Many thoughts struck when I saw that Amy Winehouse had died; I found out, as I'm sure many people did, via status updates on Facebook, and the general mood seemed to be surprise. I didn't want to join the Facebook chorus of tributes, because after a while, as people posted more and more cutting comments and remarks, it struck me that, although the NotW might have died a gory death, the attitude it appealed to is as virulent as ever, and has become endemic throughout consumers of popular culture.
With the desperate hype surrounding the cult of celebrity there has risen a parallel discourse of desperate celebrity schadenfreude commentary, and like the fame game it transcends politics and class. From Heat front pages to Holy Moly daily mailouts, the desire to attribute any fall to the pursuit of public individualism is endemic. The piece of reporting that stuck in my head was the following, from the BBC website:
"The singer's death also prompted tributes from her celebrity friends."
I liked some of Amy Winehouse's songs, would put an album on if choosing from a friends collection, but owned none of her output myself, was never a fan - it just fairly passed me by as some of the better background pop music. I never knew her, although ended up in The Good Mixer (the actual Camden drinker's late night bar of choice) a few times while she was there - and on those occasions, my impression was never of someone who loved the attention. She was easily recognisable, for the tattoos but mostly for being particularly small. The impression I got was of someone who abided being recognised because she didn't want any fuss. No news story every jumped out at me and screamed of someone clamouring for fame.
It has become a non-extreme opinion to say that people who are famous bring their own downfall upon themselves, and one so easy to load with wisdom after the fact that a massive number of people become instant experts when a celebrity news story breaks. We are saturated by celebrity and the desire to see it fail as a lifestyle. I am not convinced that the two must go hand in hand; it may be a cultural nuance particular to these isles - with X-Factor on one hand and I'm A Celebrity on the other, or it may be a wider trend brought about by the pervasive, insidious nature of the machinery that drives fame and celebrity, which is PR and marketing.
A curious side-effect of the NotW phone hacking scandal was the stripping back of the machinery of celebrity. Reading Marina Hyde's obit on the Guardian site, much of what I suspected from my own peripheral dealings with the celebrity industry shone through - that even at the largest media organisations, their top journalists cover PR-driven events for stories. It is almost impossible now to get any sort of interview with anyone with a public name without going through a PR agency; often as not, quotes and pictures are vetted, and there is always something to sell. Celebrity has probably never been a bigger business than it is now, and because it is everywhere, it is easy to lose sight of what the product actually is: what is sold to us isn't the people themselves, but a virtual waxwork, polished and buffed.
Inevitably, the human being behind it gets lost along the way. The concept of them we are sold is photoshopped and retouched; the celebrity friends and social network commenters spin into action, propping and attacking the apparition of a person that in all likelihood none of them really knew. Who is it who suggests that a PR buffer between one's own fame and the real world is a good idea? Perhaps label bosses, agents, friends in the industry, or perhaps it just seems the way that things are done. I don't have enough knowledge of the workings of this vast media machine to guess, but will be sparing a thought for the ordinary, unfamous people for whom private grief is now impossible because of it.