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Prince, Peep, Petty: How we memorialize departed artists

Whenever a famous musician dies, there are countless social media posts, candlelight vigils and craven deals for their vaults. Most of the time it revolves around older artists with their best work in the rearview. David Bowie, Prince and Tom Petty all had lengthy careers built on a large fan base and decades of albums. Their deaths were followed by a rehash of their career rather than a tearful ode to what could have been. Recently, there has been an unfortunate examination of young artists after they too have died. Mac Miller, Lil Peep and XXXTentacion died this past year long before their artistic peaks, before anyone knew what their true impact would be. Miller could’ve delivered a classic album, Lil Peep may have had a run of top-five hits and XXXTentacion’s actions could’ve lead to a national conversation on separating art from artist. Their deaths force us to wonder, each creating our own future with them. 

As soon as a celebrity of any note dies, every fan comes out of the woodwork. Casual or fervent, it does not matter — everyone posts the same tribute on Instagram. No matter the musician, whether it be Bowie, Miller or Prince, each user posts an iconic photo matched with an equally famous lyric topped off with “RIP” or the excruciating line, “Rest Easy.” The social media deluge is usually then followed by a constant drone of the deceased artist’s music on all possible mediums. 

An older musician dying serves as both a tragedy and an ability to reflect. When Prince and Bowie died, many people went back into their catalogs and listened to their masterpieces. Streaming technology has gifted everyone the capability to listen to most music whenever they please. This caused old artists to find new life with new generations even as they entered the great beyond. 

With a young musician's death, reflection is often more difficult. A listener is tasked with looking for clues to their death in many cases. Miller and Lil Peep both died of accidental drug overdoses related to fentanyl (as did Petty and Prince). Fans not only went back into the catalogs to mourn, but also to rationalize the artists' deaths. Both Miller's and Lil Peep’s albums jumped higher in chart rankings after their deaths, and XXXTentacion’s album still remains high on the Billboard Hot 100 and 200 following his murder. Combing through records is a ritual performed by many fans after any album release, but searching for truth beyond an icon seems especially morose.

Lil Peep was on the verge of becoming a genuine pop talent. His music, a blend between emo and rap, captured fans with its raw and rugged sound. Lil Peep had the face, the charisma and the talent to leap into the stratosphere of musical fame. His estate seems to be shepherding his work and recently released a posthumous album called “Come Over When You’re Sober Pt. 2” and a documentary produced by director Terrence Malik.

Both Lil Peep and Miller were unmarred by controversy, leading to a major outpouring of support following their deaths. In contrast, XXXTentacion does not share that luxury. While an experimental and popular artist, XXXTentacion’s music cannot be separated from his assault charges and the confession that recently surfaced online. The alleged assault on his pregnant girlfriend had always tainted XXXTentacion’s career and now his legacy. Nevertheless, in both life and death, his music seems immune to boycott. His final album “?” went No. 1 on Billboard’s charts, and the lead single “Sad!” continues to garner plenty of plays on Spotify — even after they removed it from their top playlists due to the allegations. Before his death, XXXTentacion seemed to be putting forth a new persona of genteel understanding, but could not fully embark on an apology tour before his death. 

XXXTentacion was awarded Best New Artist at the American Music Awards last month. Many saw this as undeserving and only given in the wake of his death. XXXTentacion, more than Lil Peep and Miller, attracted a huge subculture following. Millions of young kids and teens stream his music. Each fan looked past his disgusting misdeeds for his seemingly honest music. Now there is no opportunity to reckon with it. 

It is hard to come to terms with death of any sort. Rationalizing the death of a celebrity, especially a revered artist, is profoundly difficult. Wading through capitalistic estates and labels while trying to preserve your own sense of fandom leads to a debate among your inner voice. To love the artist that existed or to absolve oneself of their life and worship at their fallen altar? The music outlasts the artist always, so just listen to that. 

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