Saturday, July 23, 2011

Three Tragedies: Norway, Winehouse, Us

I want to begin with a few qualifications and apologies. A number of my comments, statuses and Tweets today were attacks, which is me being hypocritical and missing my own point. The terrorism in Norway that killed upwards of 90 people is a worse incident than the passing of singer Amy Winehouse. This is without question. I am doing my best to find a way to donate money to Norway, and if anyone can refer me to a website to do this it would be much appreciated.

In the past 24 hours, two disheartening news stories broke. The more tragic of them was the explosion in Oslo and related shooting on an island in Buskerud. The total number of casualties exceeds 90. The second news piece concerned Amy Winehouse, a singer who was once famous for her throwback music and deep voice, but became a punchline in recent years. The terrorist attacks in Norway were tragic in the dictionary definition of the word, something that is overwhelmingly sad. Winehouse’s death is tragic in the Shakespearean sense of falling from grace. The majority of social media reaction has been in response to the Winehouse story. It is unfortunate that more attention isn’t being paid to the attacks. However, the way people are going about supporting that idea is unlikely to help anybody. And there is a reason, whether it is right or not, that people are more obsessed with the Winehouse story.

There are two different Facebook statuses floating around today. The first is some variation of “RIP Amy Winehouse”. Perhaps a sentence or two about what her music means to the writer, or a note about how sad her life became. Those who are not writing those statuses are coming at the story from the opposite angle, with jokes. The past few years have seen Winehouse deal with incredible drug addiction, and a general lack of hold on her life and sanity. Apparently this is hilarious. Jokes at the expense of her well-being are nothing new, but in light of her passing, they seem even more cruel. There is nothing funny about addiction. Because of her fame, people feel almost as if she was a character, not a real person suffering from real problems that money and fame couldn’t fix. In fact, being in the spotlight hurt her more than it helped. A number of the statuses criticizing her also focus on the fact that nobody is talking about Norway. The main problem is that most of the people posting these thoughts have not written anything in support of Norway themselves. Instead, they upset Winehouse fans and do nothing to inform people of the attacks or help out those suffering in Norway. It doesn’t benefit either tragedy. Another issue is that the majority of people who are posting about Winehouse would not write about Norway if she hadn’t passed. Facebook doesn’t limit the number of statuses you write. We all have the option to write about both the attacks and the singer’s death. People aren’t choosing Winehouse over Norway. They are choosing Winehouse, which has nothing to do with Norway. They are completely unrelated in regards to public reaction. People are attracted to Winehouse’s life and unattracted to Norway’s terrorist attacks for very simple reasons.

We have celebrities for a number of purposes. They provide us with entertainment, keep various industries alive, and perhaps most importantly, we live vicariously through them. We all want to be famous, to have piles of money, or at least to be loved by millions. When a celebrity achieves fame we latch onto them and follow their every move, because we wish those were our moves. And when that celebrity fails, and falls and is damaged, we feel those pains as if they were our own. Those on the outside of this fan-celebrity relationship don’t get it, hence the jokes. We mock the feelings we don’t understand, label them as stupid. However, for those within this connection, there is a profound sense of loss when a celebrity is taken away, and Winehouse was taken away years ago. This is merely the time to say goodbye, once and for all. In a celebrity culture, it is to be expected to have a large, swelling reaction to a star’s passing. If this did not happen, if we did not acknowledge their downfalls and ends, we would never feel as lifted by their achievements, their comebacks. Back to Black, Winehouse’s 2006 sophomore album is, as Steven Hyden writes for The A.V. Club, “one of the great pop records of the last decade”. There are scores of critics who would agree with him. This achievement catapulted her to the mainstream in America. Thus, when she fails to live up to the standard set by that album (she never released a third) we lash against her for failing to deliver on her unmade promises. We sympathize with her for succumbing to human flaws. We weep for her passing without a swan song to end her time on earth, merely an addiction and empty, sad years.

The attacks in Norway are heartbreaking and unexpected. Yes, there should be more of an effort by the American people to sympathize with the victims’ families, with all those affected, because we felt the very same things only a decade ago. Perhaps, though, this is why it is so difficult to dwell on the situation for too long. It is a large, overwhelming problem with no end. Though the terrorists in Norway had no relation to terrorists in many other incidents our generation has lived through (in fact, the supposed perpetrator may have had anti-Muslim views), the general idea of the horrors that humans are capable of is a subject that has dominated the lives of all those who have ever lived on this Earth. It is difficult to read article after article about how almost a hundred people are dead for no other reason than a number of men wanted them that way. It is sad, but not like one singer’s death. It is sad in a way that it cannot be explained away; there is so simple solution to stop an incident of this type from happening again. We can try to be kinder to celebrities in peril (though we will not be) but we cannot stop humans from being evil.

I do not condone the lack of focus of the bombing and shooting. I do, however, understand it. I too would rather read a piece on how a singer I loved tumbled through addiction to an inevitable end. It is less sad. It is an easier kind of sad to process. You can blame a lack of priority, but perhaps the cause of the social media attention on Amy Winehouse stems from a deeper cause. And even if it doesn’t, even if you believe most people are ignorant or uncaring about tragedies outside of their own country, words of hate are not the answer. Hatred is what got us here in the first place.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Harry Potter & Friday Night Lights: Art as a Snapshot

Steven Hyden’s recent brilliant article on Counting Crows’ Recovering the Satellites at The A.V. Club discusses how that album captures a specific moment in his life. This is by no means a revolutionary idea, but it is a poignant one for me. This weekend welcomes the finale of two series that absorbed specific portions of my life. My childhood was defined by the Harry Potter series, and I am by no means alone on that. On a more personal scale, the TV series Friday Night Lights assured my love of television, and shaped my adolescence. The final Harry Potter film, and the final episode of FNL both premiere on Friday, and that is no coincidence in my opinion.

This week I was approved for my first apartment, the official departure from my childhood home. I’ve realized recently that I’ve grown apart from a number of high school friends, which happens. I’m growing up, which I hear happens to just about everyone. But the ending of these former segments of my life is accompanied by the ending of the art that guided them.

Harry Potter is the story of a boy wizard. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. The series helped create my love of fantasy literature. Hell, it helped create my love of literature. It was, in a way, my childhood. I grew up wanting, yearning to be as special as Harry, to find that important of a purpose in life. Then, I graduated to Friday Night Lights. Less actual magic, yet it redefined my goals. Rather than having the somewhat irrational desire to attend Hogwarts, I wanted to find a place in life where I could be happy, like Coach and Mrs. Coach. Sure, they have squabbles, but they love each other, and their daughters and their jobs. They are inherently good people living in an inherently confused world, much closer to the real world than the one filled with flying broomsticks and wands. Now, comes the part of my life where I go out to accomplish those goals.

These pieces of art, along with plenty of others, are forever a part of me. When I read Harry Potter to my kids I will be flushed with memories of my childhood home, the day I spent devouring the final tome, and the evening I spent in my room weeping at the closing of The Half-Blood Prince. And I will think of the mission trip I attended the day after finishing the series, and the friends I had in grade school, regardless of whether I discussed the books with them or not. When I, after coming home from my future job to my future family, decide to revisit Friday Night Lights, I’ll think of the friends I watched the final season with, of course, and the hour-long conversations with my dad about how Riggens screwed up this week. But I’ll also remember high school, all of it, especially how the episode “Underdogs” (detailing many of the characters’ last game) was unbearably painful to watch after my Speech Team career had ended.

I’ll remember these things not because of how good the art was, or even because of the specific details of watching every episode or reading every book, but rather because these series have come to define those portions of my life. I will never separate my youth from Harry Potter, or my teenage years from Friday Night Lights. And I would never want to. I never want to become a jaded critic that forgets why he got into the job in the first place. It wasn’t some brilliant film, or a classic novel. It was being that boy who knew that if he dreamed hard enough, he too could see all the magic the world had to offer.