A VERY PUBLIC DEATH

I wrote but never published the piece below during the weekend of Amy Winehouse’s death. I cannot remember why I did not post it but re-reading it in the light of the responses to Whitney Houston’s death makes it seem relevant again.

All I seem to understand about figures like these women is that extreme talents in any area mark you out as different in a world where most seem to live unremarkable lives; quite how easy that is to deal with or what strategies you need to employ are beyond my ken. All I can do is marvel at both the talent and downfall.

THROUGH THE EYES OF THE MEDIA

It is easy to spout forth moral judgments about the internet and media interest in Amy Winehouse and to lament the focus on her death over the recent events in Norway. It is as easy to do this as it is for people to focus on Amy Winehouse at the expense of wider world issues. Yet it seems to me that neither response to what has been an unusually busy week in the news is particularly admirable.

The loss of (at writing) 92 people in Norway is incontrovertibly tragic and grieving those who had the terrible misfortune to be killed by what seems to be a Christian fundamentalist with maybe/maybe not an accomplice is a correct response. The random nature of the perpetrator’s selection of victims is truly awful as is the reportage which details teenagers playing dead amongst their murdered friends in a desperate act to avoid becoming victims. For once, the media’s usage of the term “tragedy” is appropriate as these horrific events justify this categorisation.

Conversely, the death of Amy Winehouse, whilst shocking is not tragic. However, it is undeniably terrible that a sassy, witty, astoundingly talented, young woman has died, presumably because her body has been battered by drug and alcohol abuse. It is awful that her genial, devoted father and her less well known mother have to grieve for a child who should have outlived them and indeed outshone their achievements with her phenomenal talents. And it is sad for fans who will be left wondering what she could have achieved if she had lived.

It, therefore, seems to me to be rather sanctimonious to undermine either event and perhaps more thoughtful to speculate about why they have demanded the attention of the world in what has been an amazing week for the news industry. In the first instance, it seems almost too obvious to state why Norway’s news is of international interest and that, of course, the audience response should be one of universal horror. Yet underlying this response is perhaps a genuine fear within our willingness to be shocked. Norway’s experience is an event which could affect any of us. Any where. The work of Anders Behring Breivik could be that of any crazy in any city: there is no way to distance ourselves from this appalling event when it seems as if it is just luck which prevents any one of us from being a name in a media report about the latest psychopath to kill a randomly selected group of people. The media reports may focus on specificities but the audience has to grapple with or suppress the uncomfortable idea of the fragility of our lives: what happened in Norway has been replicated in American schools with gun-toting youngsters or in London with IRA bombers and Muslim fundamentalist terrorists or in the middle of an idyllic countryside by armed loners. We only need to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and we can all become victims. There is nothing to separate the Every(wo)man from this news story and, like all genuinely tragic events, part of its impact lies in a momentary relief that it was not us or our loved ones who were making headlines. I do not imagine that the Twitter trending was because of victims’ families any more than those close to Amy Winehouse were responsible for her media profile today so it must be due to the input of those who never knew her.

The response to Amy Winehouse’s death is altogether different. The emotional response for most) comes from a secure distance: this is a woman who has taken herself to levels of addiction and behaviours that most of us (we hope) will never experience. The audience expresses sadness for someone they feel they know because they have avidly consumed her life’s details via the media yet most of them would have nothing to do with her if she was a neighbour or acquaintance: she would be too extreme for the majority of us to spend time with in reality, despite our cyber pity or sadness.

It is easy to mull over ‘poor Amy’ or comment on her ‘wasting her talent’ as if we know the extent of her addictions and demons when we think we can never be her. Yet the awfulness of this news story is that I do not suspect that Mitch Winehouse ever though she would end up becoming her. When I saw an amazingly talented, sassy young woman perform at Brecon Jazz Festival in 2004, I did not suspect that she would end up in the 27 Club: she was a girl getting deserved attention for a heartstopping voice which could fill a tent and express an amazing range of emotions. I cannot write that her early death was inevitable or unsurprising in that context; her lively energy was such a contrast to the lack of surprise and mentions of journalists’ “death watch” that it seems like that singer in the tent was another woman entirely. However, celebrity status and journalism convinces us that we know the subject of the photographs and stories and we respond accordingly, rejecting, judging or loving them as if we have a right to. So poor Amy’s obituaries note her drug-addled performances, contain a knowing lack of surprise and link to press pictures of her body being removed from her house. Simultaneously, people who engage with the media onslaught about her are fair game for those who wish to maintain an even greater distance from her: Twitter and Facebook are now loaded with comments from those criticising the attention awarded to her and the assertion that Norway is more important.

Perhaps, for some, Norway is just too frightening, even if they do not acknowledge that this is what underlies their focus on Amy Winehouse rather than the 92 who have died elsewhere. Or maybe it is easier to engage with the death of a character we have been led to believe we actually know. Whatever the reasons, it seems to be right to reflect on both news stories and their altogether different siginificance.

I have written this with the BBC Proms performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on in the background which is now followed by a documentary about Elvis Presley. The former is a reminder of the beauty of art yet its premiere caused a riot in Paris and the latter caused mass hysteria and is still mourned by people who never met him. Both highlight the changing nature of our responses to events and art and one reflects the effects of drug abuse no matter how talented the abuser. But neither fully explain events or reponses, any more than the media this weekend can. Perhaps we need to learn to accept ellipses.

24th. July, 2011.

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About tallulahb

a woman who partakes in reading, writing and red wine drinking.
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