Pop Conference 2019: "Only You and Your Ghost Will Know: Music, Death and Afterlife"
Popular music has long been centrally concerned with death and the afterlife. Songs, recordings, and musical traditions have expressed both mourning and celebration and have—in some cases—helped envision the possibilities of a continued existence where “death is not the end.” From gospel to metal and beyond, music pays tribute to the departed, offers opportunities for ceremony and commemoration, and helps to process tragedies both personal and public. It even blurs the boundaries between states of life and death, offering sonic and symbolic evidence for hauntings, purgatories, and the continued presence of ancestors in the lives of the earthbound. Genres, formats, and media exist in a continual process of transformation, decay, and re-emergence—and boost both active artists and defunct (or deceased) ones. Songs and performances are reborn through new versions, different contexts, and changing relationships with audiences.
Beyond this, pop music cycles through its own series of “deaths” and “afterlives.” The work of the deceased is remixed, reclaimed, and reconstituted by new generations of musicians, scholars, compilers, and fan communities, while record companies, museums, tourist sites, and others preserve, profit from, and sometimes fetishize their memory. (These commemorations have taken on a distinctively digital character in the era of social media, YouTube, holograms, and the continued use of sampling.) And pop music—in its many forms—offers a cultural afterlife for sounds and populations that have been dispersed and displaced, helping to form new communities and maintain connections to those that have been lost.
While a constant concern, recent years have only amplified these dynamics. A wave of prominent musician deaths, from David Bowie to Aretha Franklin, has amplified conversations over music’s relationship to mortality and the nature of fan mourning in the digital age. (Some of these attempts, like the proposed use of a Prince hologram at the 2017 Super Bowl, have been greeted with controversy.) Public tragedies from killings marked by #BlackLivesMatter memorials to ongoing refugee crises have been suffused with music as both sustenance and response, while the rise of mass shootings at music venues from Paris to the Pulse nightclub provoked specific responses from affected artists and audiences as well as a broader championing of music as a means of memorial and healing. And, across genre and language, music continues to contend with the questions of life, death, and potential resurrection as a central subject matter and metaphor for conversations ranging from the economics of streaming to the health of genres like country and hip-hop.