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Critics, Discourse and the Afterlives of Rock Icons

Sun, August 12, 10:30 to 11:30am, Pennsylvania Convention Center, Floor: Level 100, 103B

Abstract

While reflecting upon the recurrent boost of album sales following a musician’s death, Steve Jones repeats the old adage in the music industry that “death is a good career move” for popular musicians (2005:3). Death gives musicians an advantage when it comes to sales but also with regard to achieving widespread renown and cultural consecration. Therefore, dying is “a good career move” in terms of economic capital, but also in terms of symbolic capital. As such, death is an essential aspect figuring into the cultural work undertaken by critics and fans as they define artistic reputations and to maintain them posthumously. This case study research draws on album reviews in prestigious North American rock music publications about Joey Ramone, Kurt Cobain, and Tupac Shakur to consider the ways designated rock aesthetes define and maintain iconic reputations. A special discursive shift occurs between evaluations of music released while an artist is alive and posthumous releases. Critics define artistic authenticity by intellectualizing and politicizing rock albums while artists are alive. This discursive norm appears to shift as posthumous releases and re-releases are, in many cases, not evaluated at all. Instead, album reviews about posthumous releases of unheard, remixed and remastered pieces of music tend to forgo the intellectualization or politicization of music while emphasizing the position of the artist in the narrative of rock history. Posthumous narrativization is special because – when it occurs in album review sections – critics narrativize artistic works in such a way that relate them more explicitly and closely to the genre’s sacred canon of art and artists. It is argued that this discursive shift among music critics is a significant component of the sociological process that renders renowned artists into icons and maintains their cultural staying power to posterity.

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