There’s talent and then there’s fame – and sometimes the two collide into a smoldering inferno that can singe anything within its path. And I could almost smell the ash in the air and feel it catch in my throat as I watched the new documentary about Amy Winehouse.
The truth is that I’m far more a fan of documentaries that I am of Amy Winehouse. Sure, I’ve got about eight of her songs on my old iPod and I’ve danced on leather banquettes to Rehab and I read the withering Rolling Stone cover story on her back in a year that I think might have been 2011, but other than that I never felt any real tie to her. I found her voice gravely and gruff – and truly great – and she certainly looked differently than anyone in the harsh glare of the public eye at that time did with a beehive that got taller and rattier the more substances she ingested and the pinup girls tattooed on her arms appeared more pronounced as her frame shrank to emaciated proportions noticeable to even a casual fan like myself.
I knew that Winehouse could sing the darkest and the dankest form of blues with far more conviction than anyone that young should have the capability for and I read a lot about her forever-consuming love for the man who would eventually introduce her to heroin and I knew she was going for a look that I can only describe as Cleopatra with an eating disorder and, like everyone else with eyes, I believed that she was going to die around the age of twenty-seven just like Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin did. Seems twenty-seven brings about that year of magical thinking Didion wrote about – but maybe only for those left behind.
What I didn’t know before I saw the movie was how funny Amy Winehouse was or how gracefully she used to move before opiates invaded her cells and her bloodstream or how wide her smile was in moments where her entire being was wracked with joy. I didn’t know that she wrote intensely personal songs or that she would write down words on the margin of a piece of paper that might work in a rhyme scheme or that her handwriting was precise and girlish while her lyrics were composed by a soul that had become jaded.
I didn’t know that she suffered from depression before she was even an angst-ridden teenager.
I didn’t know how complicit the crush of fame was in her skidding downfall.
There’s a scene in the movie where Winehouse leaves her house and the flashes of the cameras become blinding, disorienting. Photographers camped outside her front door like stalkers and they pointed lenses into the face of a woman who in many ways was still just a girl. Sometimes she bantered with the men and sometimes she would shove them away from her and sometimes she’d just look down at the ground, but they were always there, waiting, waiting.
Earlier in the film, an interviewer asked her if she expected her music to make her famous and the answer was no, she didn’t expect such a thing because jazz is not the kind of music consumed by the masses. She was right of course, but when there’s a jazzy song about refusing to get help even when the drug demons have gotten closer than the army of cameramen that haunt the street outside of your home, that’s the kind of defiant message that does break through and so we all kind of sang along and waited for her to die.
Watching spectacular public downfalls is nothing new. We live in a culture where someone appears as though from one of those glistening bubbles Glenda popped out of in The Wizard of Ozand we want to know more about the person. (We are, after all, a nation of more.) But the larger access someone allows, the greater the opportunity to offend, to look a fool, and that’s when the backlash begins with perhaps even more velocity than the adoration was ever driven by. In a world fueled by sound bytes and the commentaries of strangers, can anyone actually survive? Was Morrison just being poetic or could he have actually been a true sage when he posited that nobody gets out alive?
I used to have long talks with someone I once knew about the merits of talent over fame and they were often conversations that went in circles because one of us valued one of those things and one of us valued the other. The view that wasn’t my own was that the staggering payments garnered by fame should cancel out any of the annoyance and confinement it brings, but I was never quite able to see it that way. To me, that hyper level of fame has never been something I could look at and crave. It appears incapacitating, like it can wipe every area of judgment from your mind, like it can only guide you to a very lonely place. Fame removes obstacles from your life – that’s what it looks like at first anyway – but then it sets up new ones that very few are able to navigate. Hop onto amazon.com and look for books designed to get you over heartbreak and loss and search for literary guides that will allow you to achieve a positive frame of mind in thirty days or less and you will find thousands of titles and you will buy one with great optimism, a book you will intend to read from cover to cover before you toss it to the side and just decide to wing your life. But you won’t find books about how to handle a public’s crushing adoration or what it’s like when your parents no longer tell you the truth because you now support them or what it might feel like to have fifty thousand people cheer for you before you go home to an empty bedroom. How could it all not fuck you up?
The artists I have always admired are those who don’t have much of a public passport. I don’t know where they are vacationing and I might know how many children they have but I probably have no idea what their names are. I see them on television when they have something to promote – a film, a book, a tour – and all they really talk about is the project at hand. We might know elements of their personal lives because these people do have to leave the house sometimes and they might be photographed walking hand in hand down a street, but that street is rarely one of the ones photographers camp on, their cameras drawn like revolvers. I watch these actors in movies and I buy them as whatever character they are playing. I shiver as these people walk onto a stage and belt out a song and I am able to take their lyrics and feel them coursing through every one of my own veins and the song becomes my own because I’m not thinking about how the artist wrote it during his divorce because he never gave interviews about his divorce so I know nothing about it except that it happened. The art remains pure and the audience is able to connect with it in a way that almost feels mystical because the illusion of the person who is creating it has never been completely shattered.
It’s not always the person in the spotlight who is at fault. Publicity is a machine now, and it’s well oiled and experts who know how to maximize attention in the name of profit run it. It’s hard in the short-term to recognize the debilitating consequences of fame in the long-term. It’s maybe impossible to chart when the inevitable decline will begin, but in these Media Days, the downfall begins sooner than it ever did. Drugs complicate everything in that fame game, just as they complicate everything in the regular game. Precision is lost. Emotions are tweaked. Boundaries become blurry and desperation is heightened. And I think for people who have lost sight of what’s real, the pounding high is the closest they can get because at least then they feel something in the middle of all of the noise.
One of the saddest moments in the documentary about Winehouse was when she shared with a friend her reaction to sweeping the Grammy Awards. Her family was there and her band was so proud of her and she gave a speech that was broadcast to millions and one award was announced by one of her biggest idols, but it all came down to this: “It’s so boring without the drugs.” And after you have felt your heart race almost clear out of your chest and then felt it slow to hollow thuds that are so irregular that you can’t even count them and you have felt a wildness take over your soul as the truth was pushed out of your constricting pupils, can there really be anything that makes you feel that alive besides dying?
But it doesn’t have to be that way, no matter in what direction our society is plummeting. It is possible to do the work that inspires you while keeping the rest of it to yourself by refusing to engage. I watched some of the footage of Comic Con recently and there, plopped onto a dais right after his divorce was announced to the world, was Ben Affleck. The guy showed up on time, answered questions about playing Batman, smiled, and got off the stage. Column after column was written about the event and, on the smuttier sites, the headline was all about how his wedding ring was still on and fine, it was, so go forth and comment on it – but Affleck himself didn’t utter one solitary word about his personal life and so, when I eventually watch him play Batman, his prenuptial agreement won’t even enter my mind.
There are so many people now motivated only by fame. They want to never leave a restaurant without strangers pushing up against them, hotly breathing a request for a selfie into their ear that will be posted online, instantly and forever. They crave a spotlight created by the artificial flash of a camera. They are fine with cultivating a fortune without ever cultivating a talent. And even though it’s been made abundantly clear that there’s a downside that comes with a total loss of privacy, the reality is that privacy is no longer a commodity for much of our society so losing it doesn’t really feel like any kind of loss at all – and maybe that’s the greatest loss.