“Rock and roll is getting old. This hasn’t been a secret; it’s been written on the faces of the biggest stars of the genre over the past few decades.
“And with this ageing, we are increasingly seeing different types of death claiming our idols.”
RMIT music industry lecturer, Dr Catherine Strong, wrote these words in The Conversation in the wake of the death of iconic rock star David Bowie.
But they reflect the wealth of scholarship to be found in her recent book, Death and the Rock Star, co-edited with Barbara Lebrun of the University of Manchester in England.
Published by Ashgate, the book examines the ways in which the deaths of popular musicians trigger new affective, aesthetic and commercial responses to their life and work.
Strong, who teaches in the Bachelor of Arts (Music Industry), said: “The myth of musicians dying young and beautiful (the so-called 27 Club) has been powerful for many years.
“But as the rock industry gets older, we’re seeing more musicians dying at advanced ages and from different causes.
“Our book looks at the way fellow musicians, producers, fans and the media react to the deaths of stars as diverse as Elvis Presley, Donna Summer, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, GG Allin, Ian Curtis, Tupac Shakur, André Hazes and Fela Kuti.”
Contributions are grouped into four themes:
- The intersection between the music industry, and notions of death and taboo.
As Strong and Lebrun write in the opening chapter: “Popular musicians, as one kind of mediated celebrities, have sometimes challenged social conventions around death by displaying their physical vulnerability during performance, and by defiling and modifying their bodies in a manner that goes against the death taboos of discretion, health and self-control.”
- Mediating the dead
Contributors look at the way that celebrity deaths are given form and meaning by relatives, colleagues, journalists, songwriters, producers, museum curators, commercial lobbies and town planners.
- The labouring dead
The deaths of rock stars live on through obituaries, biographies, exhibitions, movies and memorials. A chapter by Strong on how the activity of family members, fans, journalists and municipal leaders led to Melbourne streets being named after dead artists.
The final section looks at how artists can “live on” after death.
“Posthumous duets” were first developed in the 1950s, with the voice of a dead artist taped and mixed alongside that of a living person. Now, the fine-tuning of CGI techniques allows for complete audio-visual performances to be created that show dead artists as if alive.
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Story: David Glanz