Welcome to Pop Cafe Tuesday, where we talk about film, television and pop culture past, present and future. It’s somber in the cafe today. Singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse died on Saturday. The Twitterverse lit up with celebrity condolences, and several hashtags like #DearAmy. The general consensus seemed to be one of sadness and inevitability. Amy was a ‘troubled artist’, and her path blazed with self-destruction. People expected her to die young. There is even a website devoted to guessing when Amy Winehouse would die. If you guessed right, you win an IPad. Numbs the mind, yes?
Why does modern society take at best a passive stance and at worse an encouraging ‘go ahead and jump’ view at the self-destructive parade of celebrity creatives? Witness Charlie Sheen and the popularity of certain ‘reality’ television shows that glamorize people and their destructive behaviors. Many blame fame and fortune for a celebrity’s downfall, and even enjoy and have become a celebrity themselves by tearing the famous off their self-erected pedestals. Others nod sympathetically and lament that’s just how it is with these ‘tortured artist types’. Is it really that simple?
Artistically-focused people living troubled lives is nothing new. Mozart, Beethoven, VanGogh, Hemingway and Joyce. A plethora of examples from the last forty years notably include Monroe, Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain. Did fame drive these gifted artists to addiction and self-destruction, or were they already emotionally intense and sensitive people who found themselves unable to handle the additional stresses of wealth and fame?
- Marilyn Monroe had a mentally unstable mother. She spent the majority of her childhood moving from one foster home to another and was targeted for molestation by a caregiver. She also spent many years in psychoanalysis.
- Jim Morrison witnessed a car accident at the age of 4 and he said it affected him for the rest of his life. He also had a strict military father who used verbal berating as discipline.
- Jimi Hendrix siblings were parceled out to the foster care system and his mother died of cirrhosis of the liver when he was eighteen.
- Janis Joplin’s mother stated that she was always unhappy as a child and needed more attention than her other children. She dared to follow her creative free spirit in school and endured years of humiliation from her conservative classmates.
- River Phoenix’s family belonged to a cult when he was a child and moved many times. He was so affected as a young child by watching native fishing practices that he became a lifelong vegan and animal cruelty advocate.
- Kurt Cobain was a caring and sensitive child, immersing himself in art and music at a young age. His parents divorced when he was eight and he stated it had a profound negative effect on his life.
The list could go on and on. The argument might be made that everyone has problems so what’s the big deal?Maybe it is the ability to cope that becomes the focus. The common denominators in the list above seem to be a highly sensitive personality, unconventional childhoods and a genius level of talent that has to be expressed. Some creatives deal with mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety or bipolar, and they end up self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. Many creatives who aren’t as well known struggle with some of the same difficulties. The artists listed above gained a fame that may not have only contributed to their issues but because of their public life advertised them, making it even more difficult to deal with.
Check out Douglas Eby’s blog post Gifted, Talented, Addicted
As Amy Winehouse’s family and fans grieve, maybe the lesson to be applied is for the loved ones of those who would be future ‘stars’. Cultivate talent in young people, but above that make sure to nurture and tend their spirits. Love, protect, empower. Teach them the coping skills they will need in their vocational endeavors as a pre-emptive to a downward spiraling life. Their future demands it.
Question: What did you think of the response to Amy Winehouse’s death? Is there anything we can do to change the public’s obsession with celebrity self-destruction?