The cruelty of stardom
Singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse’s death at the age of just 27 has robbed the music world of a special talent.
Her music combined with a superbly rebellious persona, which broke from the bland “girl next door” image of 1990s bands. She dropped out of school aged 16, and even attending various London stage schools could not smooth off her rough North London edges. She shot to fame at the age of 20 with her first album “Frank”, which was nominated for the 2003 Mercury Prize and went triple platinum in the UK.
She celebrated a new kind of female singer – looking back to the 1960s but expressing the introspective anxieties of young women in the 21st century. Her appearance and her powerful smoky voice, which has been compared to that of Nina Simone, reprised American black girl bands such as the Ronettes. 'Back To Black' (2006) was a global hit.
The titles of the singles that made her famous in their own way tell the story of her life: 'Rehab', 'You Know I'm No Good', 'Love Is A Losing Game' and 'Back to Black' itself. As a songwriter she was uncompromising; and she also gave new life to other people's earlier work.
Her sultry-sad jazz blues were eloquent and frank about her personal experiences in a way that others could share, and, as the tributes outside her Camden home reveal, her self-abuse, hard-drinking, drug-taking lifestyle – which the gutter press and media exploited mercilessly – were “elevated” into a way of life which young people, girls in particular, empathise with.
That’s why the issues surrounding her death have a significance beyond the girl-woman herself. As someone commented on the BBC’s news site:
Why do so many exceptionally gifted people die so young? Do they place pressure on themselves, and self-destruct in pursuit of greatness; or does society, once it recognises talent, demand too much and focus on achievement – without nurturing and caring for their 'vulnerabilities'?
Comparisons are being made with other singers who died at the same age and for similar reasons, such as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. The combination of personal talent, incredible success and the pressures of the music industry become a toxic mix in which addiction to drugs and drink are allowed to take a fatal toll.
Some musicians are picked up and lifted out of any ordinary kind of life by the media, because there is money to be made out of their talent. Seeing video footage of Winehouse’s abortive and tragic last tour in Serbia raises the question – how could she possibly have been allowed to go on stage by her managers when she was clearly incapacitated?
The media industry is quick to recognise those who give voice to the moods and anxieties of their generation – but for one end only: making vast amounts of money. Significantly, global computer giant Microsoft has had to apologise for posting an online message grotesquely urging Winehouse's fans to buy her records shortly after she died.
Her death, like that of so many other and less well-known substance abusers, was not inevitable. It’s a condemnation of the society that could not make it a priority to protect her from her own demons. Time after time, we see the music 'business', and the media, opportunistically raise artists to crazy and destructive stardom only to destroy them.
All the more reason to transform the entertainment industry completely and remove the profit-making element. Supporting and nurturing young talent should be society's aim and responsibility, rather than allowing corporations to exploit them.
A World to Win secretary
26 July 2011