Tuesday, July 26, 2011

More Celebrity "News" - Amy Winehouse Edition

News of the death of Amy Winehouse worked its way around the Facebook water cooler relatively quickly, as was to be expected. Most of the posts, that I saw at least, had a somber tone, regretful to see talent wasted. While no one seemed to be particularly surprised, most apparently had been hoping for her to pull it together enough to follow up her Back to Black album with a piece of work equally as rich and soulful, while others seemed to be of the opinion that that album’s depth probably came from emotions that were tragically inseparable from the self-destructive behavior. Some simply joked that she “probably should have gone to rehab, but she said: ‘No, no, no.’”

Others stuck Winehouse comments into threads dealing with the tragedy in Norway, in which a radical right-wing, racist xenophobe murdered nearly a hundred people in cold blood, as if to chastise us for spending so much time weighing in on a death of a pop star who was more famous for her offstage behavior than her incredibly limited catalog, instead of dealing with weightier issues that demand our attention and discussion.

It is true that I commented on Amy Winehouse’s death on Facebook before I commented on the tragedy in Norway, even though that happened the day before. It seemed easier to comment on her. Talking about what happened in Norway felt like a bigger responsibility. I would actually have to say something intelligent.

What happened in Norway was real news, in every sense of the word. It was shocking, unexpected, and while not geographically close to home, the issues certainly are. Truly this requires real discussion beyond knee jerk reactions, not only in discussions of the event itself, but also in how it was reported, specifically how quickly the assumption of Islamic terrorism became voiced long before accurate information became available.

Most would say that Ms. Winehouse’s death, by comparison, is not news, and it isn’t. It is entertainment, and entertainment is what is talked about around the water cooler. Entertainment can fit in little sound bites and be attached to trite sayings punch lines. News requires thought and contextualization, which actually requires effort.

I do not want to belittle the death of a human being, and I do consider myself one of those who were hoping for a recovery and a comeback, but her death was not unexpected. Quite the contrary, her death was the final act in the show that we had been watching for the past couple of years. Some had hoped that the story would have a happy ending, but deep down, did anyone really think that it would? But there’s nothing wrong with a sad ending. We all love a sad movie now and then, right?

Is it heartless of me to be saying this? We watched her deterioration without wracking our brains of how to intervene. We didn’t ponder a course of action to take based on the “news” of her condition. I don’t think that’s any reason to beat ourselves up over that. Celebrities have always served the purpose of being distant figures to be the objects of idolization, derision, and gossip kept at a safe distance. Their private lives are repurposed to be a game as engaging and entertaining as the work they create, often more so.

For this reason, I am not surprised that more people are talking about Amy Winehouse, and what’s more, I’m glad that more people are. I don’t want to see Facebook clogged with a bunch of poorly though out gut reactions and flippant comments about an issue as grave as what happened in Norway. What happened in Norway was news, and I would rather hear nothing than hear reports that are skewed in the direction of sensationalism or propaganda. The problem is when entertainment is treated like news and news treated like entertainment, which is too often the case. Frankly, it is just easier to talk about Amy Winehouse, anyone can voice an opinion with no harm done. I wouldn’t want to hear most of those people weigh in on global politics anyway. Myself included.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Ceci N'est Pas une Brochure

As I got off the train at Columbus Circle today, I passed by a guy wearing a red shirt that read “Yeshu” in a Hebrew styled font. “Fucking Jews-for-Jesus,” I thought. I looked down at the pamphlets he was handing out and saw a cartoonish drawing of a guy holding a sign that read “Beware of religious fanatics handing out pamphlets.” I stepped back and took one. Perhaps I had him all wrong. Perhaps there was a different intention here. I opened the pamphlet and looked through it and saw a bunch of cartoons and a weird questionnaire. It would have been better if the pamphlet was empty, but this still looked vapid enough. What was this supposed to be? A secular humanist doctrine? A bit of ironic performance art? A bit of Dada? I skimmed through the pamphlet looking for the message, truly hoping that I wasn’t going to find one. I got through the first page and, so far, so good. I found nothing espousing a concrete world view. I started to get a little mad at myself that I hadn’t had the balls to do this, and this unassuming, unsociable looking guy had. What a wonderful idea to go out onto the street during the morning rush hour and hand out pamphlets to commuters, with messages intended to subvert the meanings of the common political or religious pamphlets commonly seen on these streets. Or better, yet, to hand out pamphlets that reject the idea of meaning at all. I mean Dada is old, decrepit, and perhaps even incontinent, but not dead.

What kind of message would I have in there? “Ceci n'est pas une brochure?” No. That is far too derivative. A cookie recipe? A print ad for a product that hasn’t been in existence since the 1940s? Perhaps a banal piece of my own day, like so many tweets that are posted today, but instead handing it out in hard copy under the hot sun. (Ah, the digital age, when messages are so plentiful and so easy to ignore, it is almost refreshing to have some jerk try to foist his views into my hand as I am trying push my way by him to get to work. Almost.) It is not as though this type of thing has never been done before, but now, in age of Facebook and Twitter, it seems so anachronistic to make such an effort. Indeed, it is the sheer effort involved in this gesture to inflict meaninglessness on a group of people is what makes it art, not how the meaninglessness is constructed.

I got to the bottom of the pamphlet and, to my dismay, it did evolve into some treatise for Jews-for-Jesus. I was frustrated at myself for being fooled for even a moment (he was wearing that stupid shirt, after all), but more frustrating was seeing this opportunity for a beautifully empty gesture wasted. I tore up the brochure and threw it away, amazed at the audacity of this guy to try to differentiate himself and his group from “religious fanatics.” Actually, that was a pretty good joke, but one that the pamphleteer was not in on.