Lady Gaga was quoted yesterday as issuing a warning to the public on the death of Amy Winehouse: ‘It’s a lesson to the world,’ she said: ‘Don’t kill the superstar, take care of her soul.’ it’s worth considering just who did kill Amy Winehouse? The drug dealers? The hungry media? Her zealous fans? Or could it simply be that fame itself is toxic – or has become so.
My book, The Fame Formula, dealt with the forgotten entertainment icons killed by a similar process back in the early Hollywood era. These lessons have been burried under tons of newsprint and few feel the lesson are relevant any more. However, it never pays to completely ignore the past.
Amy Winehouse’s contemporary iconography (part self-created, part media-inflicted) encompassed, all at the same time, a drive toward an idealised image which would grant her immortality in name and a constant reminder of her frailty, her mortality in body.
“The more insecure I get, the bigger my beehive gets,” she was once quoted as saying. Her image, an archetypal representation of Rock ‘n’ Roll and all it encompasses, took her far away from the Amy of whom the papers are constantly reminding us – healthily full-figured, straight haired, blandly smiling. As it did so, it at once elevated her from being simply a talented girl to an icon, destined for some measure of immortality, and reminded us of the physical cost involved in the process: dangerous weight loss and a mournful expression. She was, on one level, a human sacrifice, her progress towards that sacrifice acted out through the medium of publicity.
I spoke yesterday to Tom Payne, the author of the seminal work Fame: from the Bronze Age to Britney which, truth be told, is a book I wish I’d written. Tom is an expert on the history of fame’s toxicity, on which he writes in the book but also in blogs for the Huffington Post and elsewhere, so I thought I’d ask him for his take on the affair.
He immediately brought up the historic link between fame and the inevitability of death. “James Fraser writes that very primitive peoples had no idea that death was inevitable, that they thought each death they witnessed was an unfortunate accident”, he says. “It follows that the realisation of death’s inevitability required some consolation”. He cites the example of Achilles (a kind of proto-James Dean in a skirt and sandals) as someone whose demand from his admirers was linked inextricably with an awareness that he wouldn’t long be around to satisfy that demand.
But this inevitability racket maybe takes away a little too much responsibility from the media and the public that drives it. Leo Braudy argues in his book The Frenzy of Renown (which I used as research tool for The Fame Formula) that, while fame has always existed, the changes in the mechanics of fame have morphed it into something much more dangerous than it once was.
Partly as a result of Reality TV, rolling media and all the other hyperactive platforms of the 21st century, and partly as a result of the general postmodern mindset, we’re increasingly aware of the process by which someone becomes famous. As a result, we’re increasingly conscious of the gap between image and reality, and the tensions therein. It surely follows that we feel increasingly able to take possession of that image and discard any personal effect or accountability. Where an historic figure like Alexander the Great was, in the eyes of his citizens, a seamless combination of brand and reality, a figure like Amy Winehouse was separately a brand and a person.
I’ve constantly stated that the life of the modern day celebrity, thanks to their highly visual ubiquity, is followed by their public as a soap opera narrative which is simultaneously idealised and throwaway. The life of a celebrity is highly stylised in the eyes of a public at once eager to absorb it and conscious of its emptiness, its ephemeral quality.
A series of clichéd motifs – the now de rigeur flower shrines which began at Diana’s funeral, for instance – colour and define these stories. These are reinforced on a practical level by the media looking for established means of obtaining their perfect photo op, but also on a different level by an audience seeking the familiarity of the stock images by which they define the celebrity narrative.
The notion of the ’27 club’ is a good example. What began as a shortcut to a catchy headline after the death of Jim Morrison has become a full-blown myth. The public have written it into their sought-after fiction. If there is an inevitability about the tragedy of fame, it is audience-created: the modern day famous person finds themselves publicly warped by a narrative set in stone before they were born. For the less robust mind, this is a recipe for disaster.
Though it comes from a somewhat biased position, there might be something to the Gaga comment. Fame and image has the potential to nurture the artist if it is carefully integrated with her personal reality. It is when we subscribe wholly to the artist’s brand as a concept and a narrative that we sign up to the shameful inevitability of death in art. We didn’t ‘kill the superstar’, but the way we thought of her also meant we weren’t really in a rush to help her out.
Read my book and understand that the causalities of fame are littered across the history of the genre. And be prepaed: until we help and support those snared in the trap that is modern fame, we can expect more victims.