"Amy" and why we need to stop worshiping each other
The first time I heard Rehab by Amy Winehouse, it seemed like an eerie cry for help masked in poppy rhythms that could make our heads bob along with the artist's confession of personal misery. Now that I’ve seen Amy, the 2016 Academy Award-winning documentary of the artist's life, Rehab is officially the saddest, most haunting song I’ve ever heard.
I’ve never experienced anything quite like Amy. The filmmakers guide us through intimate encounters with a real life rock star who is no longer living by the time of the film's production, but is still able to speak for herself through a collection of diverse footage captured during her life.
As a young artist, Amy already struggled with depression, bulimia and alcoholism. She was fading away long before most of us ever knew who she was. In fact, her ability to communicate the dark elements of her life through her music is what made her famous in the first place. And when the attention of the masses did come her way, so did the harder substances like cocaine and heroine, introduced by her husband.
Watching her story compelled me to google other celebrities who have died of causes related to substance abuse. Why does this seem to happen so much? It's as if whatever innate issues a person may already have, these struggles become intensified by the added weight of their fame.
Early in the film, an interviewer asks young Amy how famous she thinks she's going to be. She replies, “I don’t think I'm gonna be at all famous. I don't think I could handle it. I'd probably go mad! You know what I mean? I would go mad."
She may have been way off about her eventual stardom, but she was spot on about the way her fame would affect her.
Back when Creator God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, revealing how He intends for humanity to live, He famously started out by saying, “I am the Lord your God… You shall have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:2-3; Deut. 5: 6-7)."
Ever wonder why He opened with that? Was it because God is some power-hungry narcissist who craves all the attention in the universe? It may be easy to paint Him that way if we project our own brokenness onto Him, but it would also be a grave mistake to do so.
The Ten Commandments reveal all of the major ways we tend to destroy ourselves and each other on a regular basis, and the primary way we do this is by making other people, or other things, bigger than God in our priorities and understanding. We're more impressed, and give more admiration to fellow creatures and created things which were never intended to bear the weight of our worship.
It’s not that God craves all of our attention, it’s that He is the only One who can handle it. He is the only One who can fulfill the tall order of perfection we demand of those we adore.
God is the only One that fame and power cannot corrupt, because it rightfully belongs to Him, and making Him the object of our worship is the only way our worship will not end in disaster.
In her album Back to Black, Amy Winehouse wrapped her misery in hauntingly beautiful melodies decorated with an ornate bow of lyrics that our own darkness could connect with. And we praised her for it. We clapped, and we cheered, and we gave her awards in the spotlight. We followed her everywhere with our cameras, flashing our lights in her face, proudly mocking her alarmingly thin figure and her obvious drug problems revealed by the invasive images we produced. And when she simply could not carry this burden anymore, she showed us how broken she was, and we booed her off the stage, let her go, and moved on to our next fix. The next victim of our idolatry. Because in reality, not only do other people make terrible gods, we also make terrible worshipers. We adore, and then we detest. We’re enthralled, and then we get bored. Again, we find that God is the only One who is not destroyed by the intensely inconsistent, unreliable affections of our broken souls.
It seems Amy made her own idols as well, especially in her father and her husband. And of course, instead of these men showing her the true meaning of love, they were both opportunists who used her for what they could personally gain from her success.
"And if my daddy thinks I’m fine,” Amy sang in the most telling lyric of her most popular song.
In a critical moment, everyone else in her life could see that she needed intervention, except for her father, who instead likely saw that she was on the verge of stardom. He told her she did not need to go to rehab. So she didn't. Instead, she wrote her hit song.
Amy struggled with mood disorders, eating disorders, and substance abuse disorders which all contributed to her demise in the end. I’m convinced, however, that the root of what truly killed her wasn’t any of these, but a much more devastating disorder. It's one we rarely recognize, because we all struggle with it, too. The only rightful order of anything—our love, our attention, our priorities, etc.—is one where God is first, because He is the only One who is truly larger than life. Displacing God in our hearts, and replacing Him with creation is the ultimate disorder of all humanity, and with it, we keep killing our artists, our relationships, and ourselves.
That must be the reason why—in trying to teach us how to live—God covers this issue first.
It’s not to say we shouldn’t recognize talent. We absolutely should! We should appreciate people who develop their gifts to enhance our human experiences with the arts, or whatever area they excel in, but we need to recognize where these gifts truly come from, and give glory where it’s due. We need to let God have the dignity of being God, and let other humans have the dignity of being merely human for now.
Since I watched her haunting documentary, Amy's been making frequent cameos in my thoughts with Rehab regularly getting stuck in my head. So I've been praying for her soul. Part of the beauty of the Catholic faith is that there may still be hope for her. Even in death, she is not necessarily lost forever. But part of the tragic mystery is that we just don't know. And things were not looking good by any observable measure. Still, I pray for her.
In this life, Amy Jade Winehouse was never really a god at all. At 5'3", she was hardly larger than a child, let alone life itself. She was only ever a girl with talent who wanted to be loved, and never understood what that really meant. It seems no one ever showed her that real Love comes from God and goes back to Him, touching our hearts and souls along the way, and that if God isn’t where our love begins and ends, it can never be the real thing.
What if Amy’s daddy didn’t tell her she was fine when she really wasn’t fine at all? What if he was truly loving, and said, “Yes, honey, you do need help. You’re not well. Let's put things on hold for a minute and make sure you're okay first, then see what happens.” Sure, we never would have had that hit single of hers, but maybe we’d still have Amy.
Photo source: www.rollingstone.com.
Christina Kleehammer is a soldier’s wife, a baby boy’s mother, a former TV journalist, author of Catholics on Spotlight, and a Roman Catholic convert hailing from the Post-Evangelical refugee camps of the American spiritual landscape. She tends to write about these things here.