VH1 recently did something out of the ordinary and aired a music-related program on their station; it was a revamped version of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Originally done in 1998, this list was "determined by a poll of musicians and music experts" according to VH1’s website. The station also boasted that over 200 artists were polled, including "Alicia Keys, Diddy, Ozzy Osbourne and Carrie Underwood, as well as members of U2, the Police, Metallica and Aerosmith."
As a fan of countdown shows, I decided that five hours of my time was an appropriate amount to spend watching the entire countdown. These programs always spark debates about who deserves to be on the list and at what number they should be placed. Personally, I found there were some pleasant surprises on the VH1 list (Coldplay, Jay-Z and Beyonce were all on the list), some shocking omissions (no Eric Clapton? no Simon and Garfunkel? no Eagles?) and what I would call placement discrepancies (why were Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, two of the legendary architects of rock ‘n’ roll, at 43 and 35, respectively, while Radiohead is at 29?). But these are disagreements I could get over. There was, however, something that I could not just grin and bear.
Despite all of my issues with the countdown, my main beef was with Michael Jackson. Throughout the entire countdown, it seemed as if VH1 was setting Jackson up to be the number one artist. They revealed various artists’ top five selections, and Jackson was on 95 percent of the lists shown.
In the end though, The Beatles claimed the top spot (because some things in life are inevitable). But Jackson placed an undeservedly high second on the list, ranking higher than the likes of The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley.
Now while I know that none of these so-called ‘greatest’ countdowns are ever really accurate and won’t appease everybody, but Jackson’s place on the VH1 countdown raises a question: if someone dies young, do we put that person on some kind of pedestal? Do we rate them higher because what we perceived their potential to be rather than what they actually did?
I believe Jackson deserves to be on any list of great musicians of all time, for both his music and for his contributions as a performer, both onstage and in music videos. But the second greatest? That just seems too high. When the original list came out in 1998, Jackson was rated 40. So what could have justified the 38-place jump? My bet is on his death in the summer of 2009 and the subsequent wallpaper media coverage.
Jackson isn’t the only musician who has received this kind of treatment, just look at any member of the so-called "Forever 27 Club," which includes Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain, who all died at 27, and usually rank amongst these "Greatest" lists. Cobain’s band, Nirvana, is generally considered significantly greater than Pearl Jam, a band from the same city and time period, but continued to contribute to the music industry about 15 years after Cobain’s death.
This post-death praise doesn’t just apply to musicians; actors have also been overtly revered since their death. While living, the likes of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean did good work on screen, but it wasn’t until after both of their deaths (Monroe in 1962 at the age of 36 and Dean in 1955 at the age of 24) that they became unparalleled icons, gracing posters and t-shirts owned by people who more than likely know little about their actual careers.
Heath Ledger recently joined this echelon of deceased actors. While his manically dark and twisted performance as the Joker in "The Dark Knight" was great, and certainly made an impression, I honestly don’t believe that Ledger would have received the avalanche of accolades, including the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, if he didn’t die in early 2008 and if there wasn’t the hype connecting that role to his death.
As I said earlier, I truly believe that Jackson should be included on the list of 100 Greatest Artists, and the other musicians and actors mentioned in this column deserve to be on their respective "greatest" lists. Yet, there is no question that their early deaths have helped their careers and contributed to the aforementioned greatness. This is probably unfair, but just think about what levels society would have put Bono on if he died after "The Joshua Tree" or if Lady Gaga died tomorrow? What if these individuals lived into old age? Would they have lived past their icon status? Probably not.