Gruesome idea, no? And entirely untrue, of course, but that was the accusation levelled by far-too-many people this weekend at those who took to the Internet (now our cultural replacement for black veils and armbands) to publicly mourn the gone-too-soon torch-singer who was found dead in her home Saturday, presumably from a drug overdose.
It was a sad announcement that came at the worst time–our collective nerves rubbed raw by the vicious killing of dozens of teenagers in Oslo by a local right-wing fanatic the day before. It’s the kind of huge, monstrous crime that, like 9/11 or the Montreal Massacre, most of us will need a few days to process. Compared to that horror, the death of an artist is simple. Amy Winehouse sang of nursing a broken heart from a bar stool and millions could relate. Those who liked her music posted YouTube clips and expressed condolences; those who didn’t either shrugged or made wisecracks about how she should’ve gone to rehab, Ha Ha Ha.
But what I don’t get is this argument that mourning Winehouse for a day somehow diminishes the horror of the killings in Norway. When beloved film historian and TV host Elwy Yost died earlier this week, no one criticized his many devotees writing blog tributes and Facebook RIPs of dimishing the death of Sean Hoare or the Murdoch news scandal he blew the whistle on. Grief is large, it contains multitudes. Quantifying it can only remind me of the famous anecdote about Christopher Isherwood explaining to a Jewish movie director in sixties Hollywood about the 600,000 homosexuals killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust. The director said, “But, Hitler killed six million Jews.” An appalled Isherwood replied, “What are you, in real estate?”
When I worked in the charitable non-profit sector, there was much discussion around “compassion fatigue” and, as we all become networked together more and more, sharing each other’s hopes and heartbreaks, it often feels like an increasingly potent problem. The world is hard on sensitive people–spend any time reading the news each day and it’d be easy to become overwhemed by the tragedy in the world. I know a number of people (heartbreakers, each and every one!) who tell me they don’t read newspapers at all because it’s all just fearmongering and depression. On a weekend like this, it’s hard to argue with them.
There is, of course, the argument that talking about Winehouse is another example of the public lazily choosing celebrity gossip over urgent world events, like discussing Jennifer Aniston‘s love life and not Stephen Harper quietly beginning to monitor our online lives. That’s a fair criticism but I’d still argue it’s different with pop singers. Music is such an intense part of many people’s lives–our daily soundtrack–that love for the art and the artist become entwined. I’ve never met David Bowie, for instance, but I can tell you that the day he dies will be an intensely sad one for me and I won’t care if that’s considered irrational.
People weren’t just mourning the loss of Amy Winehouse the person this weekend or Amy Winehouse the singer, they were mourning Amy Winehouse the symbol. By breaking down so intensely and publicly, she became a public face of addiction (and comedian Russell Brand has written a beautiful piece from that standpoint). People love a comeback and I think most of us, whether we were fans or not, were quietly looking forward to Winehouse getting her shit together and resuming a brilliant career. As a public stand-in for the hopes of many an addict and their supporters, the loss of this great singer’s potential is a devastating one and it hurts to see her dismissed by so many as simply another junkie idiot who couldn’t fix her life. That’s not compassion fatigue, that’s compassion failure.
But for those still insisting that any reading or writing about a fallen pop tart is wasting valuable time from analyzing the events in Oslo, don’t worry. There’s already been a lot of ink from the left (domestic terrorism expert David Neiwert leading the way) and the right (a troubling essay from Bruce Bawer and apparently some latest dreadfulness from Michael Coren, who I refuse to pay any more attention to). I guarantee that, two months from now, we’ll still be discussing this massacre’s aftermath and what it means while the mass outpouring of grief over Winehouse will have died out. She’ll become simply a sad footnote in music history at best, another dead junkie at worst. Is that a win?