Amy Winehouse: Hyperbolic Prophecy (1983 – 2011)
On Saturday, July 23, 2011, singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse passed away at the age of 27. Her body was found in her London home by police. A drug overdose was suspected to be the cause of death, but was not confirmed at the time this article was published. The British songstress came to fame with the 2006 release of her breakthrough sophomore LP Back to Black, building her audience with her arresting, cynical wordplay, depicting the relatable issues of sex, failed relationships and owning up to one’s dark nature.
There are those who will compare her death to that of other famed artists who died at 27: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, all also met their fates due to drug abuse. The circumstances following her death are eerily similar to the aforementioned artists, but unlike them, (NOT TO DEVALUE WINEHOUSE’S TALENT IN ANY WAY) Winehouse had yet to reach the status of socially transcending her music. That sort of hyperbolic idol-appointment may, indeed, have compelled the English-born singer to use drugs and alcohol to deal with such pressure. Musicians like Cobain and Hendrix were revolutionary forces who brought permanent changes to music after their arrivals. Winehouse was not an innovator as much as she was a revivalist (a great one, at that). Her 2003 debut, Frank, brilliantly melded sophisticated vocal jazz, a la Nancy Wilson, with slick 1990’s R&B production. Her double platinum follow-up, Back to Black, merged the simplistic and infectious rhythm arrangements of Motown with a staccato-inflected voice that exquisitely teetered on feisty and despondent. So, while she won’t necessarily take her place alongside the other tragic heroes of rock, she does, however, deserve much credit for both jump-starting the throwback recording trend of artists like R. Kelly, Cee-Lo Green and Raphael Saadiq, and garnering some much deserved attention to fellow English female vocalists like Adele, Joss Stone and Lily Allen.
It is also worth mentioning that, because of the ubiquitous juggernaut that is social media and 24 hour news coverage, her drug-induced escapades were given as much attention as her 15 million plus records sold worldwide, whereas in the 1960’s, for artists like Joplin and Hendrix, substance abuse was just an inevitable, if not tolerable, aspect to their legend, ultimately not as noteworthy as the music during their lifetimes. With reality shows, TMZ and VeVo, drugs such as cocaine and heroin have been replaced with camera lenses and twitter followers. We no longer live in a time in which drugs are seen as an assist to the creative process the same way marijuana helped Bob Dylan write “Like a Rolling Stone,” the way The Beatles’ acid trips inspired them to record Revolver, or even how massive cocaine use drove Sly Stone to create There’s a Riot Goin’ On, hailed as an ominous masterpiece. Sure, her Grammy winning single “Rehab” was given more authenticity because of the public’s knowledge of her addictions, but Winehouse’s drug problems were not helped by the all the media’s attention to her trials and tribulations, climaxing with the viral nature of her final taped performance in Serbia last month, where she was booed offstage for being drunk, unprepared, or both. All things considered, the constant flashes of paparazzi cameras and E! Channel reporters probably had almost as much to do with her death as the drugs did.
Lastly, there’s the obligatory statements of what a waste it was for Amy Winehouse to die at such a young age. Yes, 27 years old is certainly young, but who are we to say that she had more to give? Regardless of whatever you do or don’t believe, there are events in life that happen for unexplainable reasons and they are not meant to be explained. Not every artist is supposed – or capable enough – to make a Thriller or a Sgt. Pepper album. Whatever great music they were blessed enough to create for us should stand on its own merit without always being burdened with what it could, would or should be. Back To Black meant just as much to some as a Thriller or a Sgt. Pepper means to another, which is exactly what music should be; inspirational. If Winehouse does belong in a category of fallen singers, it’s those whose music helped the listeners more than the artist who created it. It was not meant for Amy Winehouse to reach old age, but thanks to songs like “You Know I’m No Good,” “I Heard Love is Blind” and “Valerie,” somebody else will, for that, you’ll live forever.