‘Amy Winehouse is to be honoured with a statue in Camden’. This was the headline on the news story that flashed up on the giant electrical screen at London Victoria just as I was about to head for my train. The story made me react in a way that I really hadn’t expected; it was a slight furrow of the eyebrows, downturn of the lips and one of those half-sighed ‘hmmmmmms’ where you don’t really agree with what you have just seen or heard, or you are mildly surprised or bewildered by it. This was my instinctive reaction – no thought, no cogitation, just a knee-jerk response to the stimulus I was presented with. So I have to ask myself the question: do I think that Amy Winehouse is not deserving of being commemorated with a statue?
I have to start by saying that I was surprised by my reaction, the main reason being that I am actually a fan of Amy Winehouse’s music. I own deluxe editions of ‘Frank’ and ‘Back to Black’ and I can appreciate the skill that has gone into writing songs that channel humour with reality, simplicity with complexity and fuse styles ranging from ballads to big band to blues. Several of her songs occupy my ‘most played’ and ‘top-rated’ playlists on iTunes. So, whilst I wouldn’t count her amongst my all-time favourites, I nevertheless have a great deal of respect for what she achieved in a tragically short musical career and the global impact that her music made – her impact Stateside, a notoriously difficult place to crack for British artists, being particularly noteworthy.
It stands to reason then, that the roots of my prejudicial reaction against her sculptural canonising must have been something to do with issues that were peripheral to her musical and artistic merits.
Winehouse was more than a musician; she became a cultural icon around the globe, instantly recognisable from Seoul to Seattle. The foundation of this recognition was grounded in both the throwback chic that she channelled through her clothing and hairstyle, and also her lifestyle – which was given a high profile, high-frequency portrayal in the British tabloids and ‘Women’s Lifestyle Magazines’. She was tortured by journalists and photographers preying outside her flat, ready to lay her on the operating table in order to undertake the latest dissection and amputation of her intimacy and dignity. We knew almost everything about her, or at least everything that she chose to show the world or was unable to hide from it.
The consequence of this was an elevated level of intimacy with aspects of a person’s life that strangers, that’s you and I, should never have had access to. I can only imagine the sense of hurt and betrayal that I would feel if I fell ill, succumbed to addiction or had my heart broken and the riposte to this was my parents or friends surrounding me with strangers after tweeting and facebooking the minutiae of my struggles, weaknesses and inner turmoil. Winehouse’s life was considered an open book by the press, and yet the only chapters they would choose to share were ones of despair, flaws and darkness. These stories became fused with Winehouse the musician, and soon, as one side of life encroached upon another, Winehouse the supposed wild-child and embodiment of recklessness became intertwined with Winehouse the musician. And thus we were presented with a profusion of paradox and rock and roll cliché.
The paradoxes and contradictions that began to encapsulate her can be summed up here: her music was great because she took drugs. Her performances were terrible because she took drugs. Her lyrics were inspired by Blake Fielder-Civil. Her career was destroyed by Blake Fielder-Civil. Her dependencies gave her the material to craft genius. Her dependencies were the destruction of her genius. Alcohol calmed her before a performance. Alcohol was the lubricant of her debilitation and farcical live appearances. The existence of these uncomfortable dichotomies is one of the reasons that I believe I reacted as I did. Not everyone would agree that she is an icon worthy of veneration, and in my opinion there would be something heart-breaking about, for instance, a mother walking her child down Camden High Street replying to the child’s question ‘who is that’ by saying that she was ‘a bad woman’ or ‘a druggie’. Amy Winehouse is worth more than that, and deserves in death a peace from divided opinion and censure that she was unable to escape in life.
However, the main reason that I argue against the eternalizing of Amy Winehouse is exactly that she was too mortal for any of that pomp and ceremony. And through immortalising her, it just feels like we would be idolising someone for their failings rather than their successes. There can be few other musicians who enjoyed such short careers, and such a limited output (in terms of volume rather than quality) that have been honoured in a parallel fashion, and so the basis of her reverence seems to be encompassed more by her ‘cult’ status than anything else. It is because of her rock and roll cliché coolness, her supposed embodiment of the artist formerly known as Carpe Diem (YOLO), her substance and alcohol abuse, her occasional devil may care (NME would call it ‘fuck you’) attitude, her celebrity friendships and the hero-worship offered her by music publications that perceived her as a kind of throwback to the more is more, drug-addled days of Moon and Morrison, that she is so memorable.
She was anti-establishment, which was both her blessing and her curse. A living breathing riposte to every Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus – whose images overshadow their talent, and whose flirtations with the darker side of life are the work of publicists and marketers. These girls talk what Winehouse walked – and we loved her for it. For the glorious, terrible, brilliant, wretched humanity and rawness of it all. But did the icon come to overshadow the music? Did the lifestyle eclipse the talent?
Well, Winehouse was a deeply troubled young woman. A victim of depression, mental illness and instability. She was never able to find a buoy to keep her afloat in the tides of misery, resentment and insecurity that were slowly drowning her. Should we celebrate that? Should we publicly display a figure that was plagued and eventually consumed by their demons? Are we giving addicts, or equally sufferers of mental health problems, a false idol, an idol that promises that fatal excess in the pursuit of numbness or escapism is something to be venerated and respected? Thanks to the farcical theatre played out ad nauseum in the press I cannot disentangle the existential weeds from the flower that they were choking. I could never look at a statue of Amy Winehouse without remembering that she was a drug addict who elicited her own death; I could never look at a statue of Amy Winehouse without feeling a sense of sorrow and regret at the talent that blazed, like a dying star, only to be all too briefly extinguished.
But maybe I am missing the point. Is it after all about hope and not despair? Perhaps in Winehouse we saw the lowest ebbs of humanity, the weakness, the sorrow, the desperate search for a way out before the numbness, and we saw hope, and possibility. We saw that even someone so riven by problems and so plagued with insecurity could produce works of art, could find the beauty beneath the shell of the ugliness of life, could find a paper shield to momentarily protect themselves from the world. Maybe she was a beacon for what the troubled can achieve, the freedom that can be found in expression, and maybe she was another reminder, like Robin Williams, that the lustrous glitter of fame is not the gold that it first appears, not a prophylactic to depression and sorrow.
I also wondered if my reaction might be a product of the contemporary obsession with the greatness of now, perhaps best embodied by the YOLO philosophy and the ubiquity of selfies. It might be controversial to suggest this, but so many albums and songs are attributed monikers such as ‘the most important album of…’ or ‘a song for the ages – an instant classic’ within the contexts of their creation, and yet when they are revisited they seem little more than historical curios – quaint slices of nostalgia rather than records that will echo in the pantheon of classics and legends. It is too early to judge the lasting impact of Amy Winehouse on the music industry, and it is too early to brand her music ‘timeless’. If there is any justice in life then people WILL return to the albums in twenty or thirty years time and appreciate them for the slices of fragile genius that they are. Just like people like Prince Naseem Hamed who were given honours long before their hour in the limelight were over, only to later prove themselves unworthy of them, perhaps we should just give Amy time to breathe, a rest from the limelight that was another fist in the flurry of punches beating her down.
Even after thinking about it, I’m not sure whether the statue should go up or not. If everybody who ever walked past the statue’s answer to the question ‘why are we remembering her?’ was simply ‘because she was a brilliant musician who loved Camden’ then it would be a total no-brainer: do it. But if anybody walked by and was reminded of the quicksand darkness laying at the end of a disturbing tunnel, or the hollow kiss of narcotic pain relief, or wished to proffer judgement and condemnation on a woman they never knew, then maybe it would be better to let Amy Winehouse rest in peace, letting her music reach us, as it always did, rather than a statue.