It’s been a strange week. A week full of loss in one way or another. People I never met, some I never knew and some who influenced me a lot. Some lives well-lived and well-used, and others that seemed to end far too soon. Amid so much loss, the death of Amy Winehouse seemed to generate fewer headlines than it might have. Having said that, plenty has still been written about her, and it’s hard to add anything else.
Responses to the news have basically been the same – a lack of surprise, given the things we read about Amy’s life over the past few years. Some have phrased it as a harsh, “I told you so”, others have been kinder as they’ve expressed shock, but a lack of surprise.
When celebrities die, particularly someone like Amy Winehouse, it shocks us. It cracks the glossy veneer of fame that we’re so familiar with, and which so many of us want.
In life, we dehumanise celebrities, don’t we? We either deride them or we worship them, but rarely do we want to think they’re like us. We may want their life, or we may not, but we want it to be different. They become either a source of inspiration, something to aspire to, or they become living cautionary tales that allow us to feel better about our own lives. Either way, we stop thinking of them as relational human beings, created in God’s image and loved by him, and we treat them as something to be consumed while we enjoy it, and then rejected.
It’s no surprise that in death, we dehumanise celebrities too. Again, we either sneer, “it’s her own fault,” or we worship as we mourn. And it’s fascinating how we so often forget how we talked about about the dead while they were alive to hear us. This has happened to Amy in equal measure, and both are sad to watch.
I wonder if at least part of this is because we feel a lingering sense of guilt. We watched it happen. We laughed at Amy as she stumbled drunkenly through performances, or as she rolled out of another taxi. We even sang and danced along as she sang about Rehab. It was funny while she was alive, but it’s uncomfortable now she’s gone. Maybe we feel better if we reassure ourselves that it was all her own fault, or it was the fault of the crowd she attached herself to?
But I think there’s something else going on. We like our celebrities different from us, because fame and celebrity offer us an escape; a different, more exciting kind of life that dangles an unreachable promise of better things in front of our faces. But it’s a fragile dream, and the cold, hard reality of death demolishes it. To preserve the dream we have to respond in one of two ways: we elevate them to sainthood, as though we grant them some kind of immortality by declaring that their memory will live on, or we shake our heads and say, “what a waste.” “I’d never make those mistakes.” “I could have used their fame and money so much better.” Either way, death isn’t allowed to interfere.
Celebrity promises all kinds of things: significance, acceptance, escape. But, in the end, it’s just an illusion, and death is the ultimate reality check. We don’t need someone else to promise much but never deliver. We need someone who can show us what it really means to be human, someone who really can dignify our humanity and really liberate it from the power and ever-presence of mortality. We need Jesus.
Good bye Amy.