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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.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
26 July 2011

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Your Say

Peyoti says:

yep, life for people in her situation can be a lonely place - of that I am sure
peace and love to you, Amy

Jonathan says:

Wonderfully, and emotionally, put: and woe to those that don't grasp the artist who leaves the legacy to peal layers of meanings for generations to come. It would be wrong to dwell too much on the drug policy of various states; the inherent added difficulty because of this for the needs of artists and others to release the power of expression and hold the frustration in such a way as to pass it across to others so frustrated: drink and other drugs may not be a replacement for changing 'in your face commercialism' and all the other facets of a decayed society but can 'deal' with the alienation of it. Certainly without any other answers all use can alleviate otherwise unbearable conditions: and for any to say 'rehab' or 'pull-yourself-together' while threatening with penalties or totally not grasping is itself a frustration needing expressed. What's new: round again. Especially not to judge before the inquest is held. Martyred for music and art. This phenomena of the use of drugs for definite layers (See Morphine by Heine with its unforgeable lines: sleep is good, death is better - but the best thing would have never to have been born at all.) is not new, not just this society, though rose prominently with it: it is an historical matter. And the power it contributes is put by the much-misunderstood; 'I don't want to go to rehab', and, as above - were “elevated” into a way of life which young people, girls in particular, empathise with. Which is a condemnation of this society in clear terms.

To chat, a casual chat, with someone, a friend say, from 'this other world' brings with it the unnerving every third person referred to from personal reminiscences – of 20's to late 30's - dying of a drug related condition, of many others living with affects of cheap drugs, of old needles, of shared diseases with the shared lifestyle, thrown into the conversation quite mater of 'factly', casually even: as an expectation. And that is down to drug policy: the same bodies that addict to valiuum – or false feed prescribed drugs – will not allow the drugs to release the pent up pressure, or link it – let alone the talent – the left handed world syndrome; empathy, and gratitude, is obvious whatever the lick-spittle press, whatever the greedy, the money grabbing moguls, and on down their chain. The bling crowd. It is nearly as if that world were 'designed' for them: therefore theirs by right, an elitist ideology, a social Darwinism that is 'the white man's world' the rest 'their burden' has to be feed crapola – as if they have no self expression, and no-one expresses them: Winehouse did, in fact art will always fight back, or the artist, though it is grinding and wearing, as this – latter- all showed. The inverted grasp of 'rehab' where a changed world, a regards to their very social and personal being – and to express it, the sadness of it, the darkness of it, the escape from the pity of it: or the needs of it not to 'clean up' to come back into an alien world fit for:

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same. :

-and what was ticky-tacky?. Also the need not to be as the '90's bands had it: a twee world for twee people. The houses are no longer fit for purpose, the industry surrounding fast food is devastating a generation, and the whole 'brave new world' is not taken by a brave new generation (not that the old took to it to much) and not only the singer, not only the lyrics, but the clear tonality: tell it how it is. Above brought the tears back, when another alienation kicked in throughout Norway and shuddered throughout the world, reminding us solution is necessary: expression is as well. One a lightening rode for the alienated footsoldiers needed by the right, the other an expression of culture integrity.

I saw Hendrix in his last two gigs (one of which – The Isle of White – I was spiked), round again. I was in Tokyo when Janis Joplin was reported dead: I had set off, hoping to see her, at Woodstock: round again. That is as good as my memory has it. It is not the glamour – inside the head is another artistic world, it is the need of human expression, the need to cope with the pressure of artistic endeavour. And that pressure is in the audiences; a two way affair. This Winehouse took to, and with her. Now there is a need for the same audience to find more expression, to have art express their greatest possibility – themselves.

Her gig in Serbia was immediately reminiscent of the brilliant boxer Barry McGuigan's fight in the dry, and draining heat which he – they had not - had not been acclimatised for, needing afterwards hospitalisation for dehydration: McGuigan never fought again. The need for profits drove each event. Cynics have a blind spot, and when in business, or in the media – it is all embracing. Back to the middle ages and selling relics.

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