As I write this I’m listening to Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” album. The reason I’m writing this is because I’m listening to it, as it happens. Whilst I was listening to a Winehouse song on shuffle earlier in the day I began to reflect on how and why my tastes have changed to include her work.
When she was alive I never liked her music though if I’m honest I suspect that had more to do with my opinions of her as a person than anything else. It’s speaking ill of the dead, perhaps, but I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone reading this that Amy Winehouse lived a life which was increasingly self-destructive. She was, again without surprising anyone, the subject of massive tabloid coverage because of it. All of this turned me off. I was peripherally aware that she had a truly phenomenal singing voice but I was more aware of her reputation for misbehaviour, her stumbling inability to complete a performance and being a figure of public ridicule.
When she died she joined a very prodigious club. The 27 Club, a collection of musicians who died young (at the age of 27) and left exceptional bodies of work. Amongst others she now calls John Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and, of course, Kurt Cobain, peers of a sort. Amy Winehouse is no longer a public spectacle, she’s now a part of a pantheon of musical legend and now I can allow myself to enjoy her music. The question that arises is why did she have to die for me to make that allowance to myself? After all, Nirvana were the defining influence on my musical interests and that was long before Kurt Cobain killed himself.
Why is it, then, that I wasn’t put off Nirvana’s music by Kurt Cobain’s self-destruction? I can’t claim to have been so naive or unaware as to not know he was increasingly depressed and struggling with addiction. I was younger, yes but not so very much less aware.
My suspicion is quite pertinent as it comes on a day on which Rupert Murdoch has been facing questions and criticism about the News of the World’s and The Sun’s celebrity gossip and scandal addictions. In 1994 celebrity gossip was just that, it was salacious rumour and supposition on the cover of rags that everyone knew were ridiculous on their face. This has changed.
Today we live in an era when the compromising photographs a celebrity might have on their own phone can be identified, verified and distributed world wide within minutes. Within hours they’ll be published by websites with readerships in the thousands. Within a day they’ll be mainstream headlines. Within the week they’re old news. Whereas Kurt might have unsteadily mumbled his way through a Nirvana show the worst he might expect is for a column in a music magazine who had a reporter in the crowd. Maybe a column inch in a tabloid rag. Amy’s performances in her later years are duplicated a hundred fold on YouTube, filmed from every angle for our dissection and ‘entertainment’.
So whilst I always knew Kurt Cobain was a tragic figure he was a tragic figure once-removed. You knew, you were aware of what was happening but the ‘contact’ you had with him was almost exclusively through his albums. Moments of perfection, produced and edited into articles to be preserved. Our ‘contact’ with Amy Winehouse was constant, invasive and unedited. Even I, who at the time was one step removed from actively trying to avoid knowing about her, knew more than I would ever want to know about someone’s demons and addictions unless they were a close personal friend or family member, someone I would want to know the gory details about because I couldn’t help them without knowing.
So did I dislike Amy Winehouse or was her existence an excuse for the socially-networked, internet-aware modern society to reveal its’ uglier face to me, making me uncomfortable to admit I liked what I heard?
I never met her. The legacy she left was amazing. I think the answer is clear.