Last month, in a stunning victory for bad girls, the talented singer Amy Winehouse won five Grammy Awards for her recent album and its appropriately named hit single Rehab.
The album also featured a song titled: You Know I’m No Good, which the NME Awards obviously agreed with, because they awarded her their Villain Of the Year Prize, as well as the Worst Dressed Artist, probably for her tasteless array of stupid tattoos.
But Winehouse still isn’t in the same league as Britney Spears, the superstar of newsstand culture.
Why do these women generate so much ink?
The answer might be found in a 2005 groundbreaking article published in Current Biology, Monkey Pay-Per-View: Adaptive Valuation of Social Images by Rhesus Macaques.
Despite that mouthful of a title, the study clearly illustrates that our interest in celebrities began before we even came down from the trees. Yup. Monkeys have their celebrities too.
In numerous tests this study demonstrates these monkeys will forgo yummy treats in order to gaze at female monkey buttocks or photos of a dominant “celebrity” monkey.
Not only sex, but the ability to provide, as well as general attractiveness are just that — attractive. And that’s why we’ve always loved bad girls and bad boys.
We may have admired the first guy who bagged a mastodon, or the girl with the best whatevers, but we should also remember the human race’s first recorded work of literature, from about 2600 BC, Gilgamesh, is the story of an emperor who also was one hell of a bad boy.
History has been about the same ever since. The earliest notorious misbehavers were generally tyrants or artists, and usually male. Though the big-nosed Cleopatra had a legendary sex life, which most scholars consider just that: legendary.
The same might be true of the deranged Roman Emperor Caligula. In ancient days it was standard procedure to slander your political enemies, especially after they were assassinated.
So we will probably never know if Caligula actually had sex with his sisters, prostituted the wives of the senators, poisoned untold enemies, declared himself a god, made his horse a senator, and ordered the Roman Legions to collect sea shells.
The next 2,000 years brought us swarms of lunatic tyrants, crazy artists, mad alchemists, and off-the-wall poets, like Lord Byron who was once called: “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”
We helplessly gravitate towards those who stand out in a crowd: good or bad, hunters, heroes, nutball geniuses, womanizers, and the women who lure them to their doom.
We can’t help but be fascinated by Captain Morgan and his tankard big enough to hold a whole bottle of rum, and Blackbeard who lit his dreadlocks on fire with gunpowder, threw on his hat, and leaped aboard ships with cutlasses flashing, before he met his match (as it were) and was decapitated.
Women pirates had their moments as well.
Huan P’ei-mei captained 50,000 pirates from 1937 to the 1950s. And the pregnant Anne Bonney reportedly outfought her captain and lover, Calico Jack, before they were both captured.
Nor should we forget the cowboys and cowgirls, from Calamity Jane to Billy The Kid.
In the 20th century, bad boys and bad girls really found their form when news technology allowed the rapid spread of celebrity culture, whether in the arts, or in whacko dictators like Idi Amin who fed his enemies to his pet crocodiles.
The real gold mine became movie and rock stars. From Clara Bow to Fatty Arbuckle to Errol Flynn to John Bonham, of Led Zeppelin fame, who began his last day with 16 shots of vodka for breakfast and ended it choking on his vomit. Or drummer Keith Moon, who reportedly died of “an overdose of lifestyle.”
Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, now eligible for a pension, is still falling out of coconut trees and crashing Jet Skis, while Mick Jagger’s reputed lechery remains unchallenged.
Jagger’s former lover, Marianne Faithfull also attracted her share of gossip in the swinging ‘60s when the police burst in on a Rolling Stones mansion and claimed she was only wearing a fur rug and a Hershey bar, the latter only discovered when she dropped the rug.
Faithfull, to this day, insists the police fabricated the story to ruin her already pretty tenuous reputation, though she admits to the fur rug.
A favourite celebrity suicide is the great actor Oliver Reed. The Wikipedia article on him claims he was 61 when he spent his last evening on Earth “Racking up an $866 alcohol bill, Reed had reportedly drunk three bottles of Captain Morgan’s rum, eight bottles of beer and numerous doubles of Famous Grouse whiskey.”
After he beat five young sailors at arm wrestling he convulsed and died on the pub floor, his bar bill unpaid.
For some reason, these days, we’ve come to love our bad girls more than bad boys, and it’s Lindsay Lohan, Winehouse, the porno-video celebrities and Britney Spears who drive the tabloids.
A Globe and Mail article last week claims Spears’ spectacular public meltdowns, shaved head, and crotch-flashing antics have driven the celebrity-stalking tabloid culture into a feeding frenzy.
Over $360,000,000 worth of magazines and tabloids with her picture on the cover were sold in 78 weeks. Today, there are between 400 and 500 paparazzi who specialize in photographing celebrities in Los Angeles alone.
As many as 50 cars at a time follow her.
The Globe article says “Trying to catch up, some of them hit over 180 kilometres an hour, running every red light and blasting through traffic with their fists on horns.” Cars are totaled in the chase. Helicopters often join them overhead.
As bad as all this is, we can never seem to get enough. The more celebrity news we read, the more we want.
It’s an equal-opportunity business; bad boys and bad girls both capture the headlines, while monkeys like us lope up to the news stands, our knuckles dragging on the ground.
Brian Brett, poet, journalist, novelist, lives on Salt Spring Island and returns to the Yukon whenever he can. His most recent book of poetry and prose is Uproar’s Your Only Music.