For a moment, I felt the same incredulity and momentary slip of the sprockets of reality as when I turned on the news to discover that Princess Diana had died, and, some years later, Michael Jackson. Amy Winehouse, dead? Surely not? The way these three stories reached me was different for each: Di was a Sunday morning, I turned on the television to find nothing but blanket coverage on every station… I was at a gig when Jackson met his end, and someone in the audience had received a text and shouted out to the band between songs. From then on, we got updates from the stage via texts to audience members. It was through Facebook and Twitter than news of Amy Winehouse’s death circulated like wildfire, although I still turned to the television for confirmation… just in case. And sure enough, it was the breaking news on all of the channels.
Well, why wouldn’t it have been? Winehouse was a celebrity, famous and notorious in equal measure…actually, that’s not quite true. With only two albums to her credit (which collectively spawned just one top-ten UK single, her biggest hit being a cover on which she featured as guest vocalist) – and with many casual music fans unaware of her her debut, which achieved only moderate success – she might have been a reasonably successful singer, but it wasn’t until she careered off the rails and got fucked up that the media really got interested. Like Courtney Love – who is very much still alive – she only went stellar when things went wrong. The whole media circus didn’t only eclipse the short-lived musical career but also became self-perpetuating. There’s no more powerful blocker of creativity than intense scrutiny 24/7, a bunch of paps in your face every time you leave the house and endless speculation and commentary over a person’s varying degrees of wastedness. And if you have a propensity for drink and drugs, how are you going to escape it all? With more of the same, of course. And thus it becomes a vicious cycle.
Pete Doherty’s band may have been NME darlings, but being a pretty mediocre, shambling, jangling shit indie band, they were never going to become a household name (something also true of Hole, only they were a half-decent alternative rock band, at least until Courtney lost it after Kurt’s suicide and the mess and mud-slinging that ensued, which was at least partly media created). It was only the drug-related carnage and dalliance with Kate Moss that propelled him into the headlines. It’s hard to tell how much of it is driven by the media and how much it’s driven by a genuine thirst for scandal, but however you look at it, fucking up in public is the way to hit the stratosphere in terms of coverage. The media love it, of course: pick your target and shadow it, with the guarantee that there’ll be something outrageous to report most nights of the week and you’ve got an easy way of filling time or column inches. Are the public genuinely interested, are they really that thirsty for salacious gossip about the not-so private lives of celebrities? Maybe the they weren’t but tell them often enough and they’ll become convinced that they are interested.
The BBC had a reporter stationed at the cordon on the street where Winehouse lived. The reporter commented on the sixty-five or so fans who had gathered and remarked on her dedicated following. There’s no questioning the size of her fan-base: Back to Black has sold in excess of 10 million copies. But mainstream artists rarely have truly dedicated fans: were these dedicated fans the same ones who booed her off the stage not so long ago when she rocked up, wasted, stumbling over her feet and the lyrics and generally in no fit state to perform? Sixty-five people is hardly a crowd, and besides, how many of those loitering – when there’s nothing to see, so why not move along, now? – were actually fans? How many were police, and how many were media reporters and photographers? That’s a rhetorical question.
Most saliently, the number hanging around that street in Camden was significantly lower than the body count in Norway. Yet in the rush to give live, up-to-the-minute, as-it-happens coverage of another dead pop star, that story had plummeted off the radar. The hacking scandal was all but forgotten and I can only assume that the fact Greece – not to mention America, but that’s being kept strangely quite – is on the brink of financial ruin and there are wars raging across the globe are only of minimal significance in comparison. I’m reminded of Derrick Bird’s killing spree in Cumbria last year, which saw 12 people shot dead and 11 more injured before he turned the gun on himself. It was major news for a short while, until Raol Moat went on the rampage and the story was all but forgotten about. Despite a much lower body count, a siege was ready-made for live streaming news and much more likely to capture the nation’s imagination than something that was over before the cameras could be on the scene.
I’ll admit, I was never a fan of Winehouse’s work, and don’t think she was an ‘incredible talent’, and the monumental outpourings of grief on-line seem wholly disproportionate. In the same way that everyone loathed Jade Goody for being a fat racist ignoramus until she was diagnosed with cancer, when she was immediately presented with a halo and became a national treasure, it seems that dying young alters the mass perception to such an extent that all is forgotten. Seemingly, dying young it a tragedy no matter what, and makes one a better person, a hero, an instant deity. Thus, while I have no wish to disrespect the dead, I’m not going to suddenly change the opinion I held of her while she was living – a rough, skanky no-mark who got lucky.
But this isn’t about my opinions of Amy Winehouse or her music. I’m more concerned about taking an objective look at the media response – by which I also mean on-line media, interactive media. Sure, a lot of people did like her music, but did she and her work really touch the lives of so many, so profoundly, as to require the Twittersphere to become clogged and Facebook to become a no-go zone for those who want to read anything other than ‘RIP Amy Winehouse’ and what a tragedy it is that the world’s lost one of its greatest talents? Or is it simply an example of people being seen to do and say what’s expected of them, the herd mentality of not wanting to be left out? ‘Yes, me too, I never got any of her albums, but I really loved her music, so amazing, blah blah blah’.
It’s all a matter of perspective. It’s about time people started to think for themselves.
And if you’re loving my work, there’s more of the same (only different) at Christophernosnibor.co.uk