Friday, April 09, 2010

How to Become a Living Legend While Dead

Five ex-governors are attempting to get their old jobs back this fall. This doesn't really surprise me. The first Rocky got made because we love a good underdog story, but every Rocky movie since then got made because we love comeback stories. Or perhaps some of those sequels got made because of the power of nostalgia. Either way, it works to the advantage of would-be once and future governors.

Meanwhile, fame is fleeting. Or more accurately, the ability of the famous to stay relevant (and to sustain an economic dividend from their fame) is fleeting, and reduced even moreso in our age of media saturation. How many records did Amy Winehouse sell in 2009? Is anyone banking on Lady Gaga making the covers of magazines in 2011? Everybody knows who Ringo Starr is. About 30,000 people have purchased Ringo Starr's last album (which is less than half the number of people who attended a single Monster Truck show in Florida last month).

Meanwhile, there is one sure fire way to become relevant again. Michael Jackson sold more albums last year than in the ten previous years combined. Alex Chilton was unknown a couple of months ago, and now sports gossip blogs are posting articles about him. All he had to do to get a little recognition was shuffle off his mortal coil. Five years ago Chuck Klosterman wrote "[D}ying is the only thing that guarantees a rock star will have a legacy that stretches beyond temporary relevance. Somewhere, somehow, somebody decided that death equals credibility." He consequently turned this thesis into a book that was brilliantly titled (albeit taken directly from a Black Sabbath song): Killing Yourself to Live.

So let's play a little connect the dots. Let's assume the following are all true: 1. Once attained, cultural relevance is difficult to hold onto. 2. For whatever reason, being dead increases cultural relevance 3. The public loves a comeback 4. The public loves nostalgia

So what would you do if you were a cultural figure who wanted to stay relevant but didn't want to die? The solution seems so obvious that I am just waiting for someone to actually do it: have your P.R. staff send out a press release stating that you have died, take on an alternate identity and live a mundane existence for however long you want, and then when a number of years have passed, make a stunning return to the public eye. Certainly the idea of a celebrity going off-grid is not unprecedented (e.g. J.D. Salinger, Bobby Fischer, the aforementioned Chilton). But these are people who never wanted to mount a comeback. And of course, the idea itself is not particularly novel; people have speculated that Elvis or Jim Morrison are still out there waiting to do just such a thing. Yet the mere existence of these rumors indicates to me a public appetite for such a narrative. We've created the story already, and now we just need someone to play the part.

It seems to me that an obvious candidate to pull off such a stunt would be Eminem. He went years between recordings, and his comeback has proven to be lackluster. Yet in his prime, he demonstrated an ego and a sense of theatricality that would seem to be perfect for the task. I could see a rapper even pulling a WWE style kayfabe approach and claiming to actually be literally resurrected.

But perhaps Eminem is too obvious of a candidate. There is another recording artist who I think could benefit from such a move. He has actually sold more records in America than any other individual, and the only group that has outsold him is The Beatles. Six of his albums have achieved diamond status (at least 10 million sold). Yet for all that, he's never been regarded as a living legend, and perhaps not even as a figure of special relevance. Maybe this was why he felt motivated to change his persona entirely in 1999, taking on an alternate identity and releasing an album completely unlike any he had ever done before. But when that identity tanked, he announced his retirement, and he vowed to not record again at least until his youngest daughter turned 18 in 2015, a vow he has upheld thus far. But what if, instead of becoming Chris Gaines the rock star in 1999 (pictured above), Garth Brooks had become Chris Gaines, the literal friend of those in low places? I suspect that upon his return in 2015, he would have been bigger than Elvis.


Blogger MJOHNSON said...

i agree with your ideas about dieing people becoming more famous but some that are still alive use other tactics to get media attention like brittany spears shaving her head or brett farve retiring 2 times

6:43 PM  
Blogger Sandii_Mina said...

Yea I agree, this is true. Especially for Eminem, MJ and many of the decease who sold more after death.

11:57 AM  

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