The Birth of the Posthumous Comeback
February 28, 2012
It’s funny how death transforms people. As if in death, we are more glorious than we were in life. As if all of our sins are absolved, and we stand (or rather lie down) as beings of greatness. Jacqueline Kennedy famously said of her fallen husband, “Now, he is a legend when he would have preferred to be a man.” Once you are six feet under, it doesn’t particularly matter what people think of you. Dead is dead. But that has never stopped all of our sentimental hearts from re-remembering the past.
There are those for whom fame occurs only after their death— typically artists or writers like Van Gogh, Kafka, or Poe. There are those who die tragically at the apex of their career, only enlarging their fame—Kurt Cobain, James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, and even JFK. And then there are those like Whitney Houston whose sudden and recent death has helped to create an entirely new school of dying, what I’m calling the “posthumous comeback.”
Sadly yet ironically, Whitney’s death has led to the rebirth of her career. For the last 15 years, Whitney hasn’t been publicly characterized as the musical genius that everyone knows her to be. No one was talking about the voice that made “The Greatest Love of All” or “I Will Always Love You” seem like child’s play. No, over the past fifteen years, Ms. Houston slowly unraveled her perfect public image, replacing the runs in “One Moment in Time” with her infamously candid “Crack is whack” speech. As of 2012, things weren’t looking up for Whitney… until she died, that is.
Since her death, no one can stop talking about her. She’s all over the 24-hour news cycle, sales of her songs are up astronomically, and the entire Grammy’s were essentially dedicated to her. Whitney hasn’t seen this much airtime since Lifetime started running The Bodyguard at 2:00 in the morning on Wednesdays. Not that I occasionally watched that or anything. In other words, Whitney Houston has pulled off a posthumous comeback.
However, you may be asking: how is a posthumous comeback different than any other kind of celebrity death? Doesn’t death in general lead to a “comeback,” if you will? How many stars are more famous in death than in life?
And while death does tend to inspire a sort of group nostalgia therapy, the posthumous comeback is a different beast entirely. The posthumous comebacks are a rather exclusive bunch that have to fit a few stringent pre-requisites.
Pre-requisite 1: In life, the person had to be a star. Not just a popular figure with a few notable contributions. But a huge, enormously talented star.
Pre-requisite 2: At their time of death, said blinding genius of a star has to be far past their prime. Of course, they are still very important and very influential, but honestly their best days are behind them, and they have become largely irrelevant in modern dialogue.
Pre-requisite 3: The star in question isn’t just past their prime. They have fallen out of public favor. Perhaps a scandal, drugs, general debauchery, etc. In any case, despite their talent, they are no longer the people’s darling.
Pre-requisite 4: The star has to die a sudden, untimely, and likely unnatural death.
Strangely enough, if the stars align and these four requirements are met, we have on our hands a posthumous comeback, or the sudden resurrection of an otherwise unresurrectable career via death. The unresurrectable part can be interpreted loosely, but let’s face it. Whitney, like many of her posthumous comeback peers, wasn’t going to claw her way back to the top.
Behold, the Godfather of the Posthumous Comeback: John Lennon. You know the story. Lennon was half of Lennon and McCartney, the writing duo behind this little group known as The Beatles. You may have heard of them—they sort of were a big deal. But flash forward to 1980, when Lennon died, and things weren’t looking so great. The public was still miffed about Yoko Ono, John was living away from the public eye as a househusband, and his last big success was the brilliant and iconic “Imagine,” which he had released nine years earlier. All of his other more recent albums were widely panned by critics. His album “Double Fantasy,” which was released three weeks before his death, received scathing reviews. Pre-requisites 1-4: met. Of course, once he was shot, those reviews were retracted, and Lennon became known as the legend he is now recognized to be.
Michael Jackson, however, gave birth to the modern posthumous comeback. When he died suddenly at the age of 50, Jackson was known mostly for his plastic-surgery-stricken face, his lack of a nose, the whole black to white ethnic question, the holding his baby (fondly known as “Blanket”) off the balcony, and oh yes, the whole pedophilia issue that played out in court. He hadn’t released an album in years, and he was barely referred to in the musical arena. Pre-requisites 1-4: met in spades.
However, despite his lack of public appeal at the time, there isn’t a person in this country that couldn’t tell you where they were when they found out Michael Jackson had died. I don’t need to remind you that post-mortem it was Michael-Jackson-Palooza. His decades-old CDs sold out in stores, commemorative t-shirts were made seemingly overnight, and the news channels literally didn’t take a bathroom break for months because they were too busy covering his death. Try making a Michael Jackson joke now without getting countered with a sassy “But he’s a musical genius!” retort. Which he is. But still, a posthumous comeback, nevertheless.
Now, I don’t want to be in the business of predicting posthumous comebacks. I hear speaking of death isn’t becoming of a young lady. However, Courtney Love, I’m begging you, hang in there. I know that you have been having trouble for pretty much as long as I have been alive, but you have things to do besides starting hysterically funny battles over the internet. For instance, Ed Norton isn’t married just yet. Live Through This is an offensively underrated album, and you are far better than people give you credit for. Feel appreciated. Don’t die. But if you do, I’d like to thank you in advance for proving my theory correct.