Death becomes her

The golden afterlife of Aaliyah - the star who found success beyond the grave.
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The Independent Culture

A film premiere as glittering and flamboyant as any Hollywood has seen will be held at the end of this month. Stars of the film and music worlds will be present, dressed in all their gilded finery, ready for the white flashes of the paparazzi and the hysterics of the crowds. But this will be a premiere with a difference, because among the crowds will be fans hysterical, not with excitement, but with grief. And among all the stars there will be one notable absentee, the leading lady herself, Aaliyah Dana Haughton, the singer, dancer and actress, who died, aged 22, in a plane crash last August.

Warner Brothers, the studio behind The Queen of the Damned, in which Aaliyah plays the 5,000-year-old vampire queen, Akasha, has strenuously denied that it has exploited the death of the film's star. But it is not hard to see the irony. The tagline for this heavily promoted film is "all she wants is hell on earth" and in the publicity material, Aaliyah's character is described as "the mother of all vampires". Reports said that some fans found this "disrespectful" and a "tacky and exploitative use of her image". Furthermore, although Warner Bros has insisted that the film had always been on the theatrical schedule, insistent rumours have suggested that, until Aaliyah's death, the studio had planned to send it straight to video, industry insiders suggesting that it is "unwatchable".

Obviously, neither the film studio, nor the record label that just released her single, "More Than a Woman", complete with a very visible marketing campaign, thought that the most sensitive thing would be to not release the film or record at all. The studio decided not to spare relatives, friends and fans the sight of promotional posters of Aaliyah as Queen Akasha, wearing little more than a metallic bikini top and a baroque headdress. And the label chose to present the spectacle of Aaliyah in close-fitting, low-slung leather trousers, dancing with a male model, flirting with her hips in the video for "More Than a Woman", on constant MTV rotation. For this is the story of a girl who died and was brought back to life by the industries that created her.

Named after a Swahili word meaning "the highest, most exalted one", Aaliyah was groomed for stardom. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Detroit – where she attended a prestigious stage school – she made her stage debut in Annie when she was six, by which time she already had an agent. At 11 she was performing in Las Vegas with her aunt, the soul singer Gladys Knight, and by the age of 12 had a record deal on her uncle's Blackground records. When Aaliyah was 15, she had her first US number one with "Back and Forth", from the album Age ain't Nothing but a Number which was largely written and produced by R Kelly, whom, it was rumoured, she married. Her second album, One in a Million, was released in 1996 and her first film, the martial arts thriller Romeo Must Die, in 2000. She landed her biggest role yet as Keanu Reeves's opposite number, Zee, in The Matrix Reloaded. Her third album, titled simply Aaliyah, was well-received and she won a Grammy for the single "Try Again". This was a career on the ascendant, curtailed by a freak accident.

On 25 August, 2001, Aaliyah had just finished shooting a video for "Rock the Boat" on Abaco Island in the Bahamas. The singer and her seven-strong entourage chartered a twin-engined Cessna 402 to return to Florida. It crashed during take-off, killing all of its passengers. The cause is still unknown but reports have surfaced that the plane was overloaded with equipment and luggage. As is requisite for an R&B video, props included piles of animal-skin bikinis, accessories heavy with diamanté encrustations and couture chain-mail. Aaliyah's flimsy plane was weighed down with the tools of her trade. Furthermore, the credentials of the pilot, Luis Morales, were called into question after it was revealed that a fortnight before he had been arrested for possession of cocaine.

In America, it was as if their very own Princess Diana had died. Immediately afterwards, US television was awash with tributes. Fellow musicians paid tearful homage while fans grieved openly, holding candle-lit vigils. A Tower Records promotional wall in Los Angeles was transformed into a public memorial on which fans laid flowers and left notes of condolence.

In the UK, however, Aaliyah was barely known. "She was very much a minority pursuit," says Vincent Jackson, a music writer at Mixmag. "Only the purist R&B and hip-hop crowd knew about her." Media interest arrived when her plane hit the ground. The press was awash with cloying obituaries about how a great talent had been cut off in her prime. This was followed by a swell in record sales. In the UK, total sales of her third, self-titled, album were 22,000 before she died. Afterwards they shot up to 89,000.

It's customary for stars who die prematurely to be eulogised for what might have been. Soon after Aaliyah's death, her former publicist, Bill Carpenter, announced that "black entertainment... has lost the woman who would have eventually become the Diana Ross or Whitney Houston of the twenty-something generation". Such high praise would have killed a living artist's career stone dead.

Not everyone was so generous, however. In a report beneath the headline "A Funeral To Die For", the New York Post's Rod Dreher disapprovingly described the funeral procession, complete with glass-panelled, horse-drawn hearse, silver-plated coffin and the release of 22 doves as a "a traffic-snarling cortège in honour of a pop singer most people have never heard of".

Virgin records, Aaliyah's record company, and the film studios have had to make some tricky decisions over the last few months. Her death placed her at the centre of a whirlwind of public attention, and potentially afforded her a greater audience than she had when she was alive. However, executives deny that they saw this as an unmissable fiscal opportunity. "There was no change of strategy as far as we were concerned," said Mark Anderson, the general manager of international repertoire at Virgin. "This is not a case of us trying to capitalise on her death. We had a long term campaign planned in terms of future singles, the timing of which we have stuck to."

However, a leading music publicist who prefers not to be named knows the form. "When someone dies suddenly on a label you sit down with the press director, the head of marketing and the managing director of the company to discuss the strategy. There is obviously a business upside from a major star dying on your label. Of course, you have to leave a respectful period of time before putting out a record. The important thing is not to be seen to be cashing in."

Immediately after Aaliyah's death, the American branch of her label announced it was holding two completed music videos for the songs "More Than a Woman" and "Rock the Boat". "We are going to be releasing them to the music-video channels," the Virgin spokeswoman Carrie Davis told the Los Angeles Times. "I don't know when and I don't know in what order. People don't even want to look at the rough cut yet."

Aaliyah's parents, the people who are likely to be most affected by her continued public visibility, have refused to give an indication of how they feel about the relentless marketing campaigns using her image.

Marketing strategies certainly need not come to a halt just because an artist dies; in some cases they are blatantly stepped up. It was only after the Maryland singer Eva Cassidy died of skin cancer that she became a marketable commodity. Her name became tinged with tragedy and she shot to posthumous fame. Death has rarely stood in the way of musical output either. Jeff Buckley, who drowned in the Mississippi in 1997 while still in his twenties, has had two albums released since his death. The murdered rapper Tupac Shakur has had more records released from beyond the grave than he ever managed when he was alive.

There is little doubt that Aaliyah would have replicated her US success over here, although, had she lived, the process would have been considerably slower. She was, after all, a valued artist in whom her record company had heavily invested. Long before her death the single "Try Again" was all over the radio. The promotional campaign for her self-titled album, which had been released two months earlier, had rolled into action – she was on the cover of the style magazine i-D and Mixmag the month she died.

However, it is unclear just how long Aaliyah's artistic resurrection can be maintained. The music will dry up eventually, and, if her film bombs, it's likely that her career will too. "In two years time people will forget about her," says Jackson. Then, at least, she may be allowed to rest in peace. to life by the industries that created her.