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Saturday, July 23, 2011

July 23-24, 2011 [Tribute post 19]: Amy Winehouse

Talented and deeply troubled British singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse was found dead at her London home earlier today. Posting a tribute to her on this blog might seem strange for at least two reasons: she’s not American; and her life story is much more tragic than tribute-worthy. But for one thing, Winehouse exemplifies a very familiar and, in some ways, very American story (although it can be traced back at least to British Romantics like Keats and Byron), the tragic arc of a very talented and (often) troubled young artist who dies young—that arc describes many of the 20th century’s most prominent American artists, from actors (such as James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, John Belushi, and Heath Ledger) to musicians (Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix) to writers (Nathanael West, Sylvia Plath, John Kennedy Toole, and David Foster Wallace), and many others. And for another, I believe that Winehouse also illustrates one of our culture’s most troubling communal qualities, our fascination with stories of celebrity (and often specifically young female celebrity) failure and self-destruction.
I wrote a post on Winehouse and some related questions and issues way back in 2007 (on my long-defunct first blog), and I think it resonates even more fully in this moment (and not just because of today’s tragic news), so here ‘tis:
No, No, No
The history of rock and popular music is prominently littered with talented musicians lost before their time to substance abuse problems of one form or another--in fact, it sometimes seems that if you're only mildly talented (see: Aerosmith), you can get ridiculously deep into the drug scene and come out more successful than ever on the other side, whereas if you're a true genius (see: Hendrix and Joplin, to name only two), you just never make it back up that mountain. While some of those lost artists did record songs that, in hindsight, seem quite eerily telling about the attractiveness of their abusive behaviors--like Hendrix's "Purple Haze"--I Think it's pretty safe to say that we've never had a siren song of warning anywhere near as vivid as one that's still out there on the airwaves right now.

I'm Thinking, because I heard it on the radio this afternoon, about Amy Winehouse's "Rehab." My friend Jeff (he of the frequent comments on these Thoughts) has been following Winehouse's situation more closely than I, but it's been hard to miss her seemingly sudden (or at least suddenly visible) descent into hard-core addiction and co-dependent behavior (with her even more fucked-up and yet somehow alluring, at least to her, husband) and self-destruction on an epic scale. The latest reports place her and her husband in St. Lucia (site of my very happy and peaceful, even without this comparison, honeymoon), where apparently she's vomiting blood on the walls of her ritzy resort room; the trip is less a vacation and more an escape from those friends and family who have been begging both of them, and especially her, to, you guessed it, enter rehab and save not only her career (and with a voice like that she'd seem to be primed for a good one) but also, and more importantly, her life.

That story isn't a new one, of course, nor necessarily the most sympathetic one; there are plenty of other addicts dying out there every day, and the vast majority of them aren't able to jet down to the Caribbean when the going gets too tough. Plus, drug addiction, as tragic as it can be, has to be one of the least sympathetic of the world's great tragedies, at least for someone like Winehouse for whom it seems to have come about largely through self-destructive choices (rather than, say, a response to horrible pain or trauma). But nonetheless, it's very hard to watch anyone, and especially a talented young woman, kill him or herself in front of the world, and it sure doesn't make it very fun to listen to a song with the chorus of, "If you try to make me go to rehab/I say 'No, no, no.'"

Which begs the question--why the hell would a radio station still be playing that? I'll try not to be so cynical as to say because of the publicity, and just say that it's a lack of thought. Which, ironically, led to mine tonight. More next week,

PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Winehouse’s great “Back to Black”:
2)      One of the best dissections of our culture’s obsession with tearing down young female celebrities, courtesy of the guys at South Park:
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

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