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Is it Better to Burn Out than to Fade Away?

Aug 13, 2008
When Neil Young wrote the song 'Hey Hey, My My' in 1978, he would have had no idea of the implications that one of the lyrics would have on music and society. Spoken in full only in the acoustic version of the song, Young states the infamous citation that still resonates today - 'it's better to burn out than to fade away'.

The song proved to be a favourite of a young lead singer of a Seattle-based rock band called Nirvana. When Nirvana became a global phenomenon and the young front-man struggled to cope with his new-found celebrity status, Kurt Cobain committed suicide and left a harrowing note with the last line saying 'it's better to burn out than to fade away'.

The phrase would become allegorical of Cobain's suicide and his memory would be preserved with him at the peak of his career in terms of success and popularity. It is through this reference that the line has become synonymous with the careers of musicians and used to highlight the deterioration of a formerly excellent artist into a mediocre performer.

In the film High Fidelity, Jack Black's character quotes the famous Neil Young line when a customer attempts to purchase the latest Stevie Wonder song 'I Just Called To Say I Love You'. Stevie Wonder almost epitomises the concept of the artist fading away as he enjoyed critical acclaim, before seemingly sacrificing this for commercial success.

Wonder's peak occurred during the early to mid 1970s with classic recordings including 'Superstition' and 'Higher Ground' that helped elevate him to a celebrated 20th century artist. However, as the 1980s approached Wonder began to record more pop-influenced tunes with sentimental lyrics including the sugar-coated 'Happy Birthday' and 'I Just Called To Say I Love You'.

As Black's character questions in High Fidelity "is it in fact unfair to criticize a formerly great artist for his latter day sins, is it better to burn out or fade away?". This is certainly personal choice as however much one dislikes Wonder's latter works, we must remember the influence that he has made upon modern music.

In direct contrast to the example of Stevie Wonder, who has continued to make music throughout his extensive career, there are many examples of artists that have burnt out in their prime. Four of those that have died, all at the age of 27 include Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain. These musicians' careers were cut short when they were still in their prime and so it begs the question - would they have continued to produce outstanding or would they have deteriorated until they became guests on reality television?

It would be uncomfortable viewing, with all that has happened with the post-Cobain Nirvana euphoria to imagine him as one of the celebrity guests on the loosely termed 'rock' episode of American Idol. In committing suicide, sadly, Cobain has cemented his place in rock history as the frontman of one of the most influential bands of the last thirty years.

At the time of Jim Morrison's death, The Doors had recorded L.A. Woman (released in May of 1971) to reinforce the band's position as one of the most important rock bands of the time. Following the recording of the album, Morrison moved to Paris where he would die on the 3rd of July 1971. L.A. Woman would go on to sell massively worldwide, The Doors' most popular record since their debut album.

Following Morrison's death, The Doors continued to perform and produced two more albums with vocals shared between two of the original band members. Inevitably, the albums sold considerably less than those released with Morrison and The Doors disbanded. If Morrison hadn't gone to Paris and The Doors had continued making music, the albums would certainly have varied but what would have been Morrison's musical fate.

There are many examples of musicians that have continued to make successful, well-received music long after their expected shelf-life has expired. David Bowie, despite some criticism, has continued to perform to a high standard while Madonna has grown from a young pop starlet to global superstar.

The common trait that is shared by those artists that maintain their position is one of progression and evolution. Artists that continue producing the same music for years will inevitably become dated and eventually fade away into obscurity. Maybe it is just a question of choice, and so I too will burn out as my article is at its peak.
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