July 23rd, 2011

When news breaks, we respond. When someone dies, we produce sentiment. When it’s a celebrity, we draw up a verdict for history. When we do all of these things at once, and it falls flat, it’s called Amy Winehouse.

Let’s get the formalities out of the way: Amy Winehouse was tremendously talented, an “artist” with one, two, three, maybe size capital letters if you want. She could be hammy at times, and lent herself to insult in both the things she could control and those she couldn’t. As a singer, though, she was damn good. As a symbol—a crazy, nose-jobbed, Brit-JAP who recreated herself as blue-eyed soul’s answer to both Billie Holiday and Tina Turner—Amy Winehouse was indispensable. That she frequently pulled it off, and made listeners forget what a bizarre fantasy she constantly embodied, is the highest compliment we can pay her. Instead of being a celebrity merely acting out, or playing a role, she was able to convince us that her version of reality was not only worth our time, but maybe altogether natural.

However (and at 3PM ET, I’m hardly the first person to say this), there’s nothing surprising about her death. Unfortunate, sad, a shame that the curtain fell so soon. You would be hard-pressed, though, to find a public figure as blatantly, even smugly, self-destructive as Winehouse. Her big radio-friendly smash decried rehab, a stance that not even Pete Doherty would take that brazenly. He has bouts of remorse, moments of reversal. Winehouse, even if I’m glossing over a quote or two, was bad news 4 life. She was a junkie and a drunk, and made little attempt to hide it. She was slavishly devoted to a worthless man. And, well beyond the normal ravages of dope and booze, she seemed intent on seeing her body fazed out through eating disorders, and the corrosive mask of tattoos, big, wild hair, and a wardrobe whose scarred properties seemed to transfer straight to her actual skin.

Here’s that crucial breach, where I remember that we don’t really know famous people; that our relationship with them is fundamentally external, while the things that drive self-destructive behavior lurk deep within; and that, paradoxically, having any first-hand authority on these subjects might make us even less qualified to comment, since that just exposes us as observers with a personal stake in the perception of Winehouse and others. I don’t understand Amy Winehouse, and even if I choose to sympathize, it’s only slightly more dignified than her biggest fan bemoaning the end of the music. So all we have, as in life, is Winehouse as metaphor, whether for a certain kind of creativity, or the wrong way to live your life.

That said, I feel okay with the following: Being great did Amy Winehouse no favors. We can debate for days whether pain makes for better music, or simply makes people more likely to cry out somehow. I’m pretty sure that saying Winehouse did pain, and nothing else, is an insult. As a performer, she had far more range, and emotional texture; pain done well is almost never monolithic or one-dimensional, which is part of why Winehouse the person could be so clown-ish. She should have known better. She certainly sounded like she did. Of course, that presumes that the voice reflects life. Or maybe life makes the voice. Winehouse was dripping with affect; this much is obvious, whether you go by the records or the queen of the tabloids.

We may never know which one got closer to the real her, and which one was the noise. Maybe it’s best to leave it at this: There weren’t necessarily two sides to Amy Winehouse. But from the outside, she seemed torn between “Jimi&Janis&Jim&Kurt” or “Younger Than Jesus”, and being a vessel for a more mutable, less deliberate, and decidedly universal kind of angst—a proselytizer for what she had become.  She was busy getting rid of herself, while at the same time making perfectly happy people understand why self-destruction was an option. Sadly, it turned out these two goals were at odds.