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.


Alexander McQueen

12/05/2014 § Leave a comment


At the time of writing (May 2014) it’s just been announced that the Savage Beauty exhibition, a retrospective of the work of Alexander McQueen, is coming to the V&A in Spring 2015. Having already shown to sell-out crowds at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2011, its arrival in London is big news indeed. When the announcement was made, Twitter exploded into a flurry of tweets and retweets. Facebook status updates were in raptures. Many people have bought tickets already, a year in advance of the opening.

There is no other exhibition in the world that would generate this sort of response. This frenzy of excitement is reserved exclusively for Alexander McQueen.

Why? What is it about McQueen that makes a retrospective of his work an epoch-defining event?

The other designers that made up the firmament of British fashion stars in the 90s and early noughties have either fallen from grace (John Galliano) or faded into obscurity (Hussein Chalayan). Meanwhile the McQueen brand has gone from being a hotbed of creativity and radicalism during his lifetime, to being a vertebrae in the backbone of British establishment fashion, accepting the invitation to design a Royal wedding dress when McQueen himself refused almost every commission ever offered to him. (The exception being the costumes for the modern dance piece Eonnagata, more of which later.) Meanwhile, Alexander McQueen, the man, the artist, the couturier, the designer, has become a legendary figure, the like of which we almost certainly will not see again.

Alexander McQueen From the 'Highland Rape' collection 1995

Alexander McQueen
From the ‘Highland Rape’ collection 1995


Throughout his career, Alexander McQueen was regularly accused of misogyny, of glorifying rape (with his Highland Rape collection from 1995), and of racism (particularly with La Poupee 1997 and Eshu 2000/01.) A lot of this criticism misses the point of his work, which was that he was far more interested in the unspeakable truth than the glossy lies that give our world its veneer of civilisation. For McQueen, violence is a fact of life, the feminine experience is one that consists largely of brutality and marginality, and white Europeans in general and the English in particular have an unedifying history of oppression that they would do well to remember. He shows this is his work.

Alexander McQueen "La Poupée" 1997

Alexander McQueen “La Poupée” 1997


There is a difference between stating the fact of the dark underside of human existence, and promoting it. The censorious idea that talking about something is the same as promoting it has been used to shut down discussion of everything from homosexuality to illegal drugs. But not talking about something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and silence will not make the unpalatable truth that humanity is often nasty and brutish go away.


He has become the great Leviathan of fashion because he gives a unique voice to ideas that usually are silenced, in fashion as much as anywhere else. In terms of gender particularly, most mainstream male designers, if they think about it at all, follow the tired canard than femininity is reliant on men. They then produce this entirely artificial idea of what womanliness is, and assume that, as John Galliano once said, a man saying “I have to fuck her” is a compliment and the end-game of every woman’s existence.

Alexander McQueen, from the Eshu collection 200/01

Alexander McQueen, from the Eshu collection 2000/01


McQueen, on the other hand, wanted women wearing his creations to be, as he said, “so fabulous you wouldn’t dare lay a hand on her.” His vision of femininity, and what is possible for women and men who do not follow oppressive gender regulations, is remarkable. He offers an entirely different vision of gender and sex and sexuality, one that is subversive and liberating. He rejects the patronising notion of empowerment and suggests instead that power is not given but innate, and is either repressed, or unleashed with all sorts of magnificently terrifying consequences.


And in a world where women cannot walk down the street without being stared at, ogled, letched at, cat-called, and groped, in a world where one in four female victims of violence are attacked by their partner and a similar proportion will be raped, in a world where women’s genitals are mutilated in the name of honour, and women can’t even participate in education without the fear of violence and death, shouldn’t we have more women who are so fabulous you wouldn’t dare lay a hand on her?


Russell Maliphant as the Chevalier d'Eon in Eonnagata, London 2009

Russell Maliphant as the Chevalier d’Eon in Eonnagata, London 2009

His creative integrity during his lifetime led to clashes with one of the biggest corporations in the fashion world, Gucci, where he worked for a short time. For McQueen fashion was never about shopping. He was producing a body of work that had a profound conceptual underpinning, and it was crucial that he remained true to himself in the process. He refused all commissions bar one – the costumes for the modern dance piece Eonnagata, performed at Saddlers Wells in London in 2009, by Sylvie Guillem, Russell Maliphant and Robert Lepage. Eonnagata was the story of the Chevalier d’Eon, a French 18th Century courtier, soldier and spy. The Chevalier lived their life as both a man and a woman, and on their death were subject to the most advanced autopsy available at the time. Even after this autopsy, the Chevalier’s gender remained a mystery. It still was not clear whether they were a man or a woman. Who else but McQueen could render that indeterminacy in costume?


McQueen had an abiding interest in the dereliction of the gender norms that circumscribe our lives, and that disadvantage almost all of us in one way or another. His work carefully and thoroughly demolishes the myths, in particular, of femininity and sexuality. No-one working in fashion today, or previously, has presented gender in such a radically subversive way as Alexander McQueen. His work reminds us what we have repressed in order to be able to function in the world, but what we know in our unconscious minds to be true – and that, I think, is why a retrospective of it elicits the response that it does.




07/05/2014 § Leave a comment




A drag act is usually a man in a frock singing torch songs badly. Sometimes the performer makes a convincing woman, becomes famous, and ends up as a supermodel, which is what happened to RuPaul. Other times they’re a grotesque parody of the worst clichés of femininity, exploiting the disconnect between what you think you see and what you actually get. With acts like the Divine David in the UK, this becomes comedy and political statement, and with the American Willam Belli it’s showbiz, although not quite light entertainment. The one constant in all drag is the non-straight subtext. There is no room in drag for conventional reproductive heterosexuality – in fact, drag is, in the words of the Divine David, all about “spoiling it for the others” – showing the straight world that signing up for suburban timetable of marriage and babies is to join a “slow-burning suicide cult.”


And then there’s Christeene


There is no gender dysmorphia with Christeene, and if I use the feminine personal pronoun in this post it’s because linguistic traditions around drag dictate as much – although if ever the English language needed a gender-neutral personal pronoun, it is when we talk about Christeene. Unlike most other drag acts, she makes no effort at creating an approximation of female anatomy. She doesn’t tuck (pushing your testicles back into the pelvic cavity and taping your penis between your legs to give the flat-fronted appearance of female genitalia) and she doesn’t wear fake breasts. She has stubble and is covered in bruises and dirty marks. Her wig is cheap, matted and ill-fitting, and her makeup consists of lipstick smeared around her mouth. Her outfits are a bizarre collection of women’s discount store t-shirts and boots, and mens underpants, with occasional pieces of costume thrown in, depending on the nature of the performance. She always works with two backing dancers, who are as much like backing dancers as Christeene is like a drag queen.


Christeene’s performances are all about sex. But the sex is the filthy, depraved, destructive sex that, if allowed, can bring about the downfall of civilisation as we know it. Christeene demolishes the myth that the morally circumscribed, monogamist reproductive heterosexual sex is normal and mutually satisfactory for its male and female participants. Western Judeo-Christian tradition, amongst other things, circumscribes sexuality, represses the feminine, makes women the keepers of morality, and puts the heterosexual family unit at the pinnacle of social civilisation. In doing so, it creates misogyny and homophobia, and makes life somewhere between difficult and impossible for the many, many people who do not, can not, or will not, do what they are told. For these people, Christeene provides a very vocal protest at their treatment and expresses dissent at the systems that make them outsiders.


Themes of violence and madness appear in all her performances, when Christeene rolling her eyes back in her head. For Christians this signifies either possession by the devil or the redemptive power of the Lord speaking in tongues through his believers. For everyone else, it’s a sign of madness or psychosis. The video for Big Shot shows the disturbed world the mind escapes to when the real world is itself too disturbing. Everything is disturbed and disturbing, and there is no difference between sane and insane, particularly when it comes to human sex. There is no refuge from the madness of human existence. In Big Shot, normal is conceptually impossible.


“Cum Dump” is written repeatedly across knuckles and the backs of jackets, making it clear that being the recipient of male sexual attention, contrary to popular belief, is neither flattering nor complimentary. Sub-dom sex, with its erotic enactments of coercion and force, and anal sex, with its explicit rejection of compulsory reproduction, are presented as far more exciting and satisfying than romantic love ever could be. Sex is individual, ecstatic and nihilistic, not a hybrid of idealised amour and covert abuse.


Shame also comes up repeatedly. In Fix My Dick Christeene says that she’s a “hefty girl down there” – but girls don’t have dicks. Her demand that you “crack your back while working that hole” is upfront about the erotic anal penetration that so many straight men find terrifying. She says she wants “a man who’s gonna win my nasty game” and “a woman who’s gonna eat my dirty shame.” Sexual desire has no aim here. It is a force in its own right that is inherent in the individual. How desire is met doesn’t much matter. It was Sigmund Freud that first recognised that we all want sex, but how we want it and who or what we want it with is a variable. He broadened the scope of “normal” human sexual behaviour over a hundred years ago, but it still looks like most people didn’t get the memo, so we still need messengers like Christeene to remind us of this.


African Mayonnaise presents another version of shame. The video is a manifesto of sorts, expressing revulsion for the gluttony of consumerism and the endless, mindless guzzling, slurping, sucking up of everything from chemically enhanced trash food to reality TV shows to manufactured religion in the pursuit of social obedience and model citizenship. Christeene and her dancers announce themselves as the new America, the new celebrity, and visit shopping malls, gyms, barbers, coffee shops and Scientology centres, telling people “I am your shame, I’ll take the blame” – but the people they meet don’t want a scapegoat, because they’re so passively inculcated into the dominant social order that they don’t think they need one. In their eyes, Christeene is the shameful one, not them.


Shame is a painful emotion brought about by the recognition that you have done something wrong. Wrong, though, is a relative concept. Shame has moral overtones, and is used as a mechanism of control by religion to ensure followers adhere to the rules. Shame is a consequence of moral failure, and is attached to sex more than to any other form of conduct. The focus on sex as a source of shame in Western society negates what is actually more necessary – a network of human relations based on the recognition and tolerance of plurality – and Christeene’s work rejects the use of sex and shame to maintain a social order based on repression and control. She reminds us that sex is not a nice romantic relationship, but something dark and essential inside everyone, and that knowledge, in a repressive society, can be both political and powerful.


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