Joan Smith – “Amy Winehouse” (2008)

October 7, 2008 at 3:06 pm (Reviews & Articles)

Written for The Independent, June 26th of this year, Joan Smith examines the notion of whether it is “poetic” for artists to self-destruct. Of course, it isn’t poetic, it isn’t romantic – it’s simply a waste of talent and life. Let’s hope that Amy somehow finds a way to overcome her demons. It doesn’t look too promising though. It reminds me of Elvis’ final few years. You’re just waiting for this sad, pathetic drama to play itself out, knowing there won’t be a good outcome. It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion, unable to stop it from happening…  


There’s Nothing Poetic About Amy’s Self-Destruction

When I last talked to the Palestinian critic Edward Said, not long before his death, he was working on a book about late style. Nearing the end of his own career, he was interested in the flowering of creativity experienced by some of the world’s greatest writers and composers as they reach old age. Experience and maturity provide new sources of inspiration, a possibility overlooked in a culture seduced by the Romantic notion of “live fast and die young”, which currently seems to have the singer Amy Winehouse in its grip.
Winehouse was rushed to hospital last week and was said to be coughing up blood. Three days ago, she was discharged amid conflicting reports about whether or not she has emphysema. Her father, Mitch, has clarified his original statement, saying she has lung damage which might lead to the early stages of the incurable disease if she continues chain-smoking and using crack cocaine. What isn’t in doubt is that Winehouse has not recovered from her addictions – a fact confirmed by a photograph of her looking pale and gaunt as she left hospital, and lighting up a cigarette.
There is already speculation on the internet about when she might die, as though premature death is just another hazard of contemporary celebrity. But while the internet has lifted heartlessness to new levels, it is also true that it is easy to be casual about dying when the notion of personal extinction still seems distant and unlikely. My generation had its own anthem of reckless youth – The Who’s “My Generation” – and an impressive list of casualties to accompany it: The Who’s drummer Keith Moon, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Brian Jones. At the time, their deaths seemed shocking but not exactly surprising, following in a tradition begun in the 19th century by Shelley and Byron.
The idea that some spirits burn too fiercely, consuming themselves in their own flames, is incredibly seductive to the people least likely to know better, by which I mean the young. As you get older, you start to question all that Romantic nonsense and see such deaths for what they really are: a tragic waste. They are often a consequence not of grand gestures but depression, addiction and all the ghastly conditions that go with them, from anorexia and bulimia to self-harm. Lord Byron’s death in Missolonghi in 1824 was spun as a glorious self-sacrifice in the noble cause of Greek independence, when it was actually the result of lethal doctoring on a constitution weakened by eating disorders.
Winehouse is incredibly talented and has won five Grammies, making her the most successful female singer of her generation, but she is still only 24. Her professional success co-exists uneasily with a personal history which features allegations of violence towards herself and other people, as well as multiple addictions. She has looked painfully thin and frail in recent photographs, hanging out with fellow addict Pete Doherty and visiting her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, who is in prison awaiting sentence after pleading guilty to charges of assaulting a pub landlord and attempting to pervert justice. It is hard to think of a worse diagnosis for a singer than the threat of a disease which would reduce the lung capacity on which she depends to perform, but Winehouse is apparently determined to fulfil engagements at Glastonbury and Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday party. In that sense, she is in a familiar trap; performing is what she does best but she cannot go anywhere without being trailed by paparazzi, who ratchet up the pressure she is under and provide a day-by-day record of her wild behaviour. What they want is spectacle, and she provides it as reliably as her friend Doherty. Both of them are presented for the most part as Romantic heroes, burning the candle at both ends. They appear in popular culture as grown-up children, licensed to act out infantile fantasies, with only passing acknowledgement of the hellish personal cost. When the consequences become impossible to overlook, in the form of court appearances or disastrous performances, our indulgence is suddenly withdrawn and they are castigated as terrible role models.
In this alternation between adulation and punishment, what isn’t addressed is how we should regard talented but self-destructive people. It has been clear for months not just that Winehouse is physically and emotionally frail, but that her career is threatened by her addictions. Despite her success, she hasn’t yet had time to develop her extraordinary voice to the point where she can take chances with her delivery and material. Far from romanticising artists who self-destruct, I can’t help mourning all the work that has been lost as a result. Let us hope Winehouse recovers to realise her full potential.

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