Yesterday’s surprise release (sort of) of Aaliyah’s first track off her posthumous, Drake-produced album got me thinking about three things: dead people, holograms, and the phrase “worth more dead than alive.” This year so far has seen disturbing trends in dead people coming artificially and, for those who own the rights to their work, fortuitously back to life. First, in February, there was Whitney Houston’s death, which was soon followed up by press for Sparkle, a posthumously Whitney-starred drama set for release later this month. Later there was the notorious Tupac Shakur hologram, which made its controversial appearance at Coachella in April. Now, after teasing news of a Drake-produced Aaliyah album, plus a first track, “Enough Said”, it’s becoming hard to feel that dead people as avatars inspire much more interesting conversations than living people with live shows and tours and a living, breathing presence. At the first news of Aaliyah’s widowed tracks being commandeered and revived by Drake’s life-breathing influence, people flocked from all corners of the internet to put in their two cents. The sanctity of the dead should be preserved! Timbaland should be involved! Let’s get Missy in on this!
Unfortunately for the indignant public, there’s really no such thing, in modern times, as “rest in peace.” At least, not for artists. It’s hard to imagine now, but the day is coming in a few years’ time when all of us will be engaged in heated YouTube comment battles about whether or not it’s respectful of Miley Cyrus’s memory to re-release “Party in the USA” remixed with a few added verses by Selena Gomez. There will be those who will fight to the death (on the internet) to respect the purity of Cyrus’s vision. There will be those who will defend to the teeth (on the internet) Gomez’s right to artistic expression via the use of other people’s preexisting artistic expression.
But, of course, both parties will be right and both parties will be wrong at the same time because, shockingly enough, there really isn’t presently an answer to the problem of appropriating dead peoples’ art, meaning, or political intent to say something possibly completely different. How simple it would be if there were. In the age of remixes, mash-ups, and public domain, everything belongs to everyone, unless there is an estate involved, whose sole function it is to sit atop a pile of money and demand that more money be added to the pile if anyone is to have the benefit of using something that can no longer benefit the person who made it because they are dead. And even more obnoxiously, the very thing that is responsible for this kind of artistic commerce is the thing that allows the debates over it to get so heated in the first place. That’s right: the internet. A blessing and a curse, and possibly part of the reason that the phrase ‘worth more dead than alive’ is able to apply to so many famous people–although admittedly, mostly the ones who were famous in the ’90s and are not so much now. An avatar can be multiplied–a hologram can (apparently) be made to say anything. What, then, counts as exploitation?
To be fair, we can’t really help being more interested in people as ideas than in people as people. It’s pretty obvious that we prefer Winehousian tragedies to the endless, maudlin-towards-the-end careers of the likes of Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney. What’s not yet clear–and is becoming more and more muddled–is whether or not we find anything moving or interesting about cases of tragic death in themselves, or whether we see in such deaths an opportunity for the celebrity to become a purer version of itself, a jumble of ideas attached to no reality in particular: an avatar for public, private, or personal use.