Dead but Still Going Strong
August 20, 2014
Michael Jackson has been releasing new music. Well, not exactly Michael Jackson. He’s dead. However, unreleased music that he recorded before his death is now out after being finished by others. This means that we can continue to have new tunes by one of the great artists of his generation. The question is, would he have wanted this music to come out? A lot of material that ends up being released posthumously is work that an artist did not feel was good enough to be made public. But when there is a potential for millions of dollars to be made off of someone’s name and legacy, this does not seem to matter.
A deceased artist having some of their unfinished work released is one thing, but what about when a dead artist has their name used to promote material that they had absolutely nothing to do with?
That’s the case with the popular author V.C. Andrews. She is one of the most prolific dead artists in history. Andrews died in 1986 from breast cancer before completing The Dollanganger Series, the series of books that began with her famous novel Flowers in the Attic. The final book in the series had been started by her before her death and was finished after she passed, so her involvement in the planning and writing of it was extensive. But in the years since she died, books that she either had nothing at all to do with, or were based on simple brainstorming ideas she had at one time, have been put together by ghost writers. Her name has then been used to market it. In fact, there are now more V.C. Andrews’ books written by someone else than by her.
Whether Andrews approved of the continuation of her legacy in this manner is not known. What is clear is that her original fame came from material she had penned herself. As a result, it does feel a little unseemly that so much money is being made on books that have simply used her name, especially since many people bought them because of the reputation of her original work. I can’t help but wonder how many people who bought one of the later V.C. Andrews' novels were aware that they had been written by someone else. She has gone from being an author to being a brand. (If you want to know which books she wrote herself, just check and see if there is a trademark next to her name. If you see it, that means the book was written after her death.)
Of course, continuing to promote a person’s work after they are dead is not a new phenomenon. Passing down fantastic works of art is passing down our own history. And it is important that future generations continue to be able to experience the great artists who came before. Taking unfinished/unreleased material and putting it out after an artist has gone may be seen by some as doing the same thing. But this is definitely not the case when adding a famous name to a piece of work that they had no involvement with. So, is there any reason, other than money, that this is being done?
Whenever we lose an artist, especially if we feel that they were taken before their time, there is always the feeling of being cheated. We could have had years more of wonderful output if only the person had not been taken from us so soon. The question of what might have been haunts us, so anything new that can be unearthed allows us to feel that we still have that person with us. And there is always the hope that maybe a brilliant gem lies buried in the often second rate material. The problem is that the chance of finding something truly great in what had been discarded by the artist themselves is not very likely. So we will get so-so interpretations from people who feel that they can truly recapture the essence of someone who has been lost.
At least with the new Michael Jackson music, we know that he had something to do with its creation. The situation with V.C. Andrews is different. There may not seem to be anything inherently wrong with putting a dead author’s name on a new novel, as long as the public is aware that the writer whose name is being attached to it is not actually the person who wrote it. Unfortunately, many people are not aware of this fact; so, this practice can seem a little deceptive. And as someone who was a fan of Flowers in the Attic when I was in Junior High, it is sad to see an author have her name attached to work that is simply not as good as what wrote.
Ultimately, the most important question about all this after death activity is what the opinion of the original artist would have been. Did V.C. Andrews okay the trademarking of her name? Would Michael Jackson have released any of the new stuff that has come out since his death, or did he feel that is just was not up to his standards to be heard by the general public? One thing that is certain. Using the dead to continue to build revenue will not be changing any time soon. Nor it seems will the appetite of fans to devour whatever scraps that they can get as long as it means that they can stay connected to the beloved artist that they lost.