Winehouse, there is a sense that people’s perceptions of artists are changed by the artists’ demise. People previously indifferent become interested, even the critical became charitable.
Being dead obviously brings with it the advantage of never looking old, of remaining forever the figure from album covers and posters, of being remembered for one’s best work. Being dead means one’s catalogue is complete and one’s work will never be diluted by later less successful, less energetic, less inspired songs.
But why have posthumous hits a continuing fascination? More than fifty years after her death, why is there still a delight in hearing Janis Joplin singing Me and Bobby McGee?
Perhaps there is a psychological explanation for posthumous recollections of artists. Perhaps it stems from the ancient fear of speaking ill of the dead. Perhaps it is about safeguarding against one’s own fear of death by keeping alive the memories of those who have died. Perhaps it is about preserving part of the culture in which one has shared.
Perhaps the continuing popularity of dead artists, the sale of their records decades after their death, is about a desire that has been with us since ancient times, the desire to hold on to youthfulness.
As long as the artists remain with us, as long as their work still finds a place on the airwaves, then something of our younger years remains alive.
Presumably those of us who treasure the memories of Janis Joplin will be superseded by those of us who remember Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, who will in turn be superseded by those who of us remember Amy Winehouse.
Strangely, perhaps dead popular artists contribute to our sense of well-being.