Life in the Key of Black. Reflections on Amy Winehouse on the 3rd Anniversary of her Death

23/07/2014 § 1 Comment


The body of the singer Amy Winehouse was discovered on Saturday 23rd July 2011. Her death was widely covered in news media at the time, and ran along the lines of “tragic loss of a beautiful talented young woman.” It was also the subject of discussions all over the internet and in real life, most of which were something like “wasn’t she an amazing musician and isn’t it a shame she was such a troubled soul.” If the discussion went any further than that it followed one of two trajectories – either berating her management/record company/friends/family/etc for not “helping” her enough and/or “exploiting” her, or else berating her for “choosing” to be a drug addict. That is about it. I want to say something a bit different.

Amy Winehouse went from being an averagely attractive twenty year old to an anorexic, tattooed, alcoholic drug addict in a direct reverse parallel to the success of her music, which saw her win five Grammys, two Ivor Novellos, and a slew of other awards, as her album sales went octuple platinum all over the world. There are people far more qualified than me to comment on her music, so I will instead talk about her place as a female musician in public life.

Anorexia is often thought of as a form of extreme dieting. There is this idea that women look at too many fashion magazines, want to be as skinny as the models they see, and go a bit mad with the calorie-counting. This idea is just plain wrong. The connection between mental illness and eating disorders was first made by the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, who ran the famous women’s mental hospital, Salpêtrière, in Paris in the 1860s. He realized that refusing to eat was not an illness in itself, but was instead a symptom of a deeper malaise, an illness that at the time was known as hysteria. Hysteria, in a nutshell, is the resistance of the feminine to the pressures placed on it by a masculine world, and can be experienced by both men and women. It is no longer a recognised mental illness, having been dropped from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in the 1980s, but the symptoms of hysteria have not gone away. They have simply been reclassified.

Women have always been looked at, but in the 21st Century they are held up to scrutiny to a far greater degree than ever before. Why this should be is the subject for another blog entry. Suffice to say for now that when a painfully thin Amy Winehouse appeared, with a monstrous beehive hairdo, and armfuls of unfashionable tattoos, her rationale for doing so, whether she was consciously aware of it or not, was almost certainly one of absolute resistance. We live in a world where women are expected to be clean and fragrant, and to present themselves as sexually desirable to heterosexual men; and a man’s desire to penetrate a woman with his penis is meant to be a supreme compliment to that woman, whether she would like to have sex with him or not. When a woman appears who other women call dirty and a “skank” and men say they wouldn’t want to fuck, as happened with Winehouse, their responses were precisely the point. She didn’t want to be the obedient, sweet-smelling, sexually desirable little pop moppet. In fact, she was incapable of the sort of feminine compliance that the world expects of women, and that was both her greatest strength and her greatest weakness.

I used to work in the music industry. In 2001 I was the UK’s only lady tour manager. I moved into an office job because getting touring work was absurdly difficult – I was told more than once that I would not be employed because they wanted a man for the job. The music industry is a bastion of good old-fashioned sexism, where the few women that there are work in PR, HR and, if they have the right qualifications, law and accounts. The decision makers are almost all men. The highly publicised efforts of Lucian Grainge, the CEO of her record company Universal Music, to keep Amy Winehouse in order were not just pointless, they will have almost certainly contributed to the problem. Hauling his wayward star into his office to give her a good talking to about her behaviour, as he did in 2008, was ill-conceived and ill-advised. She didn’t need men telling her what to do. Quite the contrary, in fact. She needed to be left alone to be the musician she was, not the profit generating solo artiste that the Universal Music roster demanded her to be.

Neal Sugarman, her sax player, described how she worked in the studio. Her creative approach was one of collaboration, he said, and she invited all the band to contribute to the music process. Such collaboration is at odds with a society and an industry that wants the creative genius, the star, the solo performer, the top dog, the alpha artist.

Her most well-known material and her most lauded song lyrics were autobiographical accounts of her emotionally intense relationship with a runner from a video company, Blake Fielder Civil. When she was required to perform, to act out her material, alone, on stage, it almost always ended badly. From punching fans to being too drunk to sing, her live performances were at best erratic – not because she was incompetent or neglectful, but because there was little or no distinction between the artist and her material. The performer was never separated from the emotional trauma that underpinned the work.

And then there were the drugs. The vast quantities of recreational pharmaceuticals, both legal and illegal, that she ingested any way she could – up her nose, down her throat, through her veins. She was clearly an addict, and was photographed in public clutching pints of lager and bottles of vodka, with track marks on her arms and lumps of cocaine around her nostrils. The medical view is that addiction is an illness, and while most people are quite sympathetic to addiction, there is still the idea that addicts somehow “choose” to be addicts, and could stop being addicts if they would only apply a bit of effort, or if only they had the right “support”. Both of these approaches suggest a need to apportion blame. Someone somewhere must be responsible, someone somewhere should do something – although the who, the where and the what in these exhortations are usually conspicuous by their absence.

I’m not convinced that addiction is an illness in and of itself, and the idea of a cure, and of “responsibility,” neglect the “why” of the condition. I see addiction, like eating disorders, as symptoms of a deeper malaise. Addiction is both an awareness of a problem within the mind, and a refusal to deal with that problem. The problem itself could be anything at all, and I could not possibly speculate on what Amy Winehouse’s problem was. What I can say is that in her we saw the conflict of a life force so powerful it created music that could silence a crowd of thousands, but that could not function under orders and contracts and patrician control.

Kylie Minogue may grind away on a bucking bronco in a quasi-pornographic advert for a lingerie company. Katy Perry may make millions out of a song about hott girl-on-girl action that has nothing to do with lesbianism and everything to do with lads-mag ideas about the availability of feminine sexuality. Pop videos may merge into one seething, bass-heavy mass of tits and arses and disembodied thrusting. You would never, ever find Amy Winehouse anywhere near any of that, and her refusal to sacrifice her music and herself (they were one and the same thing) on the alter of feminine obedience, I believe, was what made her the unique creative force that could not live in this world.


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