When I was a teenager working in a well-trafficked record store in the local mall, a popular although hardly legendary recording artist was killed in a car accident. There was little melodrama in his death: No overdose or assassination or fall from grace, just bad luck. Still, the huge stack of his recordings that had been available in the store since I’d begun working there — 40 to 50 units, if I remember right — evaporated within a couple of hours. Filled with smug teenage indignation, I put a note on the artist’s empty sales bin that said “Nothing sells records like death.”
Not surprisingly, minutes later my boss was walking toward me, glaring and crumpling up the note, although all he did was scold me and say “I agree with you, but a customer got really offended.” In retrospect I can’t believe I didn’t get fired, since I imagine some of you who have read this far might be offended right now.
I think about that incident whenever a popular entertainer dies and the inevitable fog of media mourning — a volatile mixture of genuine sadness and equally genuine opportunism — descends. The memorializing is usually far out of proportion to the person’s actual accomplishments, and is amplified by the fact that the promise of their talent can never be fulfilled. It’s become a very predictable pattern: there’s the news flash, then the extended obits, the tweets, the tributes, the photo galleries, the timelines, the video flashbacks, the “last hours” and “could he/she have been saved?” stories, the creepy fishing for foreshadowing in the artist’s work or actions … until nearly everyone’s had enough or the story gets pushed aside by the news cycle’s next fling.
Which brings us to Amy Winehouse. Today, the media is exploding with stories about her sales “spike,” “surge,” “skyrocket,” “soar.” This week’s SoundScan totals of 55,000 albums — up by 3,400% from the previous week — and 111,000 digital tracks (up 2,120%) are based on the first 36 hours after news of her death broke. They may be bigger next week, by which point the story will have cooled off — watch for it to last for the rest of this week and flare up again with next week’s SoundScan results.
Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back to Black’ Re-enters Top 10 on Billboard 200 Chart
What gets lost in all this is perspective: For all the talk about her legacy, she leaves behind a sadly thin catalog of two strong albums, two digital-only B-sides collections and a smattering of stray tracks. She was a marvelous singer and a precocious interpreter who left behind precious little evidence of her talent, since her spiral began almost as soon as she became famous; not much she recorded after the age of 23 has been released.
Amy’s musical legacy is probably most like Jeff Buckley’s — or Eddie Cochran’s or original Pretenders guitarist James Honeyman-Scott’s — as an extremely talented artist who’d just gotten started, who wasn’t creating for long enough for us to see just how great they truly could have been. For her, there’s one great album, a few great songs, videos of some solid live performances before she started trainwrecking her gigs, and that’s it. In the coming months we’re certain to hear everything worth hearing that remains in the vaults, and probably a lot that isn’t. Record labels usually do their best to capitalize on the fans’ interest respectfully, although of course there are many who don’t.
I don’t have a desire to immerse myself in an artist’s work in the wake of their demise, but I don’t mock it anymore either, like I did with Harry Chapin all those years ago. It’s just a different way of dealing with death.
And yet for all the hysteria and hyperbole that follows an artist who died too soon, time, as it so often does, will bring perspective. John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and Freddie Mercury and so many others have moved beyond tragedy and, for the most part, into their rightful places in music history. Five years from now, when all the hoopla has long since receded, Amy will probably have joined Buckley and Cochran and Honeyman-Scott and so many others in the saddest category of all, which is those who were gone before we had a chance to see how great they could have been. That her addictions and demons apparently conspired to ensure she joined that group is the most wrenching part of all.
(Jem Aswad is the editor of Billboard.biz)