We don't own Amy Winehouse


Celebrities, it sometimes seems, are public property. Particularly when the celebrity is an artist. Their work enters the public consciousness, and moves or brings joy to many. We feel that the art that has moved us, in some way belongs to us. And because the art is conflated with the artist, the artist belongs to us too. This feeling of ownership intensifies if the artist dies tragically.

We saw this with Amy Winehouse. During the hours after the announcement of her death at the age of 27, it seemed the British singer-songwriter and tabloid obsession was fair game for sympathisers and critics alike. For every note of heartfelt condolence that appeared on Facebook and Twitter feeds there was also a wisecrack, or expression of indifference.

Her name, Winehouse; the fact that her most famous song was a haughty tribute to her own substance abuse; and the premature assumption by many that she'd died of an overdose (an initial post-mortem failed to determine cause of death), provided fodder for jokes that were too obvious to be either funny or offensive ('Guess Amy should have gone to rehab, but she said, no, no, no').

The fact she died so soon after the massacre in Norway led some to lament the fact that the death of one celebrity could distract the public's attention from the deaths of many 'ordinary' people in that much larger tragedy. Such cynicism was better placed than too-soon bleak humour (although to the public's credit, it appears to have been unwarranted).

But the Winehouse we feel we own, and therefore feel justified in either grieving or disparaging, is not Winehouse. Celebrity sees humanity fragmented by fickle relevancy and diffused by media. The public persona is a product of our own perceptions, and is both illusory and transitory.

This is an obvious truth that ought to be regularly revisited. It is poignantly illustrated by the melancholy new French animated film The Illusionist (directed by Triplets of Belleville director Sylvain Chomet and based on an unproduced screenplay by Jacques Tati). The Illusionist follows the gradual acceptance of obsolescence by a once renowned stage magician.

It is the 1950s, and he is being superseded by new technologies and forms of popular entertainment. He takes jobs in smaller and smaller venues and even private parties. Eventually, in a remote village, he befriends a young girl, who believes his magical abilities to be real.

The film focuses on the illusionist's fatherly relationship with her. His kindness to her helps her as she grows into a young woman. Her kindness to him helps him come to terms with his increasing irrelevance. Irrelevance only in artistic terms, however: both come to realise, through their human interactions, that he is worth more than either his gift or his reputation.

Winehouse, too, was more than either her gift or her reputation. Hearing her father Mitch speak of her as any father would about a child who has died prematurely, grounds her. His words remind us that we know her only to the extent that there are truths among the lights of tabloid sensationalism, and the extent to which her lyrics are authentically confessional. Certainly, we do not own her.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is a contributor to Kidzone, Inside Film and The Big Issue, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Melbourne's The Age and Brisbane's Courier-Mail. Follow Tim on Twitter 

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Amy Winehouse, The Illusionist, Jacques Tati, Sylvain Chomet, Rehab



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Existing comments

Thank you, Tim. Beautifully said, and wisely. I knew little of Amy or her work but have every reason to empathise with her father.

Michael Costigan | 28 July 2011  

What an insight! Thanks. As you say , we need to keep our view clear on the fact, "we all need rehab" of one kind or another.

Peter Collins | 28 July 2011  

A thoughtful article, Tim. Thank you. Sometimes we seem to treat celebrities as objects, without humanity,forgetting that they may have parents, siblings, spouses, partners who loved them in life and grieve for them in death.

Maryrose Dennehy | 28 July 2011  

Would it be fair to say that society, at least in the affluent world, suffers from "celebrity abuse"?

Just as alcoholics or drug addicts or gambling addicts feel that life is just not worth living without a daily drink of alcohol, or a hit of their drug of choice or a punt, in whatever form, so too do many of us find life dull unless we witness the rise and fall of media celebrities. We can vicariously win an Olympic Gold Medal, an Oscar, or a Melbourne Cup, which can be innocent enough. Or we can wallow in schadenfreude as some genius in the arts, or sport, or commerce comes a cropper through some form of self-destructive behaviour.

May God have mercy on Amy's tragic soul.
May He console her desolate parents.

Uncle Pat | 28 July 2011  

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