The details of the day I found out about Amy Winehouse’s death are forever etched into my memory. It was certainly the first celebrity death I’d had any sort of emotional connection to. At this point, I enjoyed her music to the extent that I knew of it and thought it was soulful, ballsy and had something to say for itself (a far cry from anything in the top 40 at that current moment), yet I had hardly any interest in the star herself. She was little more to me than a media phantom; a forlorn, haunted figure who was frequently the butt of jokes about alcoholism, drug addiction and eating disorders.
I was 15 when I learned of Winehouse’s passing — I had woken up in a hotel room in Paris, visiting the city for the first time. Having shared a room with my aunt, she was perched on the end of her bed when she turned to me and said, over the sound of a muffled radio, “It’s so sad. Amy Winehouse has died.”
“Amy was everywhere. She was embodied in the sultry undertones of live jazz that seeped through corner café windows at night and onto the humid streets.”
I remember feeling peculiar about the news all day; kind of ambivalent, kind of disconcerted. We went to the Eiffel Tower, then on to the Pompidou centre, where a street performer was miming outside in the square to a crowd of murmuring tourists. I thought to myself how odd it was, that someone I had never met was dead, and I was so bothered about it, yet the world had simply kept on turning, albeit at an angle which had disturbed my thoughts in a way I had never experienced before.
Amy was everywhere. She was embodied in the sultry undertones of live jazz that seeped through corner café windows at night and onto the humid streets, and occasionally pictures of her looking stricken and unwell flashed up on TV screens in shops or train stations. At a restaurant, I’d even overheard a British couple discussing the matter rather unceremoniously over coffee and and pastries, as I stared bemusedly into what I think was an accidentally ordered steak tartare.
Perhaps it wasn’t until later that I found the details of Amy’s death particularly disturbing, but I think I was made aware of her tragedy more potently by the callousness of people’s remarks. I was shocked by the viciousness with which people offhandedly berated her although her body wasn’t even in the ground yet, and how her demise was, apparently, ‘only a matter of time’ and that she simply ‘had it coming.’
“Today would have been Amy’s 37th birthday, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about her.”
Many of these comments were said so nonchalantly, as if people suffering from addiction or mental health problems are beyond rehabilitation, and only good for what the content of their obituaries will read. It is perhaps even more poignant, then, that in the posthumous biopic Amy (dir. Asif Kapadia), the singer ironically foretells of her own demise, prophesying as a fresh-faced, newly signed 20 year old, “I don’t think I’m gonna be at all famous. I don’t think I could handle it, I’d probably go mad.”
Today would have been Amy’s 37th birthday, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about her. This comes at a peculiar time in which I believe many of us are examining our relationship with the media as consumers, as well as the ethics of tabloid journalism and the responsibilities of such publications when reporting troubled or at-risk individuals. This has become a prevalent matter, particularly in the wake of TV presenter Caroline Flack’s suicide and the abuse which Meghan Markle has suffered for simply being, well, intolerant to press intrusion.
In a manner similar to that of Flack, Winehouse’s battles with her inner demons were demonstrably and flagrantly made public, often with an element of humiliation (and frequently, misogyny) to them. The singer was treated as barely human — I remember Frankie Boyle, on BBC2’s Mock the Week, comparing Amy, someone who had very publicly suffered from bulimia, to a “campaign poster for neglected horses” after pictures of her surfaced subsequent to an overdose which nearly ended her life. She deserved so much more.
“Amy’s personal bodyguard, Andrew Morris, relayed how in the days before her death, she had commented, “I would give it all back, for me to not be hassled every time I walk down the street.””
In direct comparison with the era of #bekind, it seems Amy — who lived out so many difficult moments in a time where public ridicule and crippling voyeurism at the hands of the press were commonplace — was simply not worthy of the same level of sympathy than has been afforded to others in more recent times. It may be that aspects of her character just didn’t gel with concern or sympathy on her behalf, with her fuck-you, tongue-in-cheek attitude toward journalists and reckless behavioural patterns.
Despite this, I think it appropriate to remember how Amy was treated in a similarly invasive and cruel manner by the British press (who even infiltrated a hotel where she was recovering from an overdose to harass her), and to consider whether we have really learnt anything from her peripeteia in light of numerous other celebrity deaths. Amy’s personal bodyguard, Andrew Morris, relayed how in the days before her death, she had shown him old clips of her singing and commented how, in reference to her ensuing success, “I would give it all back, for me to not be hassled every time I walk down the street.”
“No holds barred, and sex-positive — Amy’s music wasn’t afraid to tackle taboo themes for women.”
So, how do we choose to remember Amy’s legacy today, in light of what was clearly such a troubling life, plagued by ill-health and misfortune? I firmly believe, like most artists, the singer’s work deserves to be considered independently from her life in the spotlight; her music holds such power and longevity, and is still so relevant today.
From the fledgling beginnings of her career, Amy inserted herself into a legacy of jazz and soul that, in her own words, was ‘elitist’ — yet she still managed to capture the hearts and imaginations of some of music’s all time greats, including major proponents of her career Tony Bennett and Mos Def. Her first album, Frank, features a wealth of charismatic material in which not one track is similar from the last, creating a listening experience which I find to be rather rare when discovering an album.
What I find so endlessly charming about Amy’s creative process was her ability to incorporate aspects of her unique character and humour into the music itself. In her lyrics, she managed to convey a juxtaposition that considered both her outlandish confidence and susceptibility when it came to entering relationships with skewed power dynamics, as existing alongside each other. No holds barred, and sex-positive — Amy’s music wasn’t afraid to tackle taboo themes for women.
“It hurts me sometimes to look at pictures and videos of Amy later in her career, and I feel intensely bad that to some, this is how she will be remembered.”
It’s not often that you get women in the music industry talking about losing interest in a partner with such veracity and with the same frankness of manner in which Amy did. Frequently, women are the objects of intense and overtly sexual infatuation in the arts, and it remains true that most women still feel as if they are not able to talk about their own sexual agency (in the same way that men do so casually) without facing criticism which, in all likelihood, will be deeply imbued with pervasive and internalised misogyny.
It hurts me sometimes to look at pictures and videos of Amy later in her career, and I feel intensely bad that to some, this is how she will be remembered. Her life — reduced down to a montage of her on stage, eyes wide and rolling, stumbling and spilling her drinks, even being forced on stage by her management during the depths of an addiction and mental health crisis — was such a loss for the musical community.
“Amy’s legacy is that she managed to be at once utterly charming, sagacious and fragile, whilst the package of the music itself was delivered with a humour and humility.”
It is hardly a secret as to the trajectory which Amy’s short existence on this earth took; the way in which the end played out like some bizarre, drug-fuelled parody of a Sophoclean tragedy was blasted across the media from every angle. I would, however, prefer to remember Amy with a softly critical eye — to be aware of her faults, the people and irresponsible decisions (often influenced by money) that catalysed and fuelled her self-destructive tendencies — but to ultimately remember her for the thing she ended up losing her life for: her timeless music and idiosyncratic, beguiling lyricism.
I had personally never experienced music, before hearing Amy’s, that could balance and hold within it such complex layerings of emotion and conflicting states of being. Amy’s legacy is that she managed to be at once utterly charming, sagacious and fragile, whilst the package of the music itself was delivered with a humour and humility, in my opinion, unbeknownst to many other artists and singers.
Izzie is an editor at Aurelia. She is 24, a Literature graduate and Mancunian native. She is fiercely passionate about political and journalistic transparency, protecting public services and is pursuing a postgraduate degree in law. @izziejo_r