Tag Archives: amy winehouse

The Tragic And Talented

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Everybody dies. Of the many ways in which this can happen, the “tragic” death of a pop culture icon – inevitably attributed to a mixture of hedonism, extreme success and existential loneliness – is one of the least interesting, yet paradoxically, probably the most celebrated. When Amy Winehouse died last month, the same tired tropes were trotted out in the media and on public opinion aggregators like Twitter: that it came as a complete shock, that she was the victim of the paparazzi (or of a curse that affects 27-year old musicians) and of course, that her talent had gone to waste.

It’s the last of those statements that makes the least sense. Winehouse was known to the world first and foremost not because of her binge drinking but because of her work – her unmistakable contralto, her ironic (mostly self-penned) lyrics and the visual effects, such as the beehive wig and the winged eye makeup, which she cultivated during her healthier years. The rest of it came afterwards. The increasing disarray in which she appeared in candid photographs, for example, or the fact that she began to be booed offstage by her own fan following were because at one point she had been worth following at all.

So how could it be said that she wasted her talent, when her talent was observed and enjoyed at its height? What if there was little or nothing left in Winehouse, artistically speaking, beyond the body of work she had already produced by the time of her demise? The aftermath of such an event usually results in speculation that borders on the downright panegyrical, perhaps because it may come off as malicious to suggest otherwise. But the truth is, we don’t actually know what Winehouse might have cleaned up to become, or if she had been capable of cleaning up. But it must also be said – she owed no one else anything, but she owed it to herself to find out.

To say an artist has died “before their time” is to say that her or his death came unexpectedly, because of calamity or early disease. Consider just a couple of examples among other musicians. When Jeff Buckley drowned at 30 in 1997, he had only released his seminal Grace album, a work so remarkable that his cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is more famous than the original. When Lhasa de Sela died of breast cancer in 2010, aged just 37, her three luminous multilingual albums were only one facet of a life that spanned richly varied experiences as a traveller, circus performer and human being. Her music was a vital part but not the only vital part of what she did.

Amy Winehouse, however, didn’t die suddenly or unexpectedly. Her own parents have told the press that they had been preparing for her death for four years; her father wrote a graveside eulogy for her in 2007, her mother picked out a cemetery plot in 2008. Make of this bizarre parental admission what you will, but Winehouse herself showed no outward signals of being in love with life – and living in celebrity-obsessed England, where her every move was documented, some semblance of a fighting spirit or joie de vivre would surely have come through if she had. She killed herself slowly with the kind of “reckless deliberation” – an oxymoron in any other case – that can only come from a person motivated by self-destruction.

The idea of the self-annihilating genius is a dangerous one. What is true is that mess and chaos are often intrinsic to art – at the risk of romanticizing it, a nod must still be given to the correlation between beauty and heartbreak. What is also true is that many great artists manage to extend their lives and works over a long trajectory while waging a constant struggle against their inner demons and external hardships. To raise a shot of tequila to Frida Kahlo on her birthday is to celebrate the life she fought tooth and nail to embrace despite physical ailments over which she had no control. To leave vodka bottles in memorial shrines outside Winehouse’s London house – as fans have done – is hardly a salute to triumph and passionate engagement. It’s a mockery of what was actually wasted: the choice to live and to give.

None of this is said with ill-will. Winehouse had real talent, she was unusual and she had a devil-may-care attitude which at first was deeply attractive (setting her apart from those who contrive their public images) but later revealed itself to be a complete lack of self-possession. If she managed to clean up her act without losing the essence of her gifts, she would likely have blossomed. The tragedy is not that she couldn’t fulfill her potential because she died. The tragedy is that she died because she lived not in pursuit of creation, but in pursuit of tragedy itself.

An edited version appeared in Times of India’s iDiva supplement today.

The Venus Flytrap: There’s Something About Amy

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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.