A couple of nights ago I watched the American Music Awards with my wife, and we were struck by all of the “comeback” stories in the entertainment world. Michael Jackson was up for 5 awards including Artist of the Year. He didn’t win that one, but he did win a bunch of others. His sister Janet opened up the show with a performance honoring him, which is kind of a “comeback” in and of itself. Eminem, who recently returned to recording after years of debilitating drug addiction, was up for Rap Album of the Year, which he did not win, but he did give an amazing performance. Jennifer Lopez performed her first single after two years hiatus. Rhianna returned to the stage after a year’s absence due to being badly beaten by her boyfriend, Chris Brown. And finally, there was Whitney Houston. I remember slow dancing with girls at junior high dances to Whitney singing I Will Always Love You. Well, she’s back, and she won the International Artist Award. Like Eminem, she returned to recording after years of addiction and financial strife and has found huge success around the world.
That’s just the music industry. What about movies? Mickey Rourke returned to form in The Wrestler and received numerous awards at the beginning of the year. Robert Downey, Jr., though he never lost his talent, had faded into obscurity for a while, but now he’s on top of the movie world with box office success after box office success. Personally, I cannot wait for Sherlock Holmes to come out this Christmas! It’s going to be amazing.
All of these examples make this year seem like one big story of redemption, but last night’s show got me thinking. On the surface, it was really nice to see such amazing talents be back in the limelight once again. I was really happy for them. After years of ridicule and pain they were able to do what they do best, and we, the audience, got to enjoy it. We were celebrating the return to glory for these artists, but what about all those years they spent on the “C list” or in a drunken stupor somewhere? We didn’t give a rip about them when they were struggling and suffering. If anything we gloried in their failure.
Mickey Rourke highlighted this fact early this year when he thanked his dog for being the only one that stood with him through all of the hard times in his career. He even wept because his dog had just passed away a couple of weeks earlier, and it was his only true friend. It was heartbreaking and honest. He exposed the harsh reality that we are only truly interested in success, strength, and glory. I had the same thoughts watching the AMAs Sunday night. We were celebrating their return to glory, but we had no sympathy for them when they were struggling. This put their messages into context. Whitney sang a song about her inner-strength, and she had to be strong because we don’t like weak. Jermaine Jackson, who accepted the awards for his brother Michael, had to proclaim Michael’s message that people are inherently good because we don’t like the idea of evil or bad people.
What appeared to be a celebration of redemption was only so on the most superficial of levels. It actually proved to be a return to denial. It made me feel good to see them succeed instead of fail because that is what I want to believe is true about me. I don’t want to see the harsh reality of Whitney’s, Mickey’s, Robert’s, Eminem’s, and Michael’s drug problems because it reminds me of my dark places, my struggles. Whenever I do see their failures I instantly compare myself to them in order to self-justify. At least I’m not throwing all of my talent away on drugs like ________. We hate weakness. We want it to be the exception. We want to deny it. Sing to us about our strength and goodness and love. Get yourself together then we can have a good time. Don’t admit weakness. Don’t acknowledge the obvious. Don’t talk about Michael dying anorexic with a stomach full of pills. Don’t talk about your addiction and losing millions of dollars, Whitney. Don’t be like Mickey Rourke. Don’t remind us of how we weren’t there for you. Tell us about glory.
This glory that they have achieved, that we all look up to and desire, offers nothing in the end. In fact, it brings about the breakdown, and we’ll find a way to glory in that too. One day we celebrate them and the next they are on the cover of our tabloids for us to ridicule and judge. We exploit their pain to make us feel better about ourselves. I can’t tell you how many times I would read headlines about Michael or Britney and think to myself (and sometimes even say out loud), “They are so screwed up.” It made me feel better that I didn’t blow millions of dollars or hang my baby out the window or go driving with my baby on my lap, etc. We punish them for letting us down to the point where they either have to reach the top again like so many the other night at the AMAs or they have to die for us to value them again. It reminds me of another story when a man was hailed as King one week and then crucified the next all by the same group of people.
Most celebrities are probably all too aware that the hard work required to get back to the top will be prelude to another failure. There’s clearly a vicious cycle at work with the pressure and substance abuse; even the most successful of us are coping with the inability to repeat, maintain, or achieve perfection and glory. We need to be saved from our thirst for glory.
Martin Luther said it best in the Heidelberg Disputation: The thirst for glory is not ended by satisfying it but rather by extinguishing it.
P.S. For a great interview about glory and failure in sports with Anglican Scholar and Theologian Ashley Null go here.