‘How did we let this happen?’ The Amy Winehouse question and social science’s take on modern fame
There’s lots of blame to throw around when it comes to the early demise of Amy Winehouse.
From drug abuse and alcoholism to eating disorders and bad relationships, there’s a clear trail of breadcrumbs leading to the singer’s death in 2011. Since her passing, everything that ever happened to Winehouse, both at the time and in retrospect, has been examined: Her complicated childhood and overbearing father. Her toxic relationship with husband Blake Fielder-Civil. Label deals that asked too much. Promoters who booked her before she was ready.
The most recent wave of tut-tutting has come on the eve of “Amy,” the documentary by “Senna” director Asif Kapadia whose entire through-line (as well as the press surrounding it) is guided by one question: “How did we let this happen?”
The implication is that someone so successful and so visible to the public should have had better access to resources and support systems than those available to regular, nonfamous people. It’s a quantity-over-quality assumption that, while true, doesn’t take into account the gulf between the social experiences of a celebrity versus a “civilian.” (Perhaps a better implication is that money, not fame, should buy better resources.)
In fact, most research on celebrity status and culture suggests that unless you consider yourself a “producer of commercial entertainment” as one sociologist puts it — or “business, man,” as Jay Z would prefer — self-destruction is an inherent part of modern fame.
Here are a few expert analyses that could help us better understand the Winehouse narrative (as well as those of her predecessors).
When artists become celebrities, expectations and the concept of “making art” can change overnight.
“Celebrity is a self-defeating construct,” says Dustin Kidd, a sociologist at Temple University and the author of Pop Culture Freaks: Identity, Mass Media, and Society. “Celebrities are seen as geniuses whose creativity comes out of [personal narrative]. Working artists, more common but more boring, develop their creative work through a daily grind of creative discipline, practice, and revision that is balanced with a full, multi-dimensional life. Tabloid culture turns the artist into the story themselves.”
In other words, though this might be obvious, the attention Winehouse got as she rose to superstardom, like Marilyn Monroe or Ernest Hemingway before her, actually changed what society expected of her as an artist: the public was obsessed with how her image as an iconic trainwreck was reflected in her music, not with the music itself.
Celebrities, if they’re famous for their talent, are statistically more likely to take risks than non-famous people.
“We can all trick ourselves into taking more risks than we should, but in a closed world like ... celebrity you can convince yourself that the risks are even smaller ... to the point where you’re not even thinking about the consequences at all,” psychologist Pauline Wallin told the Times in 2003.
In that same investigation, which explored the reasons why basketball superstar Kobe Bryant cheated on his wife (among other discretions), several psychologists explain both how “boredom can be an invitation to mischief” — Winehouse was famously bored by stardom, telling her best friend at the 2008 Grammys (the year she won five of them, including Record of the Year) that it was “so boring without drugs” — and how the more talented you are, the more likely the public will forgive or even celebrate your mistakes. As L.A. psychologist Steven Berglas put it: “The public eventually says, ‘Look, you’re such a great guy, let’s move on, let’s not encumber your greatness.’”
Being a celebrity inherently means you’re a product.
“There’s no boundaries to who can weigh in on what you’ve done and what you are doing,” says Joshua Gamson, a sociologist at the University of San Francisco and author of “Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America.” “Your story is a commodity, so people are actually competing for the profit from that commodity ... [Celebrities] try to stay in control of their story — that’s why they hire publicists, why they hide out — but that’s part of the deal with celebrity. It’s what keeps you successful.”
“The working artists who survive and thrive,” Kidd adds, “seem to consistently either avoid the tabloid spotlight entirely, or they present the media only with a contrived performance, like Lady Gaga.”
“Price-of-fame” stories never go out of style, especially in the digital era.
One thing is true: Amy Winehouse’s death is one of the biggest celebrity tragedies of the social media age. By 2011, the concept of fame was radically different, and less alien to the common fan, than it was, say, during Marilyn Monroe’s era.
“On a much smaller scale, we’re [all] increasingly, consciously performing for others — we’re massaging our stories on social media to project a self,” Gamson explains. He says he’s given interviews like this one, about our fascination with these narratives, multiple times per year since “Claims to Fame” was published in 1994. “So we project that [anxiety] onto the people who are living it full time.
“I don’t know if it’s a relief, but it is a reminder that even all the resources and status [of celebrity] do not protect you from not being able to trust people, from being able to tell the difference between your image and yourself.”
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