Tuesday, August 2, 2011


Let it first be said: I have not (knowingly) listened to a single recording by Amy Winehouse. I'm in no position to comment on her musical ability—which, if many of the obituaries are to be believed, was great—or on her style of music—which, I'm just going to guess, would not have pleased me at all. Her very public life, however, is another matter. Amy Winehouse was one of those people about whom you would hear even, and perhaps especially, when you'd rather not. Still, I would never have written about her had it not been for this piece in The Independent.

The first thing that struck me on reading was how beautifully written the obit was. It was so beautifully written that I found myself almost forgetting the repellent nature of the content. We're talking, after all, about a depressed, filthy-mouthed, sometimes violent woman who essentially drank and drugged herself to death at the tender age of twenty-seven. While writer Sophie Heawood sounds almost affectionate in describing Amy Winehouse, she is also devastatingly honest about what destroyed the singer. "[I]n the end, the only person who could have cleaned up her act was Amy herself."

[I]t just isn't true that nobody offered her the help she needed in beating her addictions and her demons. God knows, people tried . . . She just couldn't quite accept it. . . . Winehouse's real problem was self-belief, an insecurity only compounded by the extraordinary worldwide success of Back to Black, which left her less sure of herself than ever before.

Far from surrounding herself with sycophants, as so many stars do, Winehouse dealt with success by surrounding herself with thoughts that brought her down and people who brought her downers. Something in her nature was so macho and so cocky, and yet so self-effacing, that she could never quite enjoy the compliment, or sit back and say, yeah, I've done pretty well, good for me.

How (Heawood implicitly wonders) could somebody so successful, so much idolized, feel so worthless and unloved?

There are some very obvious answers that surface every time a celebrity's wreck of a life is discussed. Real happiness can't be found in fame or fortune. We look for love in all the wrong places. Our hearts are restless. Truisms like these have no doubt some applicability to Winehouse's case. But Winehouse looks not so much like just another artist who happened to be destroyed by her fame as she looks like a self-destructive person who just happened to be an artist. Winehouse's parents separated when she was nine; the same year she was enrolled at her grandmother's suggestion in a private theater school—the first of about eight schools that she would eventually attend. No lack of soul-destroying instability there. No one can claim that Winehouse the child had it easy.

Not every talented broken-homer ends up like Winehouse though. In Heawood's story the comparison is to Lily Allen, who like Winehouse displayed a "messy honesty" and "found success too much." Allen retired, married, and is reportedly living happily ever after. Winehouse is dead. (Film buffs' analogy: compare the personal lives of Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin.) Heawood attributes the appeal of Winehouse and Allen to their frankness, which came as "such a relief after so many clean pop princesses." Winehouse and Allen, she suggests, had a window onto something real—something that most of us prefer to deny, cover up, or ignore. Call it original sin.

But Winehouse's obsession with her own worthlessness was a no more balanced view of herself than Jansenism is a balanced view of man and God. Winehouse "would focus on the negative, on something to insult herself with. Wittily, yes, but the darkness was evident. . . . Nothing was clean. Her fingernails were dirty, her armpits were stubbly, her knees were knobbly."

I can see the appeal of honesty. I can understand feeling refreshed by a public figure who doesn't follow the briefings of well-meaning handlers. The problem is that a "messy" Amy Winehouse is no more real than a "clean" Taylor Swift. Winehouse chose to focus on the negative. Her negative perception and presentation of herself were just as artificial as the Poppinsiest pop star's positives are. By the end of Winehouse's life, it might have been too late for her to retreat into reality. At the beginning of her life, she may well have been set up in front of the down chute. But Amy Winehouse, if all the accounts are true, didn't just slide down: she pushed herself. She accelerated her own destruction. Her death was, as Heawood says, a tragedy. But the real root of this as of all tragedies was an inability or an unwillingness to see things as they really are. Oedipus, Creon, Arthur, Lear, Othello, Ivan Karamazov . . .

They're all blind. More to be pitied than censured? Very likely. Honest? Perhaps. But honestly wrong. Very, very wrong.

"Winehouse's real problem was self-belief, an insecurity only compounded by . . . success. . ." Indeed. Winehouse's bad-talking, self-deprecating grip on her own reality was just as one-sided, in the end, as any Pollyanna's—and infinitely more destructive.

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