You’ve seen the Internet buzz every time a highly anticipated tracklist is released to the public featuring an appearance from an artist who’s no longer with us. Of course, as recording artists, our favourite stars are never really gone. Many of us would do anything to hear their voice one more time. But labels continuing to repurpose these artists’ unfinished demos into new tracks—and even full albums—seems disrespectful to the legacy they left behind.
This week, Mac Miller’s first posthumous verse was released on the Free Nationals track “Time,” which also features Kali Uchis. The week before, TIM, a full album from uplifting pop DJ Avicii, was dropped by Universal Records.
The Free Nationals track is actually pretty fantastic—Miller’s laid-back drawl sounds at home over the smooth funk of the band—but his verse was surely meant to be a part of something else, with an entirely different concept. Now that he’s gone, his unfinished recordings are open to anyone with the right set of connections, fitting into their new narrative and boosting their streaming numbers in the process.
When you take a closer look at TIM, though, the problem of stretching out artists’ careers after they’re no longer here really becomes evident.
Tim Bergling died on April 20, 2018, of suicide, after refusing his label’s demands to plot an extensive tour behind his final EP, Avīci (01).
“Tim was not made for the business machine he found himself in; he was a sensitive guy who loved his fans but shunned the spotlight,” read a statement from his family.
Fourteen months later, that very label is profiting off of his unfinished material. Some of these tracks date as far back as 2013. Quite a few of them have lyrical references to death, and were likely selected for prominent placement on this new project for that reason. Coldplay’s Chris Martin literally sings “I think I just died and went to heaven” on the recently released single titled, what else, “Heaven.”
These tracks were never released for a reason. Who knows what else Bergling might have done with these beats? Sure, Avicii’s music was designed to make huge crowds of people move with some starry-eyed, vaguely inspirational lyrics, but there was always a little spark of innovation behind it.
His hit “Wake Me Up!” was ahead of its time in predicting the yeehaw movement we’re currently in the midst of. He certainly wouldn’t have resorted to this kind of blandness.
It all feels a little too much like “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too”, the recent Black Mirror episode with Miley Cyrus.
People ridiculed the episode for abandoning the Black Mirror realism and making a couple characters cartoonishly evil, with the aunt and manager of Cyrus’s pop-star character putting her in a coma and using computer software to twist the distorted cries for help coming from her brainwaves into a hit song that was generic, happy, and uplifting.
The fact that Avicii’s coproducers have given interviews confirming that some of these new songs only existed as MIDI data, which they then put through a processor and retrieved, adding the new featured artists later, makes it feel eerily similar.
Mac Miller’s old lyrics predicting his early death have become so powerful because he anticipated his own demise. Avicii’s posthumous material doesn’t feel the same.
Why are we trying to replicate his voice and predict what he might have said after the fact? It ties into a larger issue of how much we currently romanticize celebrity deaths.
We should all be thankful that we’re not living in the trainwreck of a year that was 2018 anymore. Part of what made it such a mess was a litany of major musical deaths that many people are still reeling from.
We hear about older legends passing away all the time, but people like Avicii, Miller, XXXTENTACION, and Lil Peep were all at the top of their game, with active, young fanbases awaiting their next move.
There hadn’t really been artist who left us at her peak since Amy Winehouse in 2011, and last year, they came all at once.
It may have changed the way we react to celebrity deaths. An artist’s sales always skyrocket briefly after their passing, but now that period of elevated popularity never ends. They become a sort of messianic, romanticized figure.
The Twenty One Pilots song “Neon Gravestones” outlines the phenomenon well, as frontman Tyler Joseph implores his fans not to glorify him and “move on to someone else” if he ultimately loses out to his suicidal thoughts.
Most of them likely wouldn’t heed that warning. So why wouldn’t labels keep on churning out this content? XXXTENTACION’s collaborator DJ Scheme has previously mentioned that multiple posthumous projects would be released. His first, Skins, was already pushing the limit as much as the rapper’s behaviour once did.
If you were listening closely, you could hear how much production wizardry was going on to manipulate a very minimal amount of content into a full album, digitally stretching his voice to make longer notes and other tricks.
To paint an even clearer picture of the industry clout attached to a dead artist’s name right now, recall the fact that Drake essentially used Michael Jackson’s name as a giant flex on his 2018 track “Don’t Matter to Me”. He simply wanted to prove he had the money to purchase Jackson’s unreleased material.
None of this stuff is what the original artist intended it to be, and most of it is even worse than the intentions behind its repackaging into something easily consumable. At this point, the legacy of some of these artists should be preserved by leaving their unfinished material alone.
We get it. Losing a favourite artist can feel like losing someone you know personally. Someone like Mac Miller was so open and earnest about his struggles that his death cut deep with many people around his age group—his music represented a friend helping them deal with similar things in their own lives.
But compare it to a movie or TV series that you loved that went on too long and dropped off a cliff in quality, running out of ideas. Jurassic Park. Mad Men. Men in Black. We know you want to hear these artists’ voices again, and honestly, sometimes it’s done tastefully. But they’re gone, and eventually the well will run dry on whatever brilliant ideas they left behind.
The quest for the dollar signs attached to the names of these departed legends is likely only going to continue—just look at the massive arena hologram tour planned for Whitney Houston.
Next time you hear about a shoddily assembled new musical offering from a departed artist, instead of giving it a stream and encouraging this practice, let’s just let them rest.