I can’t remember when or where or how I first came across Amy Winehouse, but she had her hooks in me way back when her success was a cult hit, not the embarrassing phenomenon it is today. It was more than just that smokey, showstopping voice, which would come to win her nearly unanimous acclaim. It was the lyrics. The nonchalance with which she, 19 years old when her first album came out, sang about lovers simply not man enough for her and tramps in f-me pumps had me captivated.
Today, of course, she needs no introduction. With her skin disease, stints in rehab, coked up performances, visa troubles, peculiar dress sense, publicly violent marriage and what seems to be a hell of a knack to get photographed looking like she’s a cross between your worst nightmare and your second worst one, she’s become a sort of running tabloid joke. A woman so obscene not just in the way she looks but the way she lives that no one really knows what to do with her. Heiress flashing her nethers? No. Silicone starlet? No. Spawn of two stars, reality TV wannabe, Disney tween queen gone wrong? “No, no, no”, as Amy herself infamously sang.
She’s in a category all by herself.
Winehouse is conventionally attractive only by a gargantuan stretch of sheer kindness or kinkiness. She neither cleans up pretty nor seems to make the effort to try to. The last epitaph on earth that could wind up on her tombstone would be “media darling”. No, that phrase is for wimps and little marionettes dancing on the strings held by some big machine. Amy Winehouse – or at least, the Amy Winehouse I imagine – would snort at the thought if her nostrils weren’t stuffed already.
In a world positively festering with clones and clichés and pretty puppets galore, Winehouse is a gash, an anomaly, an abomination. It’s what makes her irresistible. It’s what will, ultimately, canonize her good and proper as a Dangerous Woman. An unforgettable one.
Because here, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the few people in the entertainment industry anywhere who are where they are by sheer talent alone. Winehouse, in other words, is a serious artiste. And one in the style of the true greats – a reckless, ruthless, roaring creature. No apologies here, no excuses. No pretending to be anything but who and what she is. We can’t take our eyes off the mess the paparazzi show her to be because we’re just too mesmerized by her music to look away. She’s the siren’s call – and she’s also the shipwreck.
That category she’s in by her lonesome? It’s a category she seems to have created all by herself too, although this is probably just a side-effect of being idiosyncratic and destined to be iconic. And that’s what’s most intriguing about her – in a time of daddy-bought celebrity statuses and pin-up doll factories, this ridiculous, fabulous woman went right ahead and manufactured… herself.
And it’s the kind of self no one else wants to be, not right now anyway. But mark my words – when her birth centenary – which she’s not likely to see, if the track records of the legends before her are anything to go by – rolls around, rest assured there’ll be “Come As Amy” parties (ever been to a “Come as Frida” one?). Beehive hairdos, nasty eyeliner and tequila on tap all round. Not too many entertainers around today are going to leave such legacies. Not too many people, entertainers or not, dare to live life so unapologetically. And for that, I keep my headphones plugged in and raise a decidedly Bacchanalian toast in her honour.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement.