Dying to be different

Dying to be different

Price of Fame

Dying to be different

B­­eing famous and dying young can be a great career move. It’s highly recommended. But there is an obvious twist. You will not be around to cash in on the benefits.

Soon after British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse died in July, her records re-entered the charts and were hits all over again.

Jimi Hendrix also went to the top of the charts after his death in 1970, as did John Lennon in 1980.

It’s been a common theme down the years. But, career strategy apart, why is it that fame too often appears to be a passport to oblivion?

Kurt Cobain, Viveka Babajee, Kuljeet Randhawa, Silk Smitha and Kunal Singh are all reported to have committed suicide. Drink or drugs took the lives of Janis Joplin, Meena Kumari, Hendrix, The Who’s Keith Moon and Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham. Tragic endings all lay in store for Guru Dutt, Ishmeet Singh Sodhi, Divya Bharti and Parveen Babi. The list of famous people who died before their time, often in tragic circumstances, is a long and sad one.

Rock and roll in particular is notorious for the deaths of young men and women in their prime. In 2007, a British university study found that between 1956 and 2005, drug and alcohol problems accounted for 25 per cent of the deaths of a sample of artists who died young. But the grim reaper does not have to come calling with a bagful of booze and drugs. Death can come early to the famous in many forms and is not always self-inflicted.

It can be via the hand of the unhinged, or simply as a result of leading a hectic life and constantly being on the move. For instance, John Lennon was murdered just for being an icon, at age 40, and early rock and roll pioneers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and Eddie Cochrane were all killed in plane or car crashes. None of them lived beyond 22.

Even many of those who survived fame and lived to tell the tale only did so by the skin of their teeth. While India has more than its fair share of celebrities who fell down only to get up again, even bad boy Sanjay Dutt cannot compare to the Rolling Stones’s Keith Richards, that walking pickled featured cocktail of booze, drugs and heavy living, who has been on many a website’s ‘death watch’ list for years. His musical talent is surpassed only by his ability to survive a long life of reckless debauchery.

Alas, such a life is not for everyone. Amy Winehouse barely made it to 27. While she will linger in the collective memory for some time to come, her legacy of brilliant singer with an insatiable appetite for R&B, soul and jazz will be tainted by her tendency for self-destruction.

Her singing was certainly up there with the all time greats, as any aficionado in the music industry will testify. With that powerful voice, black beehive hair, tattoos and heavy eye make up, she was instantly recognisable, and her short life was littered with international accolades and awards.

She collected five Grammys, three Ivor Novellas and virtually every prize that she could have won. Her songs and albums propelled her to the top of the music profession and provided her with the means to indulge in all the trappings that fame brings. It may be no exaggeration to claim that, well before her death at such a young age, she was already on the way to acquiring legendary standing on the basis of her musical talents. As is often the case, dying young has certainly cemented that status.

Amy Winehouse appeared to have everything going for her. But she threw it all away. The paparazzi and tabloid press were all too quick to home in on tales of heroin and crack cocaine use and erratic behaviour. They hounded her wherever she went.

Harrowing reports of violence, drug rehabilitation clinics, alcoholism and various health issues became commonplace and served to overshadow her talent and eventually detract from her live performances. Her father, at one stage, was reported as saying that doctors had warned his daughter that, if she continued smoking crack cocaine, she would have to wear an oxygen mask and would eventually die.

Winehouse should be remembered for her brilliant voice and songs. But we don’t live in an ideal world, do we? Her early death tells us this. It doesn’t take a genius to see that she was a troubled young woman. So, who is to say that things would have been much different if fame had never come knocking?

The answer to that question can only be speculative. But, in a world that turns people into almost instant global brand identities for mass marketing and lavishes them with untold fame and riches, is it any wonder then that more than a few — in many cases, stronger souls than Winehouse — can’t cope and end up dead or as tragic figures?

Whether it’s Michael Jackson, the ‘king of pop’, or Diana, the ‘queen of hearts’, such famous people lead lives that most ordinary folks cannot even begin to imagine. They become media manufactured icons, which can have sinister implications for all concerned — for those coping with fame and playing out the illusion, but also at times for many of the fans who buy into celebrity worship and become obsessed with perfect strangers whom they think they know so well.

Winehouse is now part of the long list of celebrities who have fallen by the wayside at a young age as a result of drugs, drink or health problems, or a combination of all three. But perhaps, ultimately, she is just another casualty of the frailty of the human condition when confronted with a modern world fixated by materialism and celebrity.

Craving fame and wealth has become the blind faith of the age. TV programmes like ‘X Factor’ and ‘Indian Idol’ are based on the falsehood that this is what we should aspire to, as we drool over a fast food smorgasbord of here-today-gone-tomorrow brands to be glorified then spat out when considered obsolete. It’s an  obsession built on crazes that have little resilience in a world of media-induced fabrications and fickle idolisation.

While material reward and fame may be a somewhat liberating experience for those who emerge into the limelight from lives of poverty and hardship, the crass fetishisation of wealth and wannabe celebritydom, coupled with a pervasive cult of excessive individualism, can be  socially divisive.

Such a culture eats away at a sense of communality and camaraderie by encouraging folks to seek unlimited self-gratification and set themselves apart from everyone else. It also fuels a certain arrogance, which can lead people to regard themselves as being above and beyond society’s standards of accountability.

You don’t have to read about some movie star running a vehicle into people sleeping on a Mumbai pavement and then walking free, in order to have an inkling of the type of sickening conceit that fame can bestow and the corrosive influence it has. Nor do you have to watch them bounce in and out of court, lodge numerous appeals and serve mere days in prison for crimes that ordinary folk would be banged up years for.

But fame begets privilege, and its influence is everywhere in today’s world of multi-channel 24 hour TV, powerful public relations agencies, gossip columns and instantly accessible social media. Fame must not be viewed in isolation, though. It is part of a wider ideology.

The French philosopher and social theorist, Michael Foucault, suggested that our taken for granted knowledge about the world in general and how we regard ourselves may seem benign and neutral, but must be viewed within the context of power.

Today, fame and individualism have increasingly become an accepted form of ‘truth’, of reality, and of how we view ourselves and evaluate those around us. Endless glossy commercials and TV shows that wallow in the filthy veneration of money, fame and narcissism are conveying the message that greed is good, fame is the epitome of success and the individual is king.

This is, of course, based on a false assumption, on a lingering lie. And part of that lie is the joining of fame and failure at the hip. Notions of failure are implicit in the messages surrounding individualism, money and fame. If you are not famous or do not stand out from the crowd, you are somehow a failure. If you don’t buy this product, wear that item or apply some whitening skin cream, you somehow don’t cut it.

It is a culture that preys on our insecurities, which the media, ad agencies and product makers manipulate at will. In true Foucauldian style, it’s a power play that is concerned with redefining who we are or what we should be. Consumerism, fame and a notion of ‘the self’ in terms of individualism, not the collective, dovetail neatly with the ‘free market’ ideology of the day.

In a world where it’s become a case of ‘each one for himself’, the carrot of fame or of ‘making it big’ provides the perfect antidote. A craving for fame and fortune is the promised land, the ultimate opiate for modern man and woman.

Such concerns aside, it must be stressed that wealth and fame are very narrow measurements of success anyhow. Humans are social animals and a sense of personal well-being derives from our relations with one another and with the environment around us. ‘Happiness’ and well-being surveys tell us this time and time again.

It may bring material riches, but, by its very nature, fame, particularly the near instant variety, can be anti-social and ultimately ‘anti-happy’. It can catapult a person into a very turbulent stratosphere, where lives and relationships can be thrown into turmoil.

Personal isolation, alienation and self-destruction may follow. If the core value of society becomes ‘the self’, what future for the society? Indeed, what future for the individual?
While some crave fame, others do not. Amy Winehouse is once reported to have said that all she wanted to be was a singer. Perhaps she never set out to acquire fame.

Unfortunately for her, it came knocking, regardless. Although a lot cave in to the pressures, a few have the good sense to shun fame or get out early in the knowledge that it isn’t for them.

To many, Amy Winehouse’s death will come as little surprise, given her tormented private life. She may have been an immense musical talent, but that talent was combined with vulnerable personality traits. Fame and happiness can be uneasy bedfellows. For Amy and others like her, they were perfect strangers.

In finishing, it may be pertinent to ask why so much media coverage is paid to the passing of such privileged and famous individuals in a world where millions are left to live and die in poverty. It’s a valid point. However, such coverage in a way compels us to hold up a mirror to society and question its values. In particular, it encourages us to reflect on the shallow nature of fame and all it symbolises and entails. Ultimately, it may lead us to reject society’s unholy obsession with it.

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