Amy Winehouse is the latest example of how sudden death ignites the career of a down-and-out, self-destructive artist. You see it happen time and again: a troubled celebrity dies unexpectedly. Said celebrity then realizes a surge in PR popularity and revenue.
I blogged about the phenomenon in 2008 in the wake of the death of Heath Ledger. And Rolling Stone more famously did so back in 1981 by analyzing the wild popularity of dead rocker Jim Morrison (“He’s Hot, he’s sexy, and he’s dead”)
And now Amy Winehouse – who only weeks ago was booed offstage in Belgrade – is a star again.
She has became a social media phenomenon, with her Facebook page gaining 200,00 fans a day, and Twitter reacting with a predictable surge of activity as people remember her (and breathlessly report her death long after her demise is patently obvious).
Meantime, Microsoft got itself a black eye for encouraging people to honor her memory by purchasing her music on Microsoft Zune. (Apple escaped criticism although it was featuring her music on iTunes.)
And you can be sure we’ll see some unreleased Amy Winehouse music on the market.
So why do self-destructive artists become so popular in death – especially the likes of Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse, whose careers were obviously in decline at the time of their passing? I think Ryan O’Connell offers a telling perspective in his Thought Catalog post, “Why Do We Care So Much about Amy Winehouse’s Death?”
In American culture especially, we worship celebrities. They’re our version of royalty and I suppose that’s why we take celebrities’ deaths so personally. For some reason or another, their life meant something to us. In some ways, we might be more involved in their lives than our own. It’s for that reason that I found myself annoyed that people were going apeshit about Amy Winehouse dying. I felt like I and many others grieved her death out of some misguided sense of duty. It hit us so much harder because Amy Winehouse never got her shit together. Americans love to tear celebrities down (Amy included. I’m sorry but the American press and “fans” weren’t particularly kind to her. She was mocked relentlessly.) and then we love to bring them back up. We love a comeback even more than a downfall. And what’s perhaps most tragic about Winehouse and the reason why so many people flipped out over her death is that she never got her happy ending. We were never able to rehabilitate her and put a bow on her next album. That’s what we wanted most of all, right? To see her happy and healthy? But it’s hard to tell if those wishes were ever genuine. It’s hard to discern whether or not we truly gave a shit about Amy Winehouse or if we just needed her to fit the typical celebrity narrative.
Americans love the arc of the comeback story. When a celebrity won’t give us the comeback that we want, we create it ourselves.