Recently, SPIN.com ran an article in reaction to the snatching of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis’ gravestone, pondering which other deceased icons should be protecting their burial assets. And then came the news that on October 14, the world will be graced with the latest figurative coffin-raping of Johnny Cash’s legacy, Johnny Cash Remixed (Compadre/Music World).
Cash has always been the most broadly accessible symbol of country machismo for audiences and artists who would otherwise refer to the genre after the words “I listen to anything but.” And now, the country pioneer’s music will be exploited by a new crew of opportunists, most disconcertingly, outlaw pimp Snoop Dogg, who’s chosen to digg into “Walk the Line” as a clumsy complement to his recent Cash tribute-of-sorts, “My Medicine.”
Cash is not alone of course. Ray Charles, 2Pac, and Kurt Cobain (who has actually suffered the indignity of both graveside- and-intellectual-property theft), to name a few, have all been repackaged and biopic-ed into oblivion. And then there’s the Michael Jacksons of the pop lexicon, who’ve soiled both their personal and artistic reputations (we’ll try and forget that Thriller reissue ever happened) while barely in middle age.
So, a la our rundown of potential Curtis copycat victims, here are five of music’s remaining living icons most vulnerable to their afterlife legend being reduced to its most marketable common denominator:
Whether working with the day’s most du jour producers, making out with modern-day pop tarts, or landing conspicuously in the middle of athlete-affair scandals, Madonna has always been the dictator of her own mammoth and malleable persona. So suffice to say, when Madge is no longer able to play both puppet master and marionette, the vultures will be waiting to pick at her already fleshless bones via never-before-seen nude photos and tell-all bios about her alleged dalliances with senators and switch-hitters.
Similarly in Danger: Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera
The five-plus years since Joe Strummer’s death have begat a respectfully reverential stream of platitudes, retrospectives and archived footage. But the band’s legacy is also still in the careful hands of manager Tricia Simonon (aka bassist Paul’s wife), who — outside of the odd concession to a Nissan commercial — has carefully curated the group’s pristine fossilization. But one can only imagine that in 50 years, the Only Band That Matters will have their groundbreaking collision of patois punk and renegade politics reduced to glittery iron-on T-shirts at the late-century’s equivalent of Hot Topic.
Similarly in Danger: the MC5, the Sex Pistols, Green Day
The true-to-life street narratives that Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren and the late Eazy-E unfurled over funk-gone-AK-47 aggression — as important in their cultural call to arms as Public Enemy’s classic anthems, if without the militaristic intent — have long since been picked clean by contemporary MCs for their shallowest incendiary attributes. It’s only a matter of time until the surviving members have little reflective say on the motivation behind their menace. At which point, their catalog will remain relevant through its dispersal amongst countless Gangsta Bangas compilations and name checks from eight-generation rip-off artists who conveniently negate all of the group’s subversive nuance.
Similarly in Danger: Jay-Z, Wu-Tang Clan, Eminem
This has, to large degree, already happened. Along with New Order and other post-punk-cum-new wave/goth groups of the ’80s, the Cure have been co-opted as the nostalgic property of Adam Sandler movies and 30-something stockbrokers who preciously recall their faux-rebellious adolescence. But unless Robert Smith and co.’s next album is a truly stellar late-period comeback that both reasserts their relevance and redefines their trademark aesthetic, 30 years (and counting) of crucial teen-angst pioneering will be left in the dust of slapped-together period-piece soundtracks.
Similarly in Danger: Depeche Mode, the Smiths, Nine Inch Nails
Few artists’ legacies are as egregiously misconstrued as the Boss’. While he’s magnificently re-emerged as a modern voice of discontent (and poster boy for hipsterdom’s embracing of ’70s rock radio), millions of Americans still project onto Springsteen a Ronald Reaganiz-ed notion of banal Americana. And this, of course, is largely a direct result of one stinkin’ album (that would be Born in the USA) cover that tried– and clearly failed — to visually articulate the ironic confluence of Jersey pride and proletariat alienation explored between the LP’s cardboard flaps. As a very unfortunate result, it will be difficult to say which Springsteen will emerge triumphant after the legend himself has left us: blue-jeans wearing bar-rocker or prodigiously talented street poet. Sadly, more conservative presidential administrations could be the only thing to ensure the latter.
Similarly in Danger: Neil Young, Tom Petty
Think we did U2, Brian Wilson, Prince, Beck or any other still-breathing groundbreaker a disservice by not stating their case on this list? Feel free to rant away and make suggestions for other likewise bedeviled artists below.