The concept of a musician’s ‘Legacy’ is an interesting thing to consider. Not only because the genre is so subjective, but also because when applied to music ‘Legacy’ seems to take on a different form than when used in any other case.
For example, in sports we judge a player or a teams accomplishments by their entire body of work: To be a great team you need to be a dynasty, to be a great player you need to play at a high level for a great duration period of time. When a players career is cut short, we’re left wondering what could’ve been, not what it was.
Conversely, a musician or band’s legacy seems to improve if their careers were cut short: The unanimous choices for the two greatest hip hop artist of all time are dead, they had 3 commercially successful studio albums between them before their passing. The Doors have more sanctioned ‘Greatest Hits’ albums than they do studio albums. To this day, Sublime is still one of the most played bands on FM radio despite only releasing three albums, none of which were particularly good.
And of course, there’s Nirvana. They’re kinda the reason for the essay:
Excluding their Sub-Pop release of the lesser known ‘Bleach’ album, Nirvana had two fantastic studio albums (‘Nevermind’ and ‘In Utero’), and one tremendous ‘Unplugged’ release. That’s only 24 songs between the two albums, and then a fantastic 14 track live recording for a band thats widely known as ‘The Most Important Band of the 1990’s.’
Ironically, their drummer is now on his 15th year of sustaining commercial success in a separate band, but has put somewhat of a sour taste in music lover’s mouth by not improving or evolving since the release of his band’s first two, terrific albums (‘Foo Fighters’ and ‘Colour & The Shape’).
Yet, a comparison between the two bands from a legacy stand point would likely be met with either a hard-laugh or a smack if you were speaking to a music-lover.
I must note here – while the Foo Fighters first two efforts were both very good albums, neither approach the level of quality or importance of Nevermind or In Utero. They’re two different entities with two different ceilings. They’re used in this example for a very obvious, linking reason.
Regardless, it’s a bit odd to think that continued success for a band has done nothing but hurt his own legacy, when you could argue a death would catapult them in the annals of rock history**.
Which leads us to some obvious hypotheticals about legacy:
How much changes if the Foo Fighters came first, Dave Grohl passes away, and Kurt Cobain continues on with Nirvana for the next fifteen years?
The Foo Fighters is the easier of the two: They’re probably a more critically acclaimed version of Sublime. A band with a ton of great songs that never really flowed all that well to create the full ‘album experience.’ Critically, we probably recall them as a Sound Garden type. Nothing that would necessarily that would alter the history of music, but still of a high quality.
What would happen to Nirvana, or Kurt Cobain is a little more ambiguous: Would continuing creating songs in vein of ‘tortured, emotional artist’ wear thin as time went on us like a more gothic Coldplay. Or is the talent, and arguably unmatched raw emotion of Cobain substantial enough where Cobain could rise above and continue a Johnny Cash like existence?
As a Nirvana fan, and as someone who thinks that ‘Nirvana Unplugged’ is one of the most incredible recordings ever, I’d like to say it’d be the latter. But who knows?
Eh, on second thought, it’s probably the latter, huh?
**Ultimate example of this would be if Adam Duritz of the Counting Crows passes. As he’d likely be the more passionate, dead version of Van Morrison.