The writing was on the wall even before news came of the Saturday demise of Amy Winehouse at the age of 27. Her ‘unexplained’ death (or was it a broken heart?) at such a tender age paralleled that of others who perished before reaching the age of 30. The door to the 27 club has a tendency to open at rare moments, but exceptional additions do take place. The club’s membership includes, as various commentators have noted, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix.
That said, the discussion is already taking place as to whether she even deserves to be ushered in that ‘club’. Even as the body is still warm, the pundits are chattering about whether she truly deserves her role in that exclusive necropolis of talent. Again, the act of dying early and dying young tends to feed the hagiographers. A few albums under one’s belt is certainly no buffer against sainthood, especially if one is someone like Jeff Buckley. Winehouse has such triumphs as Back to Black to point to, but she might have had several more in her.
Winehouse was always going to be the music industry’s soft spot, an easy target for the press vultures keen to find copy and fill columns. Vulnerable, mad, and plunging into drug and alcohol filled depths with seemingly no visible bottom, she was always going to be easy game. In January 2007, a review in the Village Voice by Amy Linden summed up the Winehouse effect even as her smoky voice was starting to fill the airwaves. Even then, Linden would note how, ‘as the knockout set went on she appeared increasingly tentative and distracted. Whether chatting to her backup singer while he was still backup singing, continuously adjusting her waterfall hairpiece, nervously tugging up her frock’ making her look ‘like a Motown-informed cross between Fiona Apple and Pete Doherty’.
In terms of her musical presence, commentators saw her as typifying the post-soul era, or at the very least one who gave it renewed force by incubating it in a British setting. The Dap Kings, for instance, shored up Winehouse, filling out her Grammy nominations. Musically, she was to be taken seriously.
That said the torrid personal life of the bruised singer can be its own combustible fuel. Could Winehouse have existed on her music alone, a stable figure putting lyrics together in an untroubled existence? Such questions can never be answered.
Her mournful tones and themes were very much her own. Composers often create their music in order to mirror a tragedy, if not live it. But the personal can become banal, the material of tabloid worth. Did she vomit on her breakfast buffet on a trip to St. Lucia? Did she send a few seniors to their graves by dancing topless on a balcony? Even Maclean’s (Mar 23, 2009) would note how Winehouse’s ambition to learn driving was encouraged to keep her sober. Besides, a tarnished image might not be such a bad thing. The public relations wonks at Fred Perry may well have had other things on their minds when they signed Winehouse to be their brand ambassador. And what of PPQ and the party hounds?
As is so often with such figures, dying need not only fill shrines but pockets. Record sales have spiked. But as she is laid to rest, one can only wonder whether it would have been better had she remained a brilliant singer rather than a deeply troubled star.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org