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Jessica Zafra: Notes on the Death of Amy Winehouse

 

1. We heard the news as we came out of a screening of Rakenrol: Amy Winehouse was found dead in her apartment. We assumed her death was drug-related. These were the things we knew about Amy Winehouse.

a.   She drank a lot and did drugs.

b.  She was an amazing singer and songwriter.

c.   Her debut album was good but her second album was genius.

d.  The beehive and eyeshadow.

2. Despite what we’d heard about her lifestyle we were still shocked to hear of her death. Why, when the media had been on an Amy Winehouse deathwatch for years? Perhaps we were hoping that because she was a genuine talent she would be spared the cliché ending. That she would survive her own excesses and hang around to laugh in her detractors’ faces—looking 100 years old at age 50 but with more vitality than singers half her age.

It is hard for us to accept that our good wishes will not keep people alive.

3. Many professed a complete and utter lack of surprise at Winehouse’s death, beginning with those who’d maintained the deathwatch. We suspect that the people who do deathwatches wish someone would do the same for them, for it would mean that a stranger cares whether they live or die.

4. This casual dismissiveness—“I knew this was going to happen”—is interesting because while the speaker professes disinterest, she admits that she is interested after all.

5. Where does this air of blasé all-knowing come from? From the Internet, the virtually infinite repository of human knowledge, largely unverified. Subjected to an endless deluge of information we do not need, we delude ourselves that we know everything. Including the facts in the short life of Amy Winehouse.

6. The critical praise heaped on Winehouse’s work was matched by a near-universal loathing for the way she conducted her personal life. It was not enough that the musician’s songs were reviewed; her emotions, relationships and choices also underwent intense scrutiny. Her private struggles became talk show jokes.

It has been acknowledged that the emotional turmoil that Winehouse endured after her first album became fodder for the second. Did the artist, by turning her own life into material, give the audience her tacit permission to judge her personal life? Or would the audience have judged her even if she’d kept her private life secret? (Is it possible in this day and age for a celebrity to keep any secrets?) Schadenfreude, anyone?

Why the vilification of one clearly troubled young woman when there are more urgent matters in the world to be angry about, and worse villains than an addict who harmed herself? Why the hostility? Is it because she frittered away her talent, or because she had it?

7. Amy Winehouse was 27 at the time of her death. Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones and Kurt Cobain were also 27 at the time of their death. By dying at age 27 Winehouse has bought mystical cult status.

Astrologers say that 27 is the age of the “Saturn return”—the end of childhood, a time of chaos and confusion. One is tested to see if she can go on with the rest of her life.

 The 27 Club didn’t.

8. When my friend and I spoke of Winehouse’s death we tried to make it seem less pointless (as if death is supposed to have a point) by saying, “She lived her life the way she wanted to.” But how do we know this? Addiction is a disease that is said to override good sense and free will. As an addict Winehouse was probably not in control of herself. Then again, how much can we blame on addiction?

9. Which brings us to the tired and tiresome clichés about drugs and art. Does drug use enhance creativity? Samuel Coleridge and Baudelaire were on drugs, as were Edgar Allan Poe, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, everyone in the 27 Club, we could go on for hours.

But for every Poe and Holiday there are scores of pretentious nitwits who take drugs and make worthless crap that they pass off as art. It is not the drugs that produce The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The Tell-Tale Heart, Strange Fruit or Pennyroyal Tea, it is talent.

If you have a conversation with a clever person who is under the influence, the discussion is scintillating—at least until paranoia sets in. Have you ever been cornered at a party by a bore who is on drugs? Substances do not make him more interesting; he becomes exponentially more boring than his “natural” self, if that is at all possible. It’s not the drugs, it’s you.

10. Amy Winehouse’s first album was well-received, but her second blew the critics’ minds. What happened between the two projects? Heartbreak and misery.

It is an incontestable fact that heartbreak and misery are among the greatest inspirations known to human. Amy Winehouse drank from the well and spat it into the microphone. Everyone pronounced it wonderful, they say said, “Do it again.”

And you keep doing it again because it’s worked so well for you. It makes you happy, being unhappy. It gets so you can’t make anything unless you put yourself through the emotional wringer. You are eating yourself alive. This is called the Tortured Artist Effect.

After a while maybe happiness and unhappiness begin to feel the same. That’s when you know you’re screwed.

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