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A Singer Must Die:
Cohen, Keats and Lil Peep

John Keats, the English Romantic, died in 1821. That his now-famous sonnet, ‘When I Have Fears’, was published decades after the fact is of a grotesque class of ironies I’d much sooner forget. In its most bastardised form, it reads:

When I have fears that I may cease to be…
                                    …then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
 Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

What’s most rending, I think, about the poem, isn’t so much its palpable fear of death. While it’s true the poet died in his twenties – having succumbed to a not so uncommon, and thus far more tragic bout of tuberculosis – one senses something far greater at stake. For it isn’t so much that John Keats, the English Romantic, died. It’s that he died penniless, alone, and with little claim to fame. It’s that, in spite of the concerns laid bare in the poem – of a “ceas[ing] to be”, of a sinking into “nothingness” – it took critics (and, to a lesser, though no less significant extent, the public) over three decades to see worth in his words. What’s most rending, then, is that viewed within this context, ‘When I Have Fears’ is an ode to a life unfulfilled. A life of love and passion, to be sure, but also one of disease, destitution and disparagement.

OCD

OCD

Speaking to Leonard Cohen in 1976 – at what is, in retrospect, the height of his artistic career (though, indeed, not his fame) – interviewer Mick Brown posed the question:

“To what extent should [art] have relevance throughout time? Or… [should it] sum up an episode, a moment, and preserve that on the page… forever?”

It’s a question that’s plagued artists for centuries. It’s what Keats romanticises in his ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, and, indeed, what he laments in the tragic sonnet ‘When I Have Fears’. It is, moreover, a Romantic notion. One which seeks to promote the preservation of self through art. To elevate and designate it as vehicle through which artists might attain a kind of cultural posterity. A claim to eternity. It’s that which, I imagine, sparked Keats’ obsession with artefacts in the first place, what made him so anxious to print poems, to write letters, to imprint upon the world the sort of mark that could transcend mere existence. Cohen, on the other hand, blinks twice: “I don’t know, forever is a long time…”

This should be of no surprise. Cohen was a poet who, for the greater part of his career, advocated for the death of the ego. Despite its charm, the Romantic appeal to “forever” struck him, it seems, as a bit of a naïve one. It’s important to remember, though, that Cohen lived to the age of 82. In the months leading up to his death, the self-confessed “closet suicide” even joked of his readiness. Decades prior, however, well before the success of ‘Hallelujah’, the singer contemplated death in a far less charming manner. For ‘Dress Rehearsal Rag’ (from 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate) is the kind of blood-stained depiction of suicide that – somehow – musters the fortitude to forego pretence, that whacks its veins at the slightest hint of romanticism and resists all temptation to aggrandise. It’s worth noting, then, that had Cohen ended it there, he would’ve died knowing little success. Debt-ridden, depressed, and with little claim to fame. And the song is well aware of this. As with Keats, recognition of his genius might’ve come in spite of— no, as a result of the artist’s death, but I wonder now whether that’s worth considering at all.

OCD

OCD

Was Keats aware of the impact he’d have? How about Lil Peep?

There must’ve been some indication. It would be inaccurate to claim, of either of these artists, that there had been no recognition whatsoever prior to their respective deaths. (At the time of his writing ‘Dress Rehearsal Rag’, Cohen had published two novels and various collections of poems.) Keats hadn’t had the kind of cultural relevance that would follow his death, though did have some in his life who saw the genius of his work. Lil Peep, too, experienced the kind of success that most under the age of 21 couldn’t even begin to fathom.

I suppose, then, that what concerns me most about these cases isn’t so much that these artists (excluding, of course, Cohen) died prior to their success. It’s that, to some extent, their successes – their legacies – relied in large part on their deaths. What’s left of Lil Peep, to the wider public, isn’t so much his music: it’s his music as translated by those who purport knowledge of his intent: it’s an unwitted, ill-conceived collaboration with XXXTENTACION (an artist whom, no matter one’s opinion, Lil Peep had, in private, denounced); it’s a Genius article claiming a song the artist had no part in “unites him with his childhood idols [Fall Out Boy]”; it’s the second side of a double album (again, regardless of one’s opinion) sounding so little like the first. One might argue that both Keats and Lil Peep, in their deaths, achieved what had been intended with their music all along: the sort of relevance that could outlive their short-lived lives. But there’s something gross about this particular articulation of the Romantic ideal, the perverse notion that genius manifests itself upon the (literal) death of the artist.

OCD

OCD

Music matters. Art matters. But when, in its course, publications choose to sideline – denounce even – artists in life, only to celebrate them in death, there lies exposed a pretence in its wake.





granitenotebook
04.09.19
this is fantastic. i appreciate the connections you make between artists that few would connect - the connecting paths seem obvious after you explore them. and yes, i agree, we (i’ve been guilty as well) definitely pay more attention to artists after tragic deaths. this pattern arguably encourages suicidal tendencies.

dmathias52
04.09.19
This is an interesting inverse take on what's been making much of the news recently. Celebrating artists while they're alive and then, after their death (not even necessarily literal death, even just the death of their career) learning of mortal sins they committed. We then have to wrestle with our own morality and beliefs.
I think your take is super beneficial. We glorify the death of artists, which isn't wrong in itself. However, as granitenotebook said, this can definitely lead to dangerous thinking and poor outcomes.

bgillesp
04.09.19
Really neat piece. Idk what that first sentence is tying to say though. Maybe some punctuation change? Or maybe I’m just dumb

bgillesp
04.09.19
Excuse me, second sentence

bgillesp
04.09.19
And also I figured it out. I was indeed dumb

BlushfulHippocrene
04.10.19
Thanks friends. And no, bg, not dumb at all! It is a tad awkward; I did have a hard time phrasing it.

"this pattern arguably encourages suicidal tendencies"
I tried to avoid this because it's so sensitive, but I 100% agree. It's something artists (and people in general) will struggle with regardless, but it's no help that we in some ways incentivise it. But at the same time, the issue isn't so much that we idolise them upon death, it's that we idolise them because of it, in some warped way. I'm definitely guilty of it, too.

"We glorify the death of artists, which isn't wrong in itself"
It's difficult, huh? I think there must be some kind of balance, but I don't know where it is.

Bloon
04.10.19
great piece, i always feel horrible if i get to an artist only after they die, we gotta be celebrating shit while its creators are here to see our enjoyment, agreed

Bloon
04.10.19
agreed is the wrong word

bgillesp
04.10.19
Totally what happened with me and Lil Peep. I’d never heard of him before he died which I think it’s fair for me to do that. Obviously we should try our best to appreciate artists before they die but sometimes you just don’t know they exist. Another question is re-evaluation of work because of death (like Bowie or Linkin Park final albums). I still think it’s fine to appreciate them more after the artist death but I’m not 100% sure

BlushfulHippocrene
04.10.19
It's such a fine line... You should for sure be able to appreciate an artist after their death, realising what is lost. And of course their deaths might bring attention to the fact of their existence, at which point a person might find them -- and that's good and understandable, too. We just need to be careful not to use their death as some sort of justification, I suppose. An artist's death might bring attention to the worth in their work, but we ought not to assume that it's what gives the work value in the first place. Another angle taken upon Peep's death was "ALAS! THE FUTURE OF MUSIC HATH DEPARTED" -- as a sort of justification for why so little attention (and, more to the point, why such negative attention) was given beforehand.

Rowan5215
04.10.19
phenomenal article, I had a lot of similar feelings when I was writing my Swimming review and trying to walk the fine line between saying "x piece of music is now more powerful since Mac's death" and glorifying the music purely because he'd died and not on its own terms. I think it's a thing that's up to the individual to decide how much they're willing to let the context affect the content

Conmaniac
04.12.19
really well done Blush, please do more of these! I definitely agree on your opinion about how the public / music industry has been treating Lil Peep's music...it is a bit sickening no? Need to read more Keats tho...that's for sure

theNateman
04.13.19
Neon gravestones

dbizzles
04.15.19
This fucking rules.

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