Death of a pop princess in the making

The fate of Aaliyah was a made-for-TV movie tragedy spun out before our very eyes.

Published September 6, 2001 5:14PM (EDT)

The funeral for Aaliyah last Friday was one fit for a fairy tale princess. The soul singer, who died in a plane crash in the Bahamas on Aug. 26, was paraded through the streets of New York in a white, glassed-in antique carriage drawn by two pure-white ponies. At the funeral, her mother released 22 white doves -- one for each year of Aaliyah's short life. Thousands of fans watched the procession and wept, waving placards aloft.

I know all this because I turned on the television this weekend, vainly thinking I'd watch some music videos on MTV or VH1. But alas: It's been all Aaliyah, all the time ever since the singer's untimely death. I'd never been a big fan of Aaliyah's, though her existence and her music glimmered on the edges of my awareness -- I'd seen her videos, could recognize a few of her catchy songs, and knew that she'd made an appearance in the film "Romeo Must Die." It seemed sad that she'd died.

Still, it came as a bit of a shock to see such a fuss being made over her death. MTV News has run constant updates on the shocking crash -- the overloaded plane, the pilot who had been caught with crack just a week earlier -- along with the half-hour special "The Life of Aaliyah," a cobbled-together montage of interviews and homages from mourning fans, friends and peers. VH1 has a similar lineup, and a similar biographical special, running several times a day. The funeral was covered by everyone from the New York Times to the Washington Post. (No one, incidentally, mentioned the equally tragic deaths of the other eight people in the plane crash other than in passing.)

One particularly poignant video clip, an interview from an MTV "Diary" that Aaliyah taped in July, was repeated ad nauseam all week. "There are times when I sit back and look at my career as a whole and realize I am truly blessed to be doing something I love," Aaliyah says, smiling happily at the camera. "Sometimes I'm taken aback. I'm very happy. There's so much more I want to do in my career, it's beyond words." Feeling weepy yet?

But the media outpouring over Aaliyah shouldn't come as a surprise. She was a creation of the music-media machine, a budding talent whose potential stardom was identified and then manufactured before she'd even grown out of her training bra. Now that she's dead, those same star makers are crafting a "legend" for her, à la Kurt Cobain, Notorious B.I.G or Tupac Shakur. In the world of pop music, death has become as much of a commodity as life itself, a chance to turn popular stars into bona fide legends through the coincidence of their untimely deaths. Not to put too cynical a touch to it, but everyone loves a tragedy.

Aaliyah was a new-generation teen soul queen, popping onto the scene when she was just 15. Her sudden stardom was due in no small part to the influence of her uncle, Barry Hankerson, who was Gladys Knight's ex-husband and the manager of the R&B star R. Kelly. Kelly produced her first album, "Age Ain't Nothing But a Number," but -- perhaps taking the title of the album too literally -- married the teenager. (Details about the marriage are sketchy; neither spoke about it publicly.) With his backing, her career chugged along nicely, churning out hits from her subsequent album. In July, she released her third album and rocketed back into the charts, thanks to heavy rotation of her videos on MTV. She had roles lined up in a number of movies, including parts in "The Queen of the Damned" and "The Matrix" sequels.

Her career was, in short, the nascent career of any number of up-and-coming pop stars. Aaliyah clearly had beauty and talent; she was innovative and honey-voiced and worked with great producers; she seemed poised and gracious. She could very well have gone on to do great things. But the nonstop hype about her death seems slightly out of proportion with the greatness of her life. Was her music really that seminal, her message that fresh and genre-busting?

Since her music doesn't really suit my taste, perhaps I'm not qualified to ponder these questions. It doesn't matter though, really. Now that she's dead, tragically dead, she's a bona fide superstar -- regardless of her talents during her life. Sales of Aaliyah's latest album, "Aaliyah," skyrocketed last week, up from number 27 to 19 on the Billboard charts; sales had been shrinking since the album's release in July.

You can also bet that the music video for "Rock the Boat," which Aaliyah was shooting in the Bahamas before she died, will be released and put in heavy rotation as soon as humanly possible. When the vampire flick "Queen of the Damned" is released later this year, expect the movie to be a hit regardless of whether it's good: The tragic death of the movie's star guarantees the film plenty of attention. There will be odes to Aaliyah released by other R&B singers; there may be a posthumous album or two, tracks cobbled hastily together and released in order to capitalize on the sudden interest in the singer. Her family will speak at the MTV Video Music Awards on Thursday, which will certainly devote a segment to the star.

Aaliyah is better known today, after her death, than she was two weeks ago. It's much the same story that we got with the Notorious B.I.G and Tupac Shakur: Again, two popular hip-hop stars died tragic deaths that propelled them into greater infamy as corpses than as stars. (The conspiracy and mystery behind the murders, of course, gave the fascination with their deaths an extra boost). And the formula seems copped originally from Kurt Cobain -- a truly seminal artist, founder of a whole new school of music, whose death seven years ago is being dutifully observed this fall. With Cobain, the mourning seemed fresh, since it was the first surprise tragedy of the MTV age; with Aaliyah, genuine as much of the sadness and loss may be, the public wake feels formulaic. It's as if, even as the label executives cry real tears at the funeral, they are also gleefully noting that album sales are on the rebound.

The age of MTV and VH1 has given us public deaths, made-for-TV-movie tragedies that are spun before our very eyes. The making of a pop star wake is almost as big a production as the creation of the star itself: the biographies, the reminiscences, the posthumous releases, the limitless adulation, all a part of the same machine that created the stars in the first place. It's a soundtracked opus wrought from wistful "what-could-have-beens" -- those deceased lives are frozen eternally in a web of potentialities spun by fawning critics who would never say anything negative about the dead. It's a slow-motion shot of a dove being released into the sky juxtaposed against a wistful smile of a 22-year-old girl; a smartly packaged sound bite, ready to go into heavy rotation on VH1, MTV, and BET.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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