I am sad Amy Winehouse is dead

I am sad Amy Winehouse is dead.

I said this to a coworker on Monday morning. He said, “People die of addiction every day, why should her death be any sadder than anyone else’s.” He responded quickly, as if he had thought about it. Throughout the week I have heard bits and pieces of conversation. “I could have called that one.” “It was only a matter of time.” “She was too far gone.” I seemed to be the only person I knew who was surprised or felt a loss, if not personally than as a slight shift in the universe.

I was not a particularly devoted fan. I knew and liked her music but no more than I know other fresh and interesting artists. I followed her exploits only casually at the nail salon, but I don’t get pedicures very often, so the narrative was sketchy. Yet, I feel protective of her. I resist shaking my head like the others, piously noting the inevitable result of excess and a bad boyfriend.

Sometimes we are attracted to people we aspire to be, heroes who embody our highest values. I have a long list, typically either already dead or not real. I was the child who wanted to be Florence Nightingale or Seymour Glass or George Washington Carver when I grew up. Secretly I have second list. A list of people I would be if I were not the protagonist. They are the doppelgangers, the tough kids, the bad children who don’t obey their parents. Amy’s whole demeanor defied convention, a five-foot-three walking, singing middle finger. She was nothing like me, the grown up good girl.   

Before my own handlers convinced me to cut and color my hair, I would pile the mass of grey streaked black curls on my head and assemble a cascading hive with barrettes and clips. I tilted my head back and slit my eyes seductively and sang Rehab to the mirror in the bathroom. See, I said. I can look just like Amy Winehouse. I would move around the house languidly, ignoring the heckling audience, as if I were impossibly thin and covered in tattoos. She seemed scrappy, simple, and for all the make-up and coif, authentic. Everything about her was too big or too small – huge green eyes, nose, teeth on a tiny, angular body – the mismatch was not quite beautiful but riveting. And her voice carried echoes from all the wrong sides of all the tracks and all the women ever been done wrong. It was smooth, raw, epic, vulnerable. I cheered when she won her Grammy’s. I watched her videos as they were released. I could sing along to several of her songs.

Everyone knew she had a terrible drug habit. This was reinforced repeatedly by the incoherent sound bites and embarrassing photographs. I didn’t read the details. I didn’t click when my home page told me she was booed off the stage on her last European Tour. I walked away when someone tried to show me her addled YouTube clips. I could separate the troubles from the music. That is the whole point of the second list. I kept my illusion of the crazy talented dangerous woman who only looked a mess; a mysterious facade hiding a reality spinning out of control.  

So I didn’t see it coming. Because she was real but not really, just a caricature I thought was cool. I hear the buzz reduce her to a doomed one-dimensional addict. I was reductive as well, seeing exactly what her image makers wanted me to see. Behind both was a flesh and blood person probably not sure which version of herself to believe.

Of course my coworker is right, this kind of loss is always tragic, famous or not. But in the glossy pages of celebrities we deem special, I found Amy Winehouse more daring than the starlet on page 73. I liked her music. I liked her eye liner. I liked her attitude. Her voice seemed to say she could face down anything. But in the end that was just what I heard, filtered through my own longing. Her voice couldn’t save her. Now she is gone. A flicker, a reflection, a brief appearance played out mostly in our imagination.       


5 responses to “I am sad Amy Winehouse is dead”

  1. Tim says:

    I, too, am saddened by this, even though I never identified with her. She had such an amazing voice, and I love the musical predecessors to whom she paid homage. She managed to take all those influences and blend them in a way that was truly her own.

    The bad-girl image, of course, was part of the appeal. A song like “Rehab” gets its energy from its decidedly anti-establishment, pro-vice stance. Her early death is likely a direct consequence of the same forces that helped create her art and fame. In a sense, her bold proclamation of her addictions made her attractive and fascinating to many people. It’s a shame that she could not find the balance that would have extended her life, but her imbalance is at least partially what made her so famous.

    Those among us who work with troubled and addicted youth likely have a more experienced and nuanced view, but the real tragedy for me lies in the likelihood that her death will be romanticized by kids who need help that they might not get in time to save them from a similar fate.

  2. F. P. Smearcase says:

    I feel somewhat as you do. A coworker copied the 2nd album for me, and I gave it a few reasonably enthusiastic listens. It isn’t quite my thing but it’s obviously very good. I wanted her to do well for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on–the one I’m sure of is the embarrassing one, i.e. (as someone who will never be mistaken for an Episcopalian) I get a little charge when someone unmissably Jewish becomes a star. I didn’t follow the news about her much and was quite shocked to hear that she had died and, yes, felt sad for her/sad for me. (There’s a whole other conversation about mourning the deaths of famous people we don’t know that I’ve been party to, but it’s not that interesting.)

    The things I’m reading that people have said about her are really perplexing. People are furious at her, take her addiction and death as a personal affront, talk about how selfish it was of her I guess either to be an addict or to die. The cathexis is much deeper, shall we say, than the introspection. Some people seemed to use it as an opportunity for some kind of grizzly self-aggrandizement, some grudge match against things about her that provoked envy or other difficult feelings. “I’m so tough I’m happy she’s gone” or “I may not be famous but I’m alive.” Those people kind of suck.

  3. PB says:

    I really appreciate both of your thoughtful comments. I think controversial famous people do become lightning rods for all sorts of floating social positions.
    Tim – I do worry about kids who cannot yet discern the difference between the constructed persona and the real life struggle of a real life person.
    F.P. – I am also sort of bothered by the extremes in public reaction. Somewhere between romance and a morality tale is simple human empathy.

  4. LP says:

    I, too, am sad, for all the reasons you describe. I just keep thinking of her parents, for whom this is the most unthinkably sad outcome of a long, torturous slide.

    The photos in this link almost undid me the other day. Every completely screwed up, addicted, self-destructive person started out as a sweet looking little kid. It’s so hard to fathom what happens in other people’s souls.

  5. PB says:

    LP – those pictures are heartbreaking.