Another celebrity has burned out. Another lightweight pop star couldn’t outlive her day in the sun. Another nouveau riche has wasted herself with drugs and booze. Easy come, easy go. Who cares!
Perhaps these are the kinds of thoughts that many folks had when they heard that Amy Winehouse had died. Perhaps they are understandable. Me? I felt upset about her death.
When I saw Amy’s face pop up at the top of Yahoo headlines this past Saturday, as I checked my email, I knew it could mean only one thing; Amy Winehouse, a Judy Garland for our time, had died. I don’t usually react very strongly to celebrity deaths, but this one felt really bad. It hurt me to see that Amy was gone.
Decade by decade, during the time that I’ve been alive to observe popular culture, corporate blandonomics and manipulations seem to have increased their stranglehold on culture, choking out art. Thankfully, there have always (so far) been a few brave – or heedless – souls, who have somehow managed to find a way to survive the corporate embalming and to cut through the plastic wrapping. To my mind, Winehouse was one such. Her art was stylized, but still fiercely real.
Of course, Winehouse had her schtick. Her beehive hair and too-short skirts and ballet slippers, and paparazzi-courting wild-girl lifestyle; all of it seemed calculated, on some level. After all, what is a pop star without an ‘image’? Even John Lennon, the very icon of a star who refused to be subsumed into ‘the system’ could be as calculating as anyone, when it came to cultivating an ‘image’. But as he developed artistically, his image seem to become more personal and meaningful. It seemed to be that way for Winehouse too.
Amy’s beehive hairstyle seemed to reference some of her artistic loyalties, while also expressing, in its variations, her state of mind. Amy’s ballet shoes conveyed practicality, aspiration and vulnerability, all at the same time. If she seemed to be available to the paparazzi constantly, perhaps it was partly because she was unwilling to take shelter behind the thick walls of stardom, choosing to try to maintain her artistic roots in the club community she came up through. One can hardly imagine that Amy Winehouse made her image decisions in a boardroom, even if she did, as one senses that many pop stars could do, even if they don’t.
The director John Waters and writer Guy Trebay discussed Winehouse’s image recently in the NYT:
“IT’S hard to look that cheap and pull it off,” John Waters said admiringly of Amy Winehouse, some days after the English singer was found dead in her London bed.
Like much else about her, the visual persona Ms. Winehouse concocted over her brief career fused instinct with cunning. She was a 5-foot-3 almanac of visual reference, most famously to Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes, but also to the white British soul singer Mari Wilson, less famous for her sound than her beehive; to the punk god Johnny Thunders (for a full survey of this legendary rocker/addict/style god’s tonsorial history, check out the Facebook page devoted to his hair); to the fierce council-house chicks who have provided an endless source of inspiration to fashion (see: Dior and Chanel runways, 2007 and 2008); to the rat-combed biker molls photographed by the Swiss photographer Karlheinz Weinberger in the 1960s; …
“She took vintage looks and combined them with punk into brand-new looks that gave even bad girls pause,” Mr. Waters said.
What Winehouse’s public image conveyed, in terms of eccentric/eclectic authenticity, was in her music as well. Her jazz based approach challenged artistic assumptions. English comedian Russell Brand put it this way, in a moving tribute to his friend …
When I first met her around Camden she was just some twit in a pink satin jacket shuffling round bars with mutual friends, most of whom were in cool Indie bands … Carl Barrat told me that “Winehouse” … was a jazz singer, which struck me as a bizarrely anomalous in that crowd. To me with my limited musical knowledge this information placed Amy beyond an invisible boundary of relevance; “Jazz singer? She must be some kind of eccentric” I thought.
Some dismissed Winehouse’ musical style as as imitative, but it’s more fair to call it erudite, considering that everyone seems to have had different ideas about whom she most resembled. Was it Billie Holiday? Dinah Washington? The Ronettes? Erykah Badu? Amy herself cited many influences, ranging from Sarah Vaughn to Left Eye Gomez, in this early interview …
My favorite Amy Winehouse comparison is Karen Carpenter. Of course, it would be hard to find two singers whose styles are less alike than Winehouse and Carpenter, but their low range and their deeply mournful sound seem connected to me. Both seemed to open their hearts, and bare their souls when they sang, their oddly affected ways of singing hardly covering their heartbreak, making it even more touching, as if it was something they tried to hide, but couldn’t. Both singers vocalizations became pop magic in the hands of producers/arrangers (Richard Carpenter and Mark Ronson) who sugared up their sound, but both sound amazing with minimal accompaniment. Here’s Winehouse , more simply arranged than usual …
Brand writes, deliriously (even for a starstruck pal), about the raw impact of first hearing Winehouse’ music:
I arrived late and as I made my way to the audience through the plastic smiles and plastic cups I heard the rolling, wondrous resonance of a female vocal. Entering the space I saw Amy on stage with Weller and his band; and then the awe. The awe that envelops when witnessing a genius. From her oddly dainty presence that voice, a voice that seemed not to come from her but from somewhere beyond even Billie and Ella, from the font of all greatness. A voice that was filled with such power and pain that it was at once entirely human yet laced with the divine. My ears, my mouth, my heart and mind all instantly opened. Winehouse. Winehouse? Winehouse! That twerp, all eyeliner and lager dithering up Chalk Farm Road under a back-combed barnet, the lips that I’d only seen clenching a fishwife fag and dribbling curses now a portal for this holy sound. So now I knew. She wasn’t just some hapless wannabe, yet another pissed up nit who was never gonna make it, nor was she even a ten-a-penny-chanteuse enjoying her fifteen minutes. She was a fucking genius.
Mark Ronson also thought that Amy tapped into a deep wellspring of expression, though he put it less rapturously…
‘It seemed almost accidental the way her fingers would move around the fret board,’ Ronson said. ‘She sometimes seemed to be strumming around, looking for the next chord, but the songs would just come out of her so fluently.’
Amy’s long, public struggle with substance abuse touched a chord with many people. Many of us have also experienced such struggle, in some form, and, while Winehouse’s ‘shambolic’ descent from Grammy dominating star to tabloid workhorse have occasioned the usual mocks and jeers – “wino”, “junkie” – and the usual responses, ranging from heartless (“she brought it all on herself”), to patronizing (“what a tragic waste”), to simplistic (“at least she is at peace now”), the most sincere response has probably been the outpouring of renewed interest in her music.
In her own way, Winehouse sparked a mini-revolution against the faceless corporate media machine. In that sense, she has something in common with other members of the 27 club, such as Kurt Cobain. Like Cobain, she wrote lyrics that seem impossibly dark, while remaining witty, and although she was not the self-conscious social critic that Kurt was, she seemed to speak honestly to what happened to her, and thus also to the state of our society. In Back to Black, for example, Amy sings sarcastically about losing love (her lover left her, she says, but apparently without showing much regret, since he “kept his dick wet”), and then reveals that the deeper problem is her own inner darkness…
I love you much
It’s not enough
You love blow and I love puff
And life is like a pipe
And I’m a tiny penny rolling up the walls inside
We only said goodbye with words
I died a hundred times
You go back to her
And I go back to
Black, black, black, black, black, black, black
In the infamous song “Rehab”, Winehouse seems to say more about her seemingly hopeless search for respite from the darkness inside…
I don’t never want to drink again
I just, I just need a friend
I’m not gonna spend ten weeks
to have everyone think I’m on the mend
Far from arrogantly and fatuously declaring that she needs no help in “Rehab”, Winehouse seems to be saying that she does need help. But she also demands the right to prioritize authenticity …
The man said ‘why do you think you here’
I said ‘I got no idea
I’m gonna, I’m gonna lose my baby
so I always keep a bottle near’
He said ‘I just think you’re depressed’,
‘this me, yeah baby, and the rest’
“Even if I am an addict,” she seems to say, “I am a whole person”.
Brand speaks to this aspect of Amy’s story, as if to add “… a whole person in need of healing”:
Now Amy Winehouse is dead, like many others whose unnecessary deaths have been retrospectively romanticised, at 27 years old. Whether this tragedy was preventable or not is now irrelevant. It is not preventable today. We have lost a beautiful and talented woman to this disease. Not all addicts have Amy’s incredible talent. Or Kurt’s or Jimi’s or Janis’s, some people just get the affliction. All we can do is adapt the way we view this condition, not as a crime or a romantic affectation but as a disease that will kill. We need to review the way society treats addicts, not as criminals but as sick people in need of care. We need to look at the way our government funds rehabilitation. It is cheaper to rehabilitate an addict than to send them to prison, so criminalisation doesn’t even make economic sense.
Although I agree strongly with Brand’s main point here, I think we should be careful not to stigmatize all drug use as disease, much less as criminality. I think that intoxicants have a place in human society and human behavior, a place that can be helpful and even sacred, that this is part of the reason so many artists are drawn to it, and that it’s not a romantification to recognize this.
And, as I see it, there is a larger context, where addiction is possibly the signature affliction of our society; that it’s not an anomaly, but an essential trait for a society dedicated to the principle of consumerism, a society where ‘self’ is defined, and ‘individuality’ is proved, by consuming. This connection seems so obvious that it must take a lot of demonization of addiction to prevent us from seeing it. But that demonization, of course, makes recovery much more difficult. The sufferer and their suffering are stigmatized and even criminalized. Even those around the sufferer are stigmatized, without it being recognized that there is a larger picture where we are all caught up in some obsessive notion that it is chiefly by consuming that we can be.
Perhaps demonization is also a way that we can separate ourselves from those whose addiction is taking them closer to the edge; but we’d be better off recognizing that almost every one of us suffers from addiction of some kind. Some are workaholics. Some watch too much television. Others eat themselves into diabetes. Some are alcoholics. Some are addicted to medical drugs, in my opinion. Others are addicted to ‘street’ drugs. Many are addicted to war. Many are addicted to hate. In my view, there is nothing more common than addiction in our society . Look around you, anywhere you are: you will see signs of addiction.
For me, there is emptiness at the heart of our society, a disconnect between the soul and what we do in our lives, between our inner aspirations and what we can hope for in life’s rat race: this is what Amy’s music was about. It’s the old theme, now sometimes unfashionable, of alienation.
I know that many will dwell on the tragedy and loss, as they reflect on Winehouse’s death, and that is certainly important. Some will be angry at her seemingly willful path of self-destruction, which too is certainly valid. But I see a life that was full; and it seems to me that, in many ways, Amy lived on her own terms. I think we should celebrate that. And I see in Winehouse’s story, and in the stories of so many who suffer from addiction, an affliction with spiritual, psychologial and medical aspects that are harder to treat because of the way our society and our criminal justice system and our media demonize, stigmatize and criminalize drugs and drug addiction, in part because we do not want to recognize addiction at the heart of our society as a whole, and in our own lives.
It’s long, long, long past time to end prohibition, and to treat addiction (all addiction, really), with compassion and care. According to recent studies, well over 50% of Americans have at least tried marijuana by the age of 21 …
Researchers found that 42% of people surveyed in the U.S. had tried marijuana at least once, and 16% had tried cocaine. …Just over 20% of Americans reported trying pot by age 15 and nearly 3% had tried cocaine by the same age. Those percentages jumped to 54% and 16%, respectively, by age 21.
What sense can it possibly make to criminalize something natural, not involving violence or fraud, that OVER FIFTY PERCENT OF ADULTS HAVE DONE? This is nothing short of madness!!! That’s part of what makes a police state a police state: the criminalization of what is natural and commonplace to do.
Portugal’s decriminalization of drugs has put the lie to claims that prohibition is somehow compassionate (as if one could set aside all the havoc the War on Drugs has caused):
?For those looking for clues about how the U.S. government can tackle its domestic drug problem, the figures are enticing. Following decriminalization, Portugal eventually found itself with the lowest rates of marijuana usage in people over 15 in the EU: about 10%. Compare this to the 40% of people over 12 who regularly smoke pot in the U.S., a country with some of the most punitive drugs laws in the developed world. Drug use of all kinds has declined in Portugal: Lifetime use among seventh to ninth graders fell from 14.01% to 10.6%. Lifetime heroin use among 16-18 year olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8%. And what about those horrific HIV infection rates that prompted the move in the first place? HIV infection rates among drug users fell by an incredible 17%, while drug related deaths were reduced by more than half. “There is no doubt that the phenomenon of addiction is in decline in Portugal,” said Joao Goulao, President of the Institute of Drugs and Drugs Addiction, at a press conference to mark the 10th anniversary of the law.
At the same time, we should never accept denial of the basic human right to intoxication. This too is madness – the idea that intoxication should be legislated out of the human experience. How can anyone claim that the State has a right, much less a duty, to deny intoxification to people? But even if it’s done for the purpose of some misguided compassion, Portugal shows what commonsense would tell us: that criminalizing something that it’s quite natural for people to want at times, will make it much more attractive, as the ‘forbidden fruit’.
Whether or not it was addiction that killed Amy Winehouse, addiction was a leitmotif of her life and art, and it IS addiction that is killing us as a society. Some addictions are criminalized (drugs that Big Pharma doesn’t control). Other addictions are mostly ignored (addiction to sugar), though they may do far more harm. Others are lionized (work addiction). And others are the very foundation of our society (consumerism in general, addiction to money, addiction to power, OIL ADDICTION, addiction to military force, addiction to ‘law and order’, etc.). If we decriminalized and deglorified and started healing them all, we might be on the road to a better future for humanity.
Whether or not Amy Winehouse succumbed to the addiction she so vividly sang about, some will draw a cautionary tale from her untimely death.
We still don’t know whether drugs caused her death. But what is certain, however, is that during her brief life, Amy Winehouse gave expression to a turbulent and troubling relationship with addiction. She gave interviews about previous experiences attending rehab and sang a song about not wanting to return.
With her simultaneously commanding and pleading tone, she emblematized the contradictory nature of addiction: The outward appearance of success, and the internal tumult and despair; the alluring mastery of an art, and the low self-worth beneath it; the pressure to enter treatment, and the internal drive for personal autonomy at any cost.
Consequently, effective treatment is founded not so much on any particular episode of care (though all episodes of care are important) as continuity of care. Recovery is not about rehab, but rather what happens after rehab. In this respect, addiction is very similar to many other medical illnesses with high relapse rates (including asthma, hypertension and diabetes), where success is measured by health outcomes over time.
Treatment works. A wide range of therapies and medical interventions are effective in helping people recover. Like all complex medical conditions, one size does not fit all, and the details of what works or doesn’t work have a lot to do with someone’s unique genetics, psychology and the supportiveness of his or her environment.
Addiction is common, but treatment for addiction is tragically uncommon. In the United States, only 10% of people who need specialty addiction treatment actually receive it. These numbers are astounding given addiction’s personal and societal cost, over $600 billion annually, as well as the evidence that treatment actually works.