Ever since Hollywood heartthrob Heath Ledger died last week, there have been constant cries of devotion and praise: “Ledger is the new James Dean,” “He was one of the best actors of our generation” and so forth. His lasting effect on the film world is yet to be seen, but he’s been heralded by many as deeply influential, placed on the same level as many of Hollywood’s other fallen stars. Whether or not he actually materializes as this prophetic symbol, Ledger and other stars who suffered early deaths represent something much more interesting and hint at a macabre mindset: The artistic world needs dead superstars.

Though Ledger is the latest artistic martyr, these losses are more prevalent and widespread in music – to name a few, Robert Johnson, Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis, Notorious B.I.G. and Jimi Hendrix. And while their deaths were tragic and unexpected, coming at the height of their careers, their untimely departures not only cemented their legendary status but also saved the musical canon from all the disastrous artistic missteps they could have taken. These deaths are necessary to establish a catalog of mythic artists of unreachable greatness who have only released stellar material.

Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the musician’s death, whether it’s suicide (accidental or otherwise), murder or natural causes, the artist is almost always thrown into this mythic company. Many speculate as to the motivations behind suicide at the peak of one’s fame, a question that can only be answered with a quizzical shrug of the shoulders and speculation. The other two stand firmly as tragic events. Yet, none of it seems important in relation to the legacy left behind.

Posthumous releases aside, an artist’s death can help solidify what is often a canonical collection of work, making the deceased artist a topic of debate. The tragedies often force fans and critics alike to lament “What if?” What if Nirvana had continued its dominance of mainstream radio and pushed grunge into an even more prominent place in society? What if Ian Curtis hadn’t hung himself and had instead gone on to deliver more heart-wrenchingly gorgeous and haunting albums? What if Robert Johnson had recorded more than 29 songs in his lifetime?

Fundamental to all these speculations is the idea that these artists would have continued to deliver top-notch material and continue to revolutionize music if they hadn’t died. Frankly, it’s an absurd concept and one that needs to be destroyed by fanboys and critics alike.

In a paper delivered at the 2007 Experience Music Project called “B-but what about the test of SPACE?” Mark Sinker argues that music fits into a specific time and scene. For example, Nirvana’s angst-fueled jams wouldn’t have been accepted in the early ’30s. The music exists distinctly where and when it was created and wouldn’t translate to other moments in the musical timeline. Because of this, we need to think about what might have happened, had any of these dead artists survived and continued to make original music.

Take Jimi Hendrix. An artist wholly innovative in his approach and sound, in the late ’60s Hendrix revolutionized the way electric guitar was played. But years after his initial influence, how would he continue to innovate? How would Hendrix have been able to further solidify his legacy if he hadn’t died at the peak of his popularity? As professor Bruce Conforth colloquially argues, he might have been doing techno or something equally revolutionary in the ’70s. Hendrix might be remembered as much a contemporary of Kraftwerk as the Woodstock crowd. But then again, he could have been remembered as someone who squandered an enormous amount of talent, or someone who got lucky on a couple of records. It took Hendrix’s death to make everyone wonder what he could’ve amounted to at the same time saving his legacy from possible embarrassment.

And the same goes for almost all of these musicians. Would grunge have subsisted much longer if Cobain hadn’t died, fending off the swarms of pop-metal cookie-cutter bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit? The answer is most likely a resounding “no.” Cobain quite possibly could’ve run Nirvana into the ground, insistent on sticking to grunge and producing several forgettable records. Would Notorious B.I.G. have run the gamut of great records and innovative flows, or would he have fizzled out over several shoddy releases the way his successor Jay-Z did? Recent hip-hop trends – Nas, Public Enemy, Rakim – tend toward the latter.

It seems then, that society relishes in the occasional demise of these young artists. It not only gives us something to talk about but also helps us gauge greatness, establishing a standard by which other work can be judged. And though we don’t anticipate these losses, we’re not entirely upset by them. Despite what your favorite blog might say.

Gaerig is just jealous dead people are more famous than him. Console him at cgaerig@umich.edu

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