Amy Winehouse — a losing game

July 31, 2011
Amy Winehouse
Amy Winehouse was lucky enough in her short time to really and seriously change the way many of us view music

Another pop-music cliche came tragically true this past weekend: “Amy Winehouse, dead at 27.”

The same age as Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison and Cobain. Like all of these amazing artists she has gone way too young. Like all of them, she had reams of talent, skill, and most importantly, soul.

She was lucky enough in her short time to really and seriously change the way many of us view music.

And like many of the names she’s now being compared to, we’ll never get a chance to know how much more she could have done if her talent had been nurtured and fostered rather than ruthlessly exploited.

It’s not hard to remember that before Amy Winehouse blew up in ’07, the notion of being a young female pop star entailed a lot less talent and a lot more skin.

Winehouse wasn’t Britney or Christina or Beyonce. When you heard her sing, you knew that everything else came second.

Part of it was the music itself. Winehouse was obviously part of that long-standing and endlessly contradictory history of white artists performing Black music. Plenty of these artists have been little more than cultural colonists looking to make a buck off the inequity.

Winehouse, however, couldn’t be lumped in this category so easily. Studio footage of her recording  “Love is a Losing Game”  shows her being so clearly moved by the music that she is at one point forced to wipe the tears from her eyes.

In other words, she played music because she loved it.

Friends tell stories of her walking into random record stores, and after asking little more than “where is the soul section?” burying herself deep into it before emerging with up to 10 CDs at a time.

She idolised Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin. Throughout her performances, she performed unique versions of Marvin Gaye, Toots and the Maytals, the Specials and the Zutons.

Then there was the way she performed it: heart-on-sleeve, often graphically honest depictions of love, sex, despair and, of course, addiction.

In contrast to the pin-up songstresses still shamelessly shilled by the industry, Amy Winehouse was no frail nightingale.

"What she is is mouthy, funny, sultry, and quite possibly crazy,” wrote Josh Tyrangiel for Time magazine.

Tyrangiel, who ranked “Rehab” as the best song of 2007, also noted that “Amy Winehouse is so confident she's got the goods on ‘Rehab’ that she starts her vocal a half beat before the music comes in”.

Pulling this off — being a white female Brit performing a traditionally African American music style in an industry dominated by rank sexism — is no mean feat.

In 2007, four years after her critically acclaimed debut album, she was still a relative unknown.

By the end of the year she was one of the most popular acts in the world, and made room for other British rock and soul singers.

Almost all were white, some cheap and obvious knockoffs of Winehouse, but nonetheless, she had widened the gates, if only a little bit.

None of this is to say she was some trailblazer for equality. Far from it, in 2008 the now-defunct News of the World  broke a home video (surreptitiously filmed by her then-husband) that featured Winehouse singing a version of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” with the lyrics “Blacks, Pakis, gooks and nips.”

The fact that she was surrounded by drug paraphernalia and wasted out of her mind didn’t excuse it, but to the scandal factories of the tabloids, it merely added more to the “story”.

In general, though, that’s how the media treated her.

It’s a tragic truth that the most tortured souls can create the best art, and Winehouse had demons to spare.

She sufffered from bipolar disorder, an often difficult illness to treat. Like countless other young women living in a world rife with misogyny, she battled eating disorders.

Her drift into drugs and alcohol was quite obviously an attempt to self-medicate.

What should have been treated by the media as a serious condition was turned into a sideshow by paparazzi salivating over every lurid detail.

It didn’t take long until the fun poked by journalists and pundits overtook the art. Photos of a bleary-eyed and emaciated Winehouse were more often the subject of mockery than anything else.

She began popping up in “worst dressed” lists in style magazines, who also frequently ranked her among the “most hated celebrities”.

Naturally, it was only a matter of time until more vile, mean-spirited incarnations  of this began to appear.

Even as this all of this took place, though, it seemed that Winehouse maintained a core of fans who were pulling for her.

In April 2008, Sky News, who had already aired countless gossipy hit-pieces on Winehouse, were forced to admit that their own viewers had nonetheless voted her one of Britain’s “ultimate heroines”, and among viewers under 25 had topped the list.

It seems that, despite everything, despite the ways in which she was demonised and criminalsed, people still saw something of the underdog — and perhaps something of themselves — in Winehouse.

They saw someone with more than her fair share of problems who was still able to find a voice.

That voice by itself, however, was no match for a machine much bigger than her.

Some more thoughtful commentators, such as Jeff Zycinski of BBC Radio Scotland, have publicly speculated whether the media obsession with Winehouse actually hindered the likelihood of a recovery — and may have played a role in her destruction.

It’s worth remembering this now; Winehouse’s death takes place parallel to News of the World’s closure and the possible collapse of the Murdoch media empire.

For the most part, though, we won’t be hearing this kind of introspection in the wake of her death. The chorus has been one variation or another of “it was her fault”.

In a society where addiction is still viewed as a crime more than a sickness, it’s a convenient way to be shut of the whole fiasco.

And of course, that line of thought has its consequences by people who could very well be in the same boat as innumerable addicts who are kicked to the curb.

“Amy Winehouse was a fucking drug addict and rightfully died because of it,” was what one angry vlogger had to say on YouTube.

Another comment (predictably left at the site of Fox News) read “Here's yet another prime example of reason NOT to do stupid things ... This is a sad outcome, but certainly no surprise ...”

And these are the friendlier ones.

That’s where the real danger comes in. So many who held Winehouse’s music dear — including those who struggle with addiction — will no doubt hear the finger similarly pointed at them.

And while it’s true that she had resources most regular addicts will never have, there will also likely be no mention that her passing comes right as Britain’s drug treatment services are being placed on the chopping block.

A world where austerity and oppression are the norm needs a way to place the blame back on the shoulders of ordinary people.

We’re told “she brought it on herself” so that we don’t think of the institutions that utterly failed her.

So that we don’t ask questions about better ways to treat mental illness or drug abuse.

So that we don’t wonder how it is that this system can be so adept at punishment but so lacking in compassion.

We’re told “she brought it on herself” so that we don’t see something of ourselves in Amy’s story. But there was. And that’s precisely why so many did indeed identify with her music. So should we with her tragedy.

[This article first appeared at Alexander Billet runs .]

Video: Amy Winehouse performs "You Know I'm No Good" from her 2006 award-winning and critically acclaimed album Back to Black. Below, "Love is a Losing Game" from the same album. Amy Winehouse.

Video: Amy Winehouse - Love is a Losing Game (Brit Awards 2008). Fã-clube Trouble Amy Winehouse.


Thank you for this.
I cannot get her song, "Love is a Losing Game", out of my head. She had an amazing voice and I am ashamed to have never listened to her any time before tonight. I had an addiction to drugs and alcohol 8 years ago. Becoming pregnant at 19 changed my life, for the better. I just wish someone could of reached her and helped her years ago. I am also bipolar and I have social anxiety, so life is a challenge every day for me. Good luck to you all out there! Keep your heads up!
you know, her music was never that great so i dont see why people are making a huge fuss at her "talent". There are plenty non mainstream, actually talented individuals who are not clouded by drugs, money and fame. They deserve deals while people like amy never should have. its unfortunate that she died because it would have been great to continue to make fun of her "battle" with drugs because we all know there was no real battle. she wanted drugs, she would do them. that simple. dont cry addiction either because that just shows too much weakness to claim that material goods can actually affect you like that. had she got her head out of her ass, she wouldve never made those decisions. her music was very generic, which is why many people love it, but its all music weve heard before and will hear again because all music is is a copy and paste form of expression. there is no original music, it all has a basis in something that has been performed before. she is a much better example to the world dead than alive. alive she would just show off how "fun" drugs are and how they fuck you up and make you a laughingstock. dead she shows how dangerous drugs really are. i hope people learn from her mistake.
I just wanted to say thanks for this article. It is one of the few who regard Amy more as a human being struggling with a multitude of troubles while trying to keep up with her career and selflessly give what she has to give all the while she has a hard time taking care of herself (she was very adept at putting others ahead of her). Most articles right now focus on her being a drug addict, a celebrity and a perfect cash cow for paps. True, she was all that, but she was also a woman, like so many of us, and most of the media tends to forget that. Success came far too fast for Amy and she was most likely ill prepared. A series of unfortunate events in her life combined with her extreme character and the clown she was made out to be is a perfect recipe for disaster. I wonder how those who judge her would have dealt with her problems had they walked in her shoes. I know I wouldn't have lasted as long as she did. She is being presented as a weak person who didn't care about herself. It is so easy to pretend that when you haven't lived a life like hers. We may just realize one day that, on the contrary, she was tough as a bull and that she pulled it off so much better than anybody else would have. We just might have been fortunate to be blessed with her presence as long as we were. She probably should have left much sooner considering the circumstances and she stuck around all the same. Props to Amy for her generosity and putting up a good fight!

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