Culture Vulture: Celebrity

They tried to make her go to rehab, but in the end it didn’t make a difference.

Last weekend brought with it the sad but perhaps unsurprising news that singer Amy Winehouse was found dead in her North London flat. Her death is without doubt a tragic and untimely loss of a great talent, but it’s equally without doubt that the tabloids will now be forced to work a little harder (perhaps a given in any case in light of the current phone hacking scandal) to fill their front pages.

While charting her self-destructive course, Winehouse went from critically acclaimed emerging talent to red-top fodder faster than you can chug a cheap glass of Chardonnay. Her phenomenally successful Back to Black album entered her in the record books as the first British female artist to win five Grammy Awards, but the drama of her personal life won her the rather less prestigious accolade of BBC3’s Most Annoying Person of the Year in 2007.

The ill-fated singer is just the latest of a seemingly endless string of artists whose work has been forced to cower in the shadow of their news-worthy personal antics. Romantic bad boy and all-round hedonistic player Lord Byron was the original rockstar back in the early nineteenth century, writing the rulebook on how to make a monumental splash. The ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ poet could boast among his many controversies of keeping a pet bear at Cambridge, piling up massive debts and being famously unfussy about his sexual partners; man, woman, relative – who cares?

The great man may have made an art out of living, but his art itself suffered at the hands of his excesses. Many are aware of Byron’s sexual exploits, but I suspect that the number of those who have read Don Juan would be significantly fewer (by the way, the self-described epic satire is, for those who don’t know it, a hoot of a read).

While Byron may have been the first true international celebrity, he was certainly not the last. Scores of would-be stars have taken Byron’s mantle and run with it, for better or for worse – and in the case of many it is the latter. Describing smarmy pretty boy Tom Cruise as an artist stretches plausibility to breaking point, but he is a case in point of fame making a mockery of talent. Whatever else you may think of him, he did prove his acting chops in films such as Rain Man and Born on the Fourth of July, but then Scientology and Katie Holmes came knocking at the door and a few jumps on Oprah’s couch later his credibility was in shreds.

Of course, there are also those who seem to be famous purely as car crash entertainment – Lindsay Lohan, anyone? – but for many the lure of celebrity is a trap that closes its poisonous teeth around talent and leaves only drink, drugs and tabloid hell. Very rock and roll it may be, but conducive to creativity it is not.

So let’s forget about the fifteen minutes of fame so infamously predicted by Andy Warhol and put Back to Black on the ipod, remembering Amy Winehouse for what rightly made her name in the first place. Because it would seem that celebrity, a little bit like love, is more often than not a losing game.

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