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Conspiracy theories have always been with us. From the flat Earth to the faked moon landing, and from mysteries surrounding JFK’s assassination to a secret cabal that runs the world, there aren’t many aspects of life and culture that haven’t been touched in some way by loony alternative explanations.
And that definitely includes music. Today, we’ll be exploring and debunking a few of our favorite musical conspiracies. Enjoy!
1. Paul Is Dead
The first time I was exposed to this one, a Beatles fan cryptically told me that Paul wasn’t playing on a few of the band’s records. Intrigued — and a bit weirded out — it prompted a furious internet deep dive (just to make sure I wasn’t going nuts). According to the theory, Paul McCartney was killed in a car crash in 1966.
The theory goes that The Beatles, being the biggest band in the world at the time, certainly couldn’t announce to their fans that one of them had been killed at the height of their success. So, under pressure from their label, they secretly found someone (allegedly by the name of Billy Shears, a “message” hidden in Beatles lyrics) to give up his entire life and live a lie, learn all of The Beatles’ tunes, co-write more Beatles hits, and replace Paul without anyone the wiser.
Sounds like a stretch, right? Well, that’s because it is. So how did such a bizarre conspiracy theory get started?
According to some sources, in 1969, a caller to WKNR in Michigan told the DJ and announced to the airwaves that Paul McCartney had died three years ago. He mentioned that listening to various Beatles records backwards revealed hidden messages (“Turn me on, dead man,” “I buried Paul,” “Paul is a dead man, miss him, miss him, miss him,” among others).
It took off like wildfire, and fans began seeing “messages” everywhere; like how the cover of Abbey Road depicts a funeral procession, for instance. Secret messages were decoded from the cover of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. The “new” Paul is no longer left-handed, as evidenced by him holding a cigarette in his right hand in an album photo. And it only went deeper and deeper.
Not only was this conspiracy soundly refuted by The Beatles over the years, but Paul was nowhere near the car crash that was purported to have killed him; though he did crash his moped (he was fine, other than a chipped tooth and a scar). Other than that coincidence, this conspiracy theory doesn’t stand up to the least bit of scrutiny, sorry!
2. Elvis Lives!
If you were anywhere near a grocery store in the 1980s and ’90s, you no doubt saw bevies of tabloid headlines proclaiming they found Elvis Presley alive somewhere. Like many conspiracy theories, this one got started by people who simply didn’t want to accept the difficult reality that their idol — truly a larger-than-life icon — had suddenly slipped the mortal coil.
Purported irregularities abounded. For example, pallbearers had difficulty carrying his coffin (it was copper), leading some mourners to believe it was equipped with a cooling system for The King to fake out his fans. In another theory, his body “didn’t look right” according to quite a few reports, so a few mourners and friends took issue with the hair, his complexion, and even his nose. The conclusion some jumped to was that it was a body double, or even a dummy.
Yet it made sense that some friends may not have recognized him — years of heavy drug use and ill health had taken their toll on The King’s body. Even in life, he may not have looked like he did even a few years prior. Another unfortunate truth is that dead bodies often look like a pale comparison of the living person; anyone who has ever been to an open casket funeral can attest to this. Corpses just look “off,” or worse, sometimes like wax figures, after cosmetic treatments.
And then the Elvis sightings started; they even became a cottage industry in and of themselves. Those who claimed to have seen The King wrote books and appeared on talk shows. Some even claimed to see him as a background actor in 1990’s box office smash Home Alone.
But just like most conspiracy theories, this one starts to deflate as soon as you start poking holes in it. For starters, the reasoning believers give is that Elvis wanted to live a quiet life outside of the spotlight; something that’s impossible to do if you’re the King of rock n’ roll. But even if that was the case, why stage a major comeback just a few years earlier?
His “‘68 Comeback Special” is the stuff of legends, and added yet another chapter to his storied tale. His music career was on the back burner by that point, and his time was mostly spent in Hollywood making movies. The Beatles had come in and changed rock music forever. He could have laid it down and retired, but instead stepped back into the ring and reclaimed his title. Although Elvis could have changed his mind about his future between the “Comeback Special” and his death in 1977, it was clear from everything going on around him he loved performing. Despite his last major hit being “Burning Love” in 1972, he still continued to record and release records, not to mention his regular performances in Las Vegas.
If indeed he was tired of the limelight, it would seem going into retirement at that point would have been a more reasonable response than, say, faking his death. His career was clearly in a far different place than the 1950s or even the early ’70s. There’s also plenty of evidence that he was developing serious drug issues, slurring this way through performances and exhibiting erratic behavior.
At the time of his death, Elvis had a medicine chest filled with prescription drugs — many of them opiates, barbiturates, and other addictive drugs — prescribed by his personal physician. There’s also the fact that if he had managed to flee into a life of obscurity, surely someone would have talked or even produced real evidence by now. The sad fact is, as much as his devotees may not want to believe it, The King is dead.
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3. Avril Lavigne Is an Imposter
Avril Lavigne was at the top of the charts in 2002 with her hits, “Complicated” and “Sk8er Boi,” entering the hearts and minds of fans across the world. The conspiracy theory — put forth by a Brazilian fan page for the singer — purports that Avril struggled with fame and the pressures of stardom and began using a body double (some conspiracy theorists actually suggest this was a clone) named “Melissa.”
When Avril sunk into a deep depression and was found dead in 2003, the body double took over full time and continued Avril’s career. Fuelling this bizarre theory are pictures that supposedly show differences in Avril’s face, beauty marks, and even dress habits. The last one is a real head scratcher too; artists change their look all the time. It’s not be unheard of for a punk artist to suddenly start wearing dresses (it doesn’t make them an entirely different person)!
The beauty marks can easily be dismissed as having been photoshopped out in some pictures but not others, or simply covered by makeup. A picture showing Avril with “Melissa” written on her fist only further excited believers. Supposed clues have even been left throughout Arvil’s lyrics and believers rush to connect the dots to confirm their theories.
But this conspiracy holds little water when actually examined. Had Avril died right after her explosive debut album, she may have even become more famous and it certainly would have been more convenient to just move on to the next act in the label’s roster than hire an imposter (or somehow produce an outright clone). The star herself appears genuinely perplexed and put off by the rumors — even going so far as to emphatically refute them in interviews. It seems some fans just want to make something simple (being alive) extremely complicated.
4. Jay-Z Is a Time-Travelling Vampire
Sometimes a conspiracy theory doesn’t even need much to go on at all. Take for example the theory that rapper and entrepreneur Jay-Z can travel through time. Internet sleuths came across this picture (displayed above) by Sid Grossman, depicting a scene in 1939 Harlem. The unidentified man in the picture not only looks remarkably like Jay-Z, but apparently shares some of his mannerisms as well.
The only reasonable explanation, of course, is that the iconic rapper is a time traveller or some sort of immortal vampire. And this makes sense; vampires are well-known to seek out careers in rap music. Snarkiness aside, it seems the obvious conclusion is either they are somehow related (perhaps a great grandfather or a long lost cousin), or it’s just a wild coincidence.
Yet it can’t be discounted that this wasn’t some sort of publicity stunt since this surfaced right around the time Jay-Z oversaw the soundtrack to Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby — which is set in a similar time period.
Conspiracy theories exist (often in spite of evidence to the contrary) because people want to believe them. But also because the human brain loves finding patterns, and we will often seek patterns out where none actually exist. It seems to be especially true for things we care intimately about — whether it’s our favorite songs, a celebrity we admire, and even politicians.
In the abstract, it’s fun to think about a famous rapper being a time traveller, or Elvis living in obscurity, but at a certain point it’s important to take a step back and assess these theories critically. Do they actually hold up under scrutiny, or do we just wish that they did? We may well find that they are simply the product of one’s fandom and passion for the artist or their music after all.
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