Popular music has long been centrally concerned with death and the afterlife.
Songs, recordings, and musical traditions have expressed both mourning and celebration and have—in some cases—helped envision the possibilities of a continued existence where “death is not the end.” From gospel to metal and beyond, music pays tribute to the departed, offers opportunities for ceremony and commemoration, and helps to process tragedies both personal and public. It even blurs the boundaries between states of life and death, offering sonic and symbolic evidence for hauntings, purgatories, and the continued presence of ancestors in the lives of the earthbound. Genres, formats, and media exist in a continual process of transformation, decay, and re-emergence—and boost both active artists and defunct (or deceased) ones. Songs and performances are reborn through new versions, different contexts, and changing relationships with audiences.
Beyond this, pop music cycles through its own series of “deaths” and “afterlives.” The work of the deceased is remixed, reclaimed, and reconstituted by new generations of musicians, scholars, compilers, and fan communities, while record companies, museums, tourist sites, and others preserve, profit from, and sometimes fetishize their memory. (These commemorations have taken on a distinctively digital character in the era of social media, YouTube, holograms, and the continued use of sampling.) And pop music—in its many forms—offers a cultural afterlife for sounds and populations that have been dispersed and displaced, helping to form new communities and maintain connections to those that have been lost.
While a constant concern, recent years have only amplified these dynamics. A wave of prominent musician deaths, from David Bowie to Aretha Franklin, has amplified conversations over music’s relationship to mortality and the nature of fan mourning in the digital age. (Some of these attempts, like the proposed use of a Prince hologram at the 2017 Super Bowl, have been greeted with controversy.) Public tragedies from killings marked by #BlackLivesMatter memorials to ongoing refugee crises have been suffused with music as both sustenance and response, while the rise of mass shootings at music venues from Paris to the Pulse nightclub provoked specific responses from affected artists and audiences as well as a broader championing of music as a means of memorial and healing. And, across genre and language, music continues to contend with the questions of life, death, and potential resurrection as a central subject matter and metaphor for conversations ranging from the economics of streaming to the health of genres like country and hip-hop.
For the 2019 Pop Conference, we explore the many ways music reflects and expresses the realities of the end and the possibilities of rebirth.
These could include proposals that consider the following:
Music about Death – musical responses to death and its consequences—the sounds of mourning, celebration, tribute, and closure; music’s role in funeral traditions
The Afterworld – visions of a world beyond—sounds of rebirth, reincarnation, resurrection, and deathless existence; spirituality in music and music as spiritual practice
Memorials – how we remember musicians, listeners, and scenes—recordings; concerts; compilations; books; films; museums; archives; fan communities; anniversaries
“Say Her Name” – music in the wake of public tragedies and atrocities—protest songs; memorial concerts; reclamation of the forgotten and marginalized
Hauntings – music’s spectral presences—recordings as “ghosts”; ancestral presences; musical influence as both a blessing and a curse; the lingering beliefs that some artists (Elvis Presley, Tupac Shakur) aren’t actually dead
Ghosts in The Machine – technology’s relationship to musical deaths and afterlives—sampling and other sonic manipulations; digital archives; “dead” media formats; social media and group mourning; holograms;
Crossing the Border – music as afterlife for the traditions of the displaced and dispersed—the sounds of migration and diaspora; cultural loss, retention and transformation; relationships to border policing and immigration policies
Inheritances – ownership and control of artistic legacies—influences and recreations; the break-ups and reunions of bands and scenes; tribute acts; posthumous reconsiderations of an artist’s impact; what and who is able to endure versus who and what is denied; legal battles over estates and intellectual property
Figurative Rebirths - how cultural cycles give active bands a new lease on life—songs and albums whose popularity has been resurrected by new generations; musical or media trends (e.g., the vinyl boom or cassette resurgence) that swing back into fashion
About Pop Conference
The annual MoPOP Pop Conference, first held in 2002, mixes together ambitious music discourse of every kind in an attempt to bring academics, critics, musicians, and dedicated fans into a collective conversation.
2019 Program Committee Members: writer David Cantwell, Michelle Habell-Pallán (University of Washington), Charles Hughes (Rhodes College), Jason King (New York University), Amalia Mallard (independent scholar/The Laughing Archive), Greil Marcus (University of California-Berkeley), Dwandalyn Reece (National Museum of African American History and Culture), Robert Rutherford (Museum of Pop Culture), Alfred Soto (Florida International University/SPIN.com), Karen Tongson (University of Southern California), and writer Annie Zaleski.