"The overwhelming prerequisite for the greatness of an artist is that artist's death."
—Thiessen's Law of Art
The vast majority of shows that mention painting mention this trope at one point: Artists are never recognized until after they're dead. Though this has happened in a great majority of cases, there have also been been a great deal of painters, modern and classic, that have been recognized while still alive. Nor has the deceased been recognized immediately after his corpse hits the ground, as it seems to happen when this trope is in effect. (Historically, this has affected composers and writers far less than people assume. Shakespeare was successful during his lifetime, so was Beethoven. It stands to reason - only a few people would continue doing something for a long time without some kind of success. This is glaringly obvious for composers - of the top tier, only Bach comes even remotely close to this trope, though he was a well-respected musician in his lifetime.)
In 99% of the cases where this trope is mentioned, one character, either the artist or an associate, will come up with the "brilliant" idea of spreading rumors of the artist's death, which immediately causes said artist's work to magically get the recognition that eluded it all these years. Of course, something inevitably goes wrong, the artist is found to be alive, and the status quo is restored. For some reason, fraud accusations are seldom made.
See also Vindicated by History, True Art Is Ancient. When a musician's death or departure leads to their group doing better than before, it's an aversion of The Band Minus the Face.
As a Death Trope, all Spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.
open/close all folders
Anime and Manga
The plot device with a faked death skyrocketing popularity and recognition is used in Galaxy Angel almost perfectly, although with a military officer instead of an artist.
A similar thing happens in Cannon God Exaxxion, though in this case the people playing up the war hero's death actually believed he was dead at first. When it turns out he wasn't, rather than admitting their mistake, they decide to make it come true.
In Mega Man Star Force, Hyde is under the impression that people will not love his grim, macabre works of art until after he dies. This is a motive for his villainy in the first place, as he tries to find Mu to become immortal so that he may live to see people appreciate him. When this doesn't seem to be working out, he starts an art class for children to get them to appreciate the art when they grow older, but they all ignore him and simply come for the free food.
Free food provided by Luna Platz, who is perhaps is his sole earnest student.
In one chapter of Petshop Of Horrors, a has-been actor whose only success was a small role in a cult-classic sci-fi film commits suicide by basilisk. At his funeral, people are already starting to speak of him as if he were a great actor whose immense talent was too quickly robbed from the world.
In the Doctor Who comic strip "Interstellar Overdrive 2" in Doctor Who Magazine, the manager of a band plans to kill them all in a spaceship 'accident' so the record company can make a fortune reissuing new editions of their back catalogue.
The movie Pauly Shore is Dead shamelessly parodies this trope.
Robin Williams' son in Worlds Greatest Dad is a terrible person in life, but Robin takes advantage of his death to sell his own book, disguised as a journal the son wrote before death.
Titanic: "It's a pity we couldn't hold on to that drawing. It'll be worth a lot more in the morning."
Ironically, he's kind of right — the painting is found in a safe and restored, and given that it's a momento that was brought up from the Titanic it's now a priceless historical artefact. And the artist dies in the sinking, so bonus.
In She's All That, two girls in Lani's art class complement her on how wonderful her paintings are. She thinks it's a genuine complement until they suggest she invoke this trope and "off herself" like all the greats did.
The trope is the whole plot of the 60s movie The Art of Love, which has Dick Van Dyke staging his own death to increase the value of his paintings.
Discussed in Die Another Day. Jinx is meeting with a surgeon on the Cuban island, discussing a drastic procedure to change her looks. He says that he considers himself an artist, and she remarks that most great artists aren't celebrated until after their deaths, upon which she shoots him.
In the Discworld novel Soul Music, Music With Rocks In requires the early death of its first host (the singer Buddy) in order to spread further. "Everyone will remember the songs he never had a chance to sing. And they would be the greatest songs of all." See the quote page.
Older Than Radio: In one of Mark Twain's short stories, two starving artists manufacture a great deal of art... and then manufacture a story about how the artist who painted these things is fatally ill. Naturally, the artist in question eventually "dies", and his paintings become valuable overnight. Note that said dead artist is Francois Millet.
Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers is a murder mystery in which the victim and the prime suspect are both authors. The trial from the publicity substantially helps both their sales; the detective discusses this as a possible motive for the murder, but doesn't pursue it because he's in love with the suspect and trying to clear her. As it turns out, she's innocent, and his murder had nothing to do with him being an author.
In Margaret Atwood's Resources of the Ikarians, the inhabitants of a barren island devoid of sources of income start cultivating dead artists.
Noted in Dumas' novel The Count of Monte Cristo, where the Count notes that the modern school of artists has one major failing — "They have not had enough time to become Old Masters".
The Second Deadly Sin (1977) by Lawrence Sanders uses this trope. The artist with the terminal illness has stockpiled paintings to provide for his family and agent. But he lives longer than expected, and keeps on producing more paintings....
This was the entire motive of the killer in Phryne Fisher novel Murder in Montparnasse.
Live Action TV
The Dukes of Hazzard: Season 6's "Dead and Alive," where Boss Hogg declares Hazzard County artist Artie Bender dead … shortly after he witnesses two crooks rob an armored car. While Boss is anticipating selling Artie's paintings at grossly inflated prices, Bo and Luke are trying to have their alibi credited to hard-nosed Sheriff Little, who has fingered them as the suspects.
In Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Salem sells Hilda's paintings after publishing her obituary. She is naturally upset, and proceeds to tell her boyfriend a mistake was made... not knowing that Zelda, going along with the scam for whatever reason had given him magically summoned photos of Hilda in a coffin. Naturally, he fled in terror.
In Seinfeld, George buys the art of an artist he expects to die and then gets angry when the artist ends up recovering.
Especially since George buying the art was what gave said artist the will to keep living, helping him recover.
Also happens in the TV series Lush Life, which main character in an artist.
On My Two Dads, Joey decides to take advantage of an erroneous report of his death to mass-produce a bunch of paintings and sell them at huge mark-ups.
On The Golden Girls, the girls hear that a famous artist is near death, so they buy one of his paintings to make a quick buck. Then Sophia ends up saving the guy's life with a blood transfusion.
In the Bones episode "The Skull in the Sculpture" the murderer turned out to be banking on this trope.
On The Muppet Show, Gonzo once gave Kris Kristoffersson and Rita Coolidge his autograph under the assumption that it would be believed that his last act had rendered him dead.
On Taxi, the Sunshine Cab Company employees bid on a painting by an artist Elaine knows is at death's door. He's announced dead right after the painting is sold to someone else, causing a priceless breakdown from Louie.
In a Saturday Night Live sketch, a marketing consultant advises a past-his-peak rock star that this trope is the best way to increase his popularity. When the performer proves reluctant to take this route, the consultant shows him a line graph comparing Peter Frampton's and Jim Morrison's album sales for the same time period.
An episode of I Carly spoofed this - when Spencer (an amateur artist) is incorrectly reported dead in the newspaper for some unexplained reason, he (and Carly) exploits this by milking thousands of dollars off of customers for his sculptures.
The Hogan's Heroes episode "Klink's Masterpiece" ends with Col. Hogan reminding Klink of this trope, noting that Vincent Van Gogh starved, only becoming popular after his death.
The Dire Straits song "In the Gallery" relates the story of an artist driven to create but never gaining recognition, until... "I've got to say he passed away in obscurity / And now all the vultures are coming down from the tree / So he's going to be in the gallery"
The title of the Nightwish song "Kuolema Tekee Taiteilijan" translates to "Death Makes an Artist". They also have "The Poet and the Pendulum", which is basically a 14 minute Epic Rocking song about Tuomas dying. Which was written by Tuomas himself.
"Schneller Leben" (Live Faster) by German punk band Die Ärzte is all about parodying this trope.
"Kurt Cobain hat es gewusst, im alter droht Gesichtsverlust. Was glaubst du warum Jesu Christ, schon so jung gestorben ist. Jimi Hendrix und Bruce Lee, alt geworden sind die nie. Lern von diesen Vorbildern, als Leiche hat dich jeder gern."
(Kurt Cobain knew, with age comes loss of face. What do you think Jesus Christ died so young? Jimi Hendrix and Bruce Lee, they never got to grow old. Learn from these great examples, everyone likes you as a corpse.)
The Smiths song "Paint A Vulgar Picture" is about the record industry's tendency to do this with dead musicians.
At the record company meeting, on their hands a dead star.
The Christian Rock band Dead Artist's Syndrome is named for this trope.
Mentioned in "If I Die Young" by The Band Perry: "Penny for my thoughts? Oh no, I'll sell them for a dollar / They're worth so much more now that I'm a goner / Maybe then you'll hear the words I've been singin' / Funny when you're dead, that's when people start listenin'"
Well you see, I wanna sell a million records / But my music sucks so what am I to do? / They say an artist is appreciated after he's dead / I have no talent, but I bet that it's still true. / The lyrics all suck / and the chords are too funky / We're on a major label cuz / we're just plain lucky / We sold 4 albums to our own mothers / we have a few supporters / (but there aren't many others…) / What if I could live / When they all would think I'm dead / Oh just what if I could have me a cake / and eat it too? / I'd be set for life / No more struggles, no more strife / Let the money do the talking / I'm a dead man walking.
Gaugin: Nothing now, they'll be worth a fortune after I'm dead.
Toulouse-Lautrec: After you're dead... [GUNSHOT] I'm rich!
Timberlake Wertenbaker's play Three Birds Alighting on a Field invokes this trope repeatedly. One scene has an art dealer discussing the disappointing sales of a particular painter. The artist had died young, which the dealer mentions as a "good thing, from a marketing point of view".
A recently discovered play by Mark Twain, Is He Dead?, is based on the short story described above.
Pippin has the title character reject life as an artist, since "You have to die before you find out if you're any good."
The price of a painting in The Sims skyrockets after the sim who painted it dies.
This forms part of the plot of the Visual NovelHotel Dusk: Room 215 for the Nintendo DS; an artist who is very much alive and his partner had been exploiting this effect, getting high prices for the artist's paintings by making up a dead artist named "Osterzone" and saying that Osterzone was the one who painted them.
A pair of side missions in Grand Theft Auto IV has you helping out an aspiring rapper. At the start of the second mission, he gets shot, and you have to take him to a hospital before he dies. While he's in the car with you, the rapper contemplates how, now that he's had a brush with death in the form of getting shot in the street, more people will take him seriously, meaning that his shot at the big time is now right in front of him. It's not quite death, but it's close enough.
Both discussed and parodied in Tales of Monkey Island Chapter 4: The Trial and Execution of Guybrush Threepwood:
Guybrush: How're sales going?
Stan: Great! Celebrity merchandise is always a good investment, especially if you suspect that the celebrity in question is about to become a wind chime in the gallows! NOTHING sells like dead celebrities.
In Wadjet Eye Games's The Blackwell Convergence the antagonist of the story is using a power he doesn't fully understand to strategically kill people in ways that will help his investments do well. At a couple of points he kills an actor so the movie he stars in will get more promotion, and he kills an artist on the opening night of his art show. The movie becomes a smash success for the small company that produced it and the artist's paintings all sell immediately for a lot more than the original asking prices.
Played with in Left 4 Dead 2. It is initially believed by some wall writers that the Midnight Riders have been overwhelmed by the horde, as evidenced by various writings mourning their deaths. When it is announced that the band is still alive, the wall are then filled with bashings and criticisms of their work.
Another Valve Software game, Team Fortress 2, also plays with this. In the official comic Unhappy Returns, it's revealed that Scout spent his entire life savings on Tom Jones merchandise. Spy points out how illogical this is— he's one of the most virile men on the planet, he's in his twenties (note that the game takes place in the late 60's-early 70's), he has virtually no enemies...Scout merely replies that it's a "Get-rich-slow" scheme. Of course, this being an Alternate Universe from our own, Soldier murders Tom Jones out of jealousy a short time later (He was living with Soldier's former roommate. It's a Long Story.)
Spoofed in Cyanide and Happiness, where an artist insists he will be "more famous after he dies", then hangs himself with his own intestinal tract. A subsequent newspaper headline still describes him as "pretty bad".
This is invoked in Sam and Fuzzy, where Corrupt Corporate Executive Mr. Sin routinely "kills" his label's artists if they become unmanageable, and uses this trope to get more sales out of them, while the actual artist, still alive, is transported to a deserted island and held there. It's implied the entire recording industry in that universe does it, since it happened to Elvis in 1977. He's still on the island thirty years later, and quite bitter about it.
Invoked by Amelia Travoria in Dominic Deegan. She used her enchantment magic to drive Michael Cao to produce darker pictures until he was Driven to Suicide, so she could sell his last works at a markup.
A Pinky and the Brain episode had Pinky become a hugely successful artist named "Pinkasso", with Brain collecting the money made from his paintings to fund his latest scheme. Naturally, Brain makes "Pinkasso's" popularity skyrocket by announcing his death, but it backfires when Pinky stupidly walks into the auction of the "deceased" artist's work.
Lampshaded in The Simpsons: Lisa is outraged that a record of her deceased idol, Bleeding Gums Murphy, costs $250. When Comic Book Guy learns the man is dead, he immediately doubles the price to $500.
In the show's parody of Amadeus, the dying Mozart (Bart) comments to his sister (Lisa, the Salieri figure) that he thought she was the more talented artist, but now that he is dying young he'll "be cool forever".
In one episode of Hey Arnold!, Dino Spumoni tried to increase his popularity again by faking his death - he got the idea from a book he read about van Gogh. His plan backfired when an imitator took in all his business instead.
Parodied in American Dad! when is was shown that Stan had a collection of Tara Reid commemorative plates. His son Steve says it will be worth a lot once she dies in a few months.
Completely averted in Futurama in the seventh season episode where Bender becomes a paparazzo. Calculon is needs to beat a famous actor named Langdon Cobb so he can weaken his ego. He drinks a bottle of food coloring (which is very poisonous to robots) so he can make a believable death scene. Langdon still wins unanimously.
In the "Darkwing Duck" episode "Paint Misbehavin'" after Splatter Phoenix is splashed with turpentine and begins to melt she comments that at the very least her paintings may now be worth something after she's dead.
Vincent van Gogh is the poster child of this trope, managing to sell just one painting during his lifetime, but becoming much sought after soon after his suicide.
The world will never know what reception The Dark Knight would have gotten on its own merit because the hype was warped through the buzz of Heath Ledger's death. It became the second-highest grossing film of all time in America (not adjusted for inflation), and the fourth to surpass $1 billion worldwide. Ledger won a lot of posthumous awards, including the Oscar. However, Ledger's very final movie, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, received mixed reviews and only a moderate gross.
In the same vein as Ledger's death, Christopher Reeve's paralysis later in life made him a living martyr and ensured his Superman movies (well, the first two) would be considered untouchable and quintessential, though Superman and his world from the DC Comicshave longevolved past their depiction in the films. Which makes it frustrating for today's comics fans that the most recent Superman film is a slavish superhomage to a retro, passé version instead of depicting the contemporary one they're used to. That may change.
The newest Superman film was accepted by neither nostalgic Reeve diehards nor modern Superman comic fans, and so Reeve's depiction still lords it over popular culture.
Brandon Lee's final movie, The Crow, received a huge boost due to his death, and has become a Cult Classic.
Brittany Murphy's career had shrunk to small roles and voice acting (most notably, her role on King of the Hill) by the time of her death, which became a media sensation.
Hong Kong actor Leslie Cheung was hugely popular in his lifetime, but the sheer number of eulogies and overwrought tributes after his sudden suicide was unprecedented.
Bruce Lee's premature and mysterious death greatly contributed to the box office success of his films and all the Bruceploitation films it spawned.
HP Lovecraft, whose stories, though known among genre fans during his lifetime, only achieved anything resembling literary success after he died, with the help of other writers adding onto the Cthulhu Mythos and keeping it going. This is one example where death actually was a direct cause, not just a symptom of the passage of time— his works went into the public domain instead of staying with an estate, which is what allowed all those other authors to play in his sandbox.
J. R. R. Tolkien. While he was a noted author and respected linguist during his lifetime, only after his death he has become a household name everywhere. He has been inspiration on basically every fantasy fiction author, and all his works are fundamental parts of Geek Canon. Vindicated by History: only after his death The Silmarillion and Lord of the Rings have been recognized as great works of the 20th century English literature.
A more extreme example is John Kennedy Toole's Pulitizer Prize-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces. It wasn't his death that got audiences' attention, but the tireless efforts of his mother over the course of eleven years to get it published.
Franz Kafka was little-known in the literary circle until he died and his friend Max Brod edited and published his unfinished manuscripts. Max also invokes the reversal of this trope, as he was a very popular and acclaimed author back then, but is now known only as Kafka's friend. It's also interesting to note that Kafka specifically told Brod to burn his unfinished works, and Brod directly disobeyed his dying wish. Good call.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was popular during the twenties, but later in his life, he was unsuccessful and unpopular. It wasn't until after he died that The Great Gatsby became celebrated as one of the greatest American novels.
New Zealand author Ronald Hugh Morrieson once feared that he would become "another of those poor buggers who gets discovered when they're dead." He continues to be proven right, long after his death in 1972.
Stieg Larsson died shortly after delivering the manuscripts for The Millennium Trilogy, which has proved wildly successful.
David Foster Wallace has been getting a tremendous amount of attention after he hanged himself.
Zora Neale Hurston (who wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God), despite coming from the prolific Harlem Renaissance period, struggled to make a living throughout most of her life. She died relatively young, penniless and buried in an unmarked grave. It wasn't until decades later when Hurston (along with Maya Angelou) was seen as a revolutionary voice for black female writers, and posthumously paved the way for writers like Alice Walker (The Color Purple) and Toni Morrison (Beloved).
Live Action TV
As The Agony Booth's Albert Walker remembers and describes as "Dying Young Retroactively Makes You More Talented", the suicide of Jonathon Brandis earned him this status ("Seriously, prior to his death, reviewers mostly described Brandis' Sea Quest DSV character as a dopier version of WesleyCrusher").
John Ritter was never much of a ratings draw after Threes Company ended. But after his sudden and unexpected death, everyone fell over themselves proclaiming him a genius and TC one of the greatest sitcoms of all time (as well as his current show, 8 Simple Rules, to a lesser extent).
Sadly, Phil Hartman averted the trope, as he did not win an Emmy posthumously for Outstanding Supporting Actor. It went to David Hyde Pierce instead. His NewsRadio co-star Dave Foley quipped once, "What does a guy have to do to win an Emmy around here?"
Jade Goody was generally described as being thick, ugly and a racist. Until she got diagnosed with a terminal illness.
Fred Rogers was deeply admired while he was alive, but since his death, he has been elevated to be an American saint of television.
Much outrage was sparked when it was reported that Cory Monteith would be featured prominently in the 2013 Emmy Awards' "In Memoriam" montage whereas other actors like Larry Hagman and Jonathan Winters had been excluded. Adam Klugman, son of late actor Jack Klugman, who'd also been excluded from the montage, was very critical of what he believed was over-promotion of Monteith's life and career.
Kurt Cobain was valued before he died, and they did have several hit singles at the time, but Nirvana probably wouldn't have sold 50 million albums and been considered such a genre-defining band without the dramatic suicide (Pearl Jam, for instance, was easily outselling Nirvana at the time).
Rap music in general is fascinated with this trope more than other genres. Many rappers who had small, cult followings end up getting deified and endlessly shouted out in other rappers' songs after their deaths; this gets taken to ridiculous levels when you see rappers who had beef with each other talk about how much they admired the now dead rival.
The Notorious BIG has been hailed by many as the greatest rapper of all time...after he died. With only two albums completed in his lifetime, to boot.
hide, a Japanese rock guitarist for the band X Japan and who also had a solo career. Very popular in life (and arguably could have been the person to break the "barrier" between Japanese rock and metal and Western rock and metal had he lived) but far, far, FAR more popular after his death.
Austrian singer Falco ("Rock me Amadeus") supposedly said: "You've got to die in Vienna that the people will appreciate you."
John Lennon didn't really become Holy St. John of Peace and Wonderfulness until after his tragic assassination. His album Double Fantasy probably wouldn't have sold so much or been nominated for a Grammy if it wasn't for his death. Woe be to The Beatles fan who tries to point this out to a hardcore Lennonhead, however.
In fairness, Double Fantasy did go gold before Lennon died, as David Geffen told John when Geffen dropped by the record studio on the night of Dec. 8. It is true that it wouldn't have won that Grammy—reviews published in the three weeks between the album's release and Lennon's murder were lukewarm. The fact that it was not strictly a Lennon album, but a John Lennon and Yoko Ono album also did not help sales.
John, ironically enough, mentioned of this trope in interviews prior to his death. After his so-called "lost weekend" Lennon took in LA, where he was separated from Yoko and went on an alcoholic binge, leading to some embarrassing behavior around 1973-75, he reunited with Yoko, straightened himself out and took a five-year hiatus from the music industry to raise his son Sean. Lennon commented in interviews that the fact he did not die in Los Angeles meant that critics were free to take shots at his music, but had he died, everyone would be praising him and feeling empathy with his music and messages.
Even Lennon's former bandmate Paul McCartney once commented "Since his death he has become Martin Luther Lennon."
After Lennon's death, some critics forgot the unevenness of his solo work and proclaimed him the real genius behind The Beatles, much to McCartney's irritation. McCartney still tends to be the subject of more critical and popular derision these days (and the fact that, unlike Lennon, he also usually tends to spurn True Art Is Angsty doesn't help), but it is likely that after his death he will finally be appreciated as the genius that he is.
While not as deified as John, George Harrison has also been a beneficiary of this effect since his death in 2001. Suddenly people remembered why songs like "My Sweet Lord" and "Crackerbox Palace" had been so popular in their day. Additionally George had been an object of frequent derision for his unabashedly religious music and for the red tape issues surrounding the Concert for Bangladesh. After his death, his spirituality became a point of respect, and he was hailed as being compassionate enough to "invent" the benefit concert. (Incidentally his death made front page news in Bangladesh itself.)
Ian Curtis and Joy Division. Some of the praise runs along the lines of "well, it's depressing but at least he meant it." The rest of Joy Division became New Order and put out many more albums and hit singles, but tend to be overshadowed by Curtis' suicide. 24 Hour Party People focuses on Joy Division and moves on to the Happy Mondays with New Order appearing in the background. Anton Corbijn's Control covers Curtis's life and finishes with his death, with no mention of what the other three did. Grant Gee's Joy Division documentary contains barely a mention of anything past 1980.
Well, Control was explicitly a biopic of Curtis's life. And interestingly, most of these tend to avert Never Speak Ill of the Dead, showing Ian for the Jerk Ass to his wife and child that he was.
Brad Nowell and Sublime. As one reviewer put it:
(Death) gives the record a certain pathos, but that doesn't make the album any stronger.
After Queen fell from popularity in the USA in The Eighties, Freddie Mercury told Brian May: "Guess I'll have to fucking die before we're big there again." Spot on.
Cliff Burton, the dead bassist of Metallica, has achieved legendary status within the heavy metal world. Probably because, back in 1986, he died when the tour bus slid on black ice, flipped over, and crushed him. The fact that, when they were lifting the tour bus up with a crane after the accident, they accidentally dropped it back onto him did not help.
The kicker is the band drew cards for that bed. Guess which card Cliff drew? The Ace of Spades. No kidding. On the other hand, the band relocated to San Francisco because he'd join them on that condition; he was that good.
When Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead passed away, not only was there increased demand for the albums, but also for his line of men's ties and even Ben & Jerry's "Cherry Garcia" ice cream, which had existed since the mid-'80s and went from being one of its better selling flavors to the brand's biggest selling flavor of all time.
"It's funny how most people love the dead. Once you're dead, you're made for life."
Mayhem has had countless singers throughout their history. One of them, Dead (real name Per Yngve Ohlin), in addition to being pretty unhinged in life (starving himself to "improve" his voice, burying his clothes in the ground and wearing them onstage while cutting himself), ultimately blew his head off with a shotgun while leaving a note that only said "Pardon the mess." The guitarist, Euronymous, then took a picture of his body before calling the police, the picture of which appeared on one of their album covers. He then, according to legend, made a stew out of his pieces of his brain and ate it (which Euronymous confirmed as false, though he apparently thought about it), and collected fragments of his skull and made necklaces out of them (Euronymous confirmed this one as true.) Now, guess which of their many singers was traditionally called the best?
Second Mayhem example: original guitarist and songwriter Euronymous was murdered shortly after recording of the band's proper debut album, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, was completed. This album has effectively become the yardstick against which all subsequent Mayhem albums have and must be measured. His murderer, Varg Vikernes, was playing bass on that album. Varg's releases as Burzum later became entry-level black metal music for unrelated reasons.
Eva Cassidy may be the epitome of this trope among female musicians. While she may have never actively sought out for fame and a stable career in the music business, she was relatively unknown outside her home state of Washington D.C. when she passed away from skin cancer in 1996 at the age of 33. She released an album in 1992 with her own arrangements of classics like "What a Wonderful World" and "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" and won a couple of local music awards, but nothing else. Two years after her death, a compilation album, "Songbird" was made, which sold over 100, 000 copies over the following months. A British music show then aired a poignant, black-and-white video of Cassidy singing "Over the Rainbow", and "Songbird" shot up the charts. Eight million copies of her album have now been sold, and her music has topped international charts. When you watch her perform though (shown here, performing her now signature song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"), there is arguably something incredibly moving and angelic about her performance, knowing Death had taken her at such a young age.
Michael Jackson. Granted, he sold over 270 million albums and helped define a generation, but he also spent pretty much the last two decades of his life as a pop-cultural punchline, almost universally dismissed as a walking train wreck and a reclusive freak (and that's not even getting into the multiple accusations of child molestation leveled at him) whose Glory Days as an artist were long behind him. After his death, the media coverage and tributes completely reversed his reputation almost overnight, to the point of winning four AMA awards after his death for a 2003 Greatest Hits Album. MAD mocked this twice, first with a "brutally honest" obituary that pointed up both his personal failings and the failure of his family and handlers to do anything to help him, and second by declaring the post-mortem near-deification the Dumbest Event of 2009.
Richey James Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers mysteriously disappeared in 1995, and has been presumed dead since 2008. The band have had much more commercial success since then. Of course, this could be because, without his unique vision, they've produced several more pop-friendly albums (an album using lyrics left by him was released in 2009).
Sid Vicious didn't play on any of the Sex Pistols' albums, didn't write anything and his amps were turned off live (the man couldn't even play). Still, he's the most famous "member" of the band because he died at 21 (and because he allegedly murdered his girlfriend, though that's a surprisingly small part of it).
Bill Drummond (later a member of The KLF) wrote a song that appeared on his solo album The Man dealing with just this. The title: "Julian Cope Is Dead". During the song, Julian Cope dies in order to make his band, The Teardrop Explodes, famous. Bill used to be the manager of the band and the song is a parody of Cope's own solo song "Bill Drummond Said". Drummond's frustration with the music industry (and Cope in particular) is quite well known.
Aaliyah. Granted she was popular before she died, but no one called her the "best there ever was" until afterward. In fact, some critics said she couldn't sing and just looked good (similar to the current complaints about Rihanna). Now you'd be hard pressed to find a critic who dislikes her.
The famous Rolling Stone cover with Jim Morrison: "He's hot. He's sexy. He's dead."
Ozzy Osbourne has had nearly a dozen guitarists join his band, with varying levels of success, but which of them is considered the greatest? Randy Rhoads, of course, the one who died in a plane crash in 1982 and left a legacy even Zakk Wylde lives in the shadow of after playing on only 2 Ozzy albums, if you don't count the live Tribute album released in 1987 (it helps that Rhoads was also Ozzy's first guitarist, and had achieved some fame beforehand as the guitarist for Quiet Riot).
Nick Drake achieved very little success in his life before his death, though this could be partially be due to the fact that he had several mental illnesses plaguing him as well. Afterward? People started discovering him, and his sales started increasingly tremendously. Though he didn't achieve true success until almost forty years later, when his song "Pink Moon" was used in a Volkswagen ad. In the ensuing months, his albums sold more copies than they had in the last 35+ years combined.
Nick was so painfully introverted, he almost never performed for an audience (which didn't help his career). One time when he tried, he felt rejected because the crowd wouldn't be quiet and listen (hardly a headliner, he was providing background music for a popular club). He played for small groups of friends, often astonished by his ability. Nick's work did sustain the attention of one important man: producer Joe Boyd, also crucial in the careers of Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson and The Incredible String Band.
Pantera's Dimebag Darrell. Before his death? Badass metal guitar player who helped keep the solo flag flying. After his death? THE GREATEST PLAYER SINCE RANDY RHOADS! (see above)
To be fair, a lot of people believed that before his death. When Dimebag was a teenager he won so many local guitar competitions that he was eventually banned from participating in order to give other players a chance to win. In the 1990s the readers of Guitar World magazine voted Dimebag Darrell "Best Metal Guitarist" several times.
Amy Winehouse. Back to Black made it back into the top selling albums in the UK (#59) with only one day of her death. Both her albums were huge critical and commercial successes, and she also by their own admission directly inspired and paved the way for the likes of Adele, Lady Gaga, Gabriella Cilimi, Jessie J, Duffy, Paloma Faith and Florence + the Machine. But much like Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse became a bit of a pop culture joke, constantly derided for being a drunk, drugged-up artist whose music was flying under the radar more than her antics and substance abuse. It had been a few years since Amy had even had a hit song on the radio, yet she was still being mocked for the drugs and her style, which, unlike the unconventional style of comtemporary artists like Lady Gaga, were seen more as gaudy and ugly than true fashion statements. After her death, her music and style were played up while her drug abuse and the jokes about it were downplayed nearly as if they hadn't happened.
Although Dean Martin has always had some measure of popularity, he seems to have gotten much more positive attention in death than in his lifetime, when under the shadows of Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra. It is almost as likely that posthumous compilations of his greatest hits will turn up in record shelves as Frank's.
Whitney Houston did sell over 170 million records in her career, but just like Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse, she spent the last decade of her life as a pop-culture joke, being ridiculed constantly for her problems with drugs & alcohol and increasingly erratic behavior (Not to mention her tumultuous relationship with Bobby Brown). Shortly after her death, sales of her records soared, tributes to her began to pour out and jokes about the problems she had were largely forgotten.
A subversion in one of the most bizarre incidents, Sixto Rodriguez was a small time Detroit folksinger who didn't know he was a pop superstar in South Africa, who was rumored to have committed suicide on stage. When he was discovered alive and well and performed in South Africa, it was like to the South Africans that Elvis Presley was found truly alive and performing again.
Elvis Presley. It was once said by a handler that death was the best thing to happen to his career. In fact, he sold more albums and merchandise in the three years after he died than in his entire career!
Jenni Rivera, a Mexican Banda largely unknown outside of the genre, is getting a popularity push after her death in a plane crash. Some people are accusing the media of exploiting her death for political reasons.note Despite her death being widely announced not only in the Mexican media, but also in countries where Banda music is considered a niche genre (like the U.S.) or a cultural oddity (other Hispanic countries); or is largely unknown (Israel and Japan)
Bob Marley was already popular during his lifetime, but only after his death did his fanbase expand beyond a cult reputation. Today he is perhaps the most well loved musician in the Third World. And even in the United States his fan base has grown considerably.
Blues singer Robert Johnson died in obscurity back in the 1930s. His reputation only grew a few decades later, when his music was rediscovered by collectors of authentic American folk music.
Most classical composers also fit in this trope. During their lifetime their music is hardly performed or heard at all. Only decades after they passed way does their music usually become well known in the orchestral repertoire.
Frank Zappa once said that he didn't care whether he was remembered at all and bitterly assumed that this would be the case after he died. Though he will never become a mainstream favorite his music is now far more popular than during his lifetime.
Israel "Iz" Kamakawiwo'ole.
Sylvia Plath. When she was alive, she struggled to gain recognition at all for her poetry. After her death? She was the first poet to posthumously win the Pulitzer Prize, is now regarded as one of the key figures in confessional poetry, and Joyce Carol Oates hailed the publication of Plath's unabridged journals as a "genuine literary event."
Both her contemporary Anne Sexton and her husband Ted Hughes might also fit this trope.
Older Than Radio: After John Keats' death, literati everywhere said he would've surpassed Shakespeare if he had lived longer. He did die at the age of 26, though, and only really began producing once it was clear he was dying, so they might have a point.
Emily Dickinson wasn't even published before her death. If she had been well enough to destroy her own work before she died (instead of trusting a friend to do so) we never would have seen a word of it.
Charles Bukowski. He became somewhat popular in the Eighties, but is now considered a legend.
Initially averted by Chris Benoit. As when word broke out of what really happened to himself and his family, much of the Internet Wrestling Community turned on him instantly, the same IWC that once worshiped him as their god. However, this started to turn back in his favor when it was revealed that, due to the many, many concussions he suffered during his wrestling career, his brain resembled that of an 80-year-old Alzheimer's patient, helping to explain the otherwise inexcusable act.
Played straight by most other wrestlers who die young though, especially Owen Hart, who was never more than an upper-midcarder at best in his lifetime (though according to Triple H, he was about to get a major push when he died; the push that Triple H himself ended up getting, in fact), and Eddie Guerrero, who was extremely over but then became like a GOD after his death.
As a rule of thumb, songs by professional wrestlers tend to be So Bad, It's Good at best. However, Randy Savage's rap album, Be A Man, has been looked upon much more favorably after his death. The Bryan & Vinny show went so far as to point out that rap artists have been known to release albums posthumously, so they expressed hope that another one would be released some day.
Heinrich von Kleist is considered one of the great classics of German theatre, but before his 1811 suicide he only managed to get two of his plays performed on stage, both in mutilated form. For instance Goethe (in his capacity as director of the theatre in Weimar) felt it necessary to transform Kleist's one-act comedy Der zerbrochne Krug ("The broken jug") into a three-act play, thereby completely spoiling its effect. IN some respects Kleist was so far ahead of his time that he had to be Vindicated by History, which helps to explain why his Penthesilea and Amphitryon would have to wait until 1876 and 1898, respectively, for their first performance.
It's hard to say if the Broadway musical RENT would have turned into the long-running smash it is if its author, Jonathon Larson, hadn't died shortly before its debut, but it certainly added to the show's legacy. (However, unlike Angel, he didn't die of AIDS).
Arguably, RENT was also highly valued because Broadway attendance was slumping at the time, and a Rock Opera about sassy young hipsters offered appeal to someone besides middle-aged Camp-lovers and little old matinee ladies.
Tex Avery falls in this trope as well. Though his work was very popular and influential during his lifetime, the man himself never received the respect he deserved so well. He died in obscurity. Only after his death in 1980 did his reputation grow to critically lauded proportions. The same can be said for fellow Warner Bros. directors Robert McKimson and Bob Clampett.