Art imitates life. We all know that. Most musicians write music about things that have happened to them. Often times, songwriters use their music to deal with tragedy. That’s normal. But there are an increasing number of celebrities profiting from the bad things that have happened in their lives, and to the people around them. At what point does something stop being art and become blatant exploitation?
Some of these artists should feel guilty about exploiting a personal tragedy for their own financial gain. Others, however, shouldn’t feel guilt at all. Just because a celebrity does something shamelessly doesn’t mean that it’s a bad thing. Vincent Van Gogh, for example, used the tragedy in his life to create some of the most beautiful paintings of all time, but he didn’t become a success until after he died. Nonetheless, for better or worse, here are a list of celebrities that used tragedy to boost their career.
15. The Temptations — Used One Of Their Member’s Tragic Life
Rodger Penzabene was only 22 when he joined The Temptations. He was admired by the other members of the group for his humbleness, and his songwriting ability. Though he was usually a quiet man, Penzabene opened up through his music. Most notably, he wrote the hit songs I Wish It Would Rain and I Could Never Love Another. Both of these songs were based on his life.
I Wish It Would Rain was about Penzabene discovering that his wife had been cheating on him, but he couldn’t bring himself to divorce her. He wished that it would rain so that nobody would be able to tell that he was crying. Just a week after the release of I Wish It Would Rain, Penzabene committed suicide. The song became the main focus of The Temptations album The Temptations Wish It Would Rain which helped the group reach unprecedented levels of fame.
14. Joe Jackson — Using Michael Jackson’s Death To Promote His Record Label
Michael Jackson, also known as the King of Pop, lived a very tragic life. While he was a fairly unusual adult, he had to live through years of abuse at the hands of his father, Joe Jackson. When Michael Jackson died unexpectedly, the world stopped. It was such a major event that people can remember where they were when they found that Michael Jackson died. As Michael’s fans grieved, his father seemed to pay little to no attention to his son’s death.
Just days after Michael’s death, Joe Jackson used the increased media attention to promote his new record label. He would brush off questions about the death of his son in order to talk about his new label. When reporters would push for answers about how Joe Jackson was feeling about Michael’s death, Joe would call someone over to read a statement written on his behalf. It was disgusting to see someone use the death of their son to try and start a new business. You can find many interviews of Joe Jackson trying to peddle his new record company in the wake of Michael’s death.
13. De La Soul — Documenting The Abuse Of A Friend
De La Soul is an archaic hip hop group that was formed in the late 1980’s. Though you’ll rarely hear about them now, they’re one of the main influences for a lot of rappers that came after them. Even if you haven’t heard of De La Soul, you’re probably familiar with their collaboration with Gorillaz, Feel Good Inc. During their peak, the group was praised for their lyricism and ability to tell a story over the course of a song.
One of De La Soul’s more famous songs, Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa, tells the story of a teenager who is being s*xually abused by her father. Though the girl is fictional, Posdnuos wrote the song after one of his close friends revealed that her father had been sexually abusing her for years. Today, more than 25 years after it was first released, the song is recognized as one of the best storytelling rap records.
12. Steven Spielberg — Making Movies With Daddy Issues
You could make the argument that Stephen Spielberg is one of the greatest directors of all time. In fact, you wouldn’t have to argue very hard because most people would just agree with you. He’s the creative mastermind behind movies like E.T, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report, and too many other movies to list here. Like any director, Spielberg uses a lot of the same film making techniques in his movies. And, in the movies he writes, he even uses some of the same characters.
When Steven Spielberg was a child, his parents went through a nasty divorce. At the time, Spielberg blamed his father for the divorce and believed that it happened because his dad worked too much. In Spielberg’s early movies, strong father figures are essentially absent. More often than not, the dad’s in Spielberg’s movies were absent workaholics, who seemed to not take an interest in their children. This is a direct reflection of how Spielberg felt about his relationship with his father. However, after Spielberg reconciled with his father, he began adding strong father-figures into his movies, like Catch Me If You Can and War of the Worlds.
11. Eric Clapton — Writing Songs To His Son In Heaven
Eric Clapton is one of the greatest guitarists, and songwriters of all time. He’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times: as a solo artist, as a member of the Yardbirds, and as a member of Cream. He’s one of the most influential guitarists of all time, and is often listed as either the best, or second best, guitarist of all time. He’s absolutely iconic, but he too has profited from a personal tragedy.
In 1992, Clapton released the song Tears in Heaven. Claptop wrote the song to overcome the death of his four-year-old son, Conor, who fell from an apartment window the previous year. In 2004, Clapton vowed to stop performing both songs because he no longer connected with the songs emotionally.
10. Kanye West — Making Music About His Mother
Love him or hate him, Kanye West is one of the most influential rappers of all time. His antics might be too much for you to deal with, but you would be foolish to think that the man isn’t talented. Fans of Kanye know that his mother was an important figure in his life, and that he was absolutely gutted when she died in 2007 at the age of 56. Her death was tragic, and essentially a result of plastic surgery gone wrong.
In the following years, Kanye struggled with depression and grief. He dedicated many concerts to her, and often said that his songs had completely different meanings to him after the death of his mother. But, in 2015, Kanye released Only One featuring Paul McCartney, which Kanye says was sung to him, by his mother, through his daughter. Months later, Kanye revealed that he was working a video game that was essentially his mother travelling through the gates of heaven to the tune of Only One. Making a video game about your mother dying is a bit sleazy, don’t you think Yeezus?
9. Neil Young — Selling Songs About His Friends’ Addictions
Most songwriters draw inspiration from their own experiences, but at what point is an artist sharing too much? Neil Young is considered a great songwriter, but there is one song that he wrote that’s unsettling. In 1972, Young released the song The Needle and the Damage Done which was about heroin addiction among musicians that he knew, and how it was destroying their talent. The song was inspired by the addiction of his band mate Danny Whitten.
After the song was released, Whitten continued to struggle with his heroin addiction. In fact, it got worse. Whitten was invited to play on Neil Young’s Harvest Tour, but struggled to learn the music as fast as the other members of the band. Young fired him from the band, and gave him $50 as well as a plane ticket back to Los Angeles. That night, Whitten died of an overdose on a combination of diazepam and alcohol. Up until the mid 2000’s, Young said that he felt responsible for Whitten’s death.
8. Diddy — Exploiting The Death Of Biggie Smalls
Back in the 90’s, the only reason Diddy was famous was because he was the guy who sold Biggie’s albums. After Biggie Smalls died, Diddy took it upon himself to make sure that his friend was never forgotten. Through his label, Bad Boy Records, Diddy released two Biggie Smalls albums after his death. On these albums, Diddy is showing off his own rap ability on a number of songs. Additionally, Diddy wrote songs about the death of Biggie, and tried to drop references to the rapper’s death in too many songs to keep track of. He released songs as late as 2010 that sampled Biggie, too. He even produced a movie about the life of Biggie Smalls, called Notorious.
Over the years, a number of people took note of how Diddy was using the death of Biggie to make a career. Most notably, 50 Cent said “Enough is enough … Biggie’s name should never have become Diddy’s Black Card … When was the last time Diddy was really biggin up his brother, not biggin up his bank?”
7. Courtney Love — Selling Kurt’s Shirts
After the death of Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love had the rights to his estate. Essentially, this meant that she could license out whatever Cobain products that she wanted. Cobain was seemingly against anything mainstream, which is why people found it confusing that Courtney Love allowed the shoe-company Converse to make a line of Cobain inspired shoes.
This wasn’t the first time Love tried to profit from Kurt’s death. In 2007, Love auctioned off a number of Kurt’s belongings, including his flannel shirts. She also sold a 25% stake in the Nirvana catalog to earn a quick buck. Thankfully, Love lost the rights to Kurt Cobain’s estate to his daughter, Frances Bean Cobain.
6. Yoko Ono — Showing Off John Lennon’s Blood Stained Glasses
There are some celebrity relationships that just don’t make any sense. Of all of them, John Lennon and Yoko Ono is probably the most confusing. He was an international superstar when he started dating her and who knows what would have happened to The Beatles if John never started dating her. Since Lennon’s death, Yoko Ono has tried to profit in just about anyway that she could.
In 1981, Yoko Ono put a picture of Lennon’s blood-stained glasses on the cover of her album Season of Glass, which was released less than six months after his death. She’s sold replicas of his bloodstained glasses as well as replicas of the shirt John was wearing when he was shot. In 2009, Yoko Ono made a display out of the blood-stained bag that was handed to her when John’s belongings were given back to her. You can see this display by paying a hefty fee at New York’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
5. INXS — A Reality Show To Replace Their Singer
Michael Hutchence was the lead singer of INXS, an Australian alternative rock band. For 20 years, Hutchence was the ultimate front man. He was charismatic, sexual, and his love life was constantly documented by tabloid magazines. But this all came to an end when Hutchence was found dead in his hotel room. Many people have said that Hutchence committed suicide, while others suggested that he died accidentally while strangling himself with a belt and touching himself. Following his death, INXS went on a hiatus for 8 years.
In 2005, INXS announced that they would be holding a reality show to find their next lead vocalist. The show was called Rock Star: INXS, and was probably the worst way that they could have treated Hutchence following his death. They were pretty much saying that anyone off the street could do what Hutchence did for the band for over 20 years. The winner was J. D. Fortune, who acted as the front man for the band until 2011 before leaving the band.
4. TLC — A Reality Show To Replace A Member
TLC was one of the most dominant female rap groups in the late 1990’s. In fact, they dominated charts and sold millions of albums during the highlight of their career. However, at their peak, the group had to deal with tragedy with one of the members, Left Eye, died in a car crash. The other two members of the group, T-Boz and Chilli didn’t know how to proceed. How could they make another song like ‘No Scrubs’ or ‘Waterfalls’ without one of their members?
Three years after the death of Left Eye, the remaining members of TLC hosted a reality TV show called R U the Girl. The purpose of the show was to find a woman to provide guest vocals on their latest single. TLC tried to make it clear that the winner was not replacing Left Eye, but it was pretty clear they wanted to deceive the audience.
3. Wiz Khalifa — Paul Walker “Tribute”
When Paul Walker died in 2013 fans of the Fast & Furious franchise were distraught. Walker was in the middle of filming Furious 7 when he died in a car crash. Filmmakers used Walker’s brother as well as CGI to finish the scenes Walker was in so that they could release the movie. In case you haven’t seen it, the movie ends with Walker’s character driving off into the sunset to the tune of Wiz Khalifa’s See You Again.
After the movie came out, the song came an anthem for Paul Walker, and essentially the Fast & Furious franchise. It is one of the most viewed videos on YouTube, and one of the most streamed songs of all time. For years after Walker’s death, Khalifa, and the filmmakers of the Furious franchise, lined their pockets. The song was marketed as a tribute to Walker, but if that were the case the proceeds would have gone to Walker’s daughter instead of to the pockets of the studio.
2. Eminem — An Entire Album About His Addiction
After the release of his album Encore in 2005, Eminem’s addiction to prescription medication spiraled out of control. It became even worse after his long time best friend, Proof, died in 2006. Proof’s death sent Eminem into a reclusive state where he just wanted to get high. The following year, Eminem almost died of a drug overdose. According to the rapper, had his daughter’s found him two hours later, he would have died.
Following his drug overdose, Eminem released Relapse which is his first major release in years. There were a few songs on the album referencing his near-death experience, and through his subsequent albums Eminem keeps talking about how he struggled with addiction. Most recently, Eminem dedicated two songs on his latest album, Revival, to what would have happened had he died when he overdosed. But if you’re fan of Eminem, you’ll know that he’s spent most of his career rapping about personal tragedies. Most notably, Eminem has bashed the poor parenting skills of his mother, Debbie, on just about every album he’s ever released. During his concerts, he even used to get the crowd to chant “F*** you, Debbie!”
1. Rihanna — Making An Upbeat Pop Song About Domestic Violence
Chris Brown’s career was almost completely ruined in 2009 when photos surfaced of Rihanna after she and him got into an argument. If you can’t remember, the two were the music world’s hottest couple until the night that he beat her senseless during an argument while they drove home from a party. Everyone hated Chris Brown and the generally consensus that the police photos taken of her that night are disturbing. The fact that Chris Brown’s career didn’t end that night is a little disturbing, too.
A year after that argument, Rihanna teamed up with Eminem to release the song Love the Way You Lie. Essentially, the song is about an abusive relationship, which is probably why Eminem, who’s been in an abusive relationship of his own, asked Rihanna to sing the chorus. The song became an international success and is one of Eminem’s most watched videos on YouTube of all time. The pair performed the song countless times, toured together, and even released a Part II which was also a massive success.
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