This Is The Girl: On Amy Winehouse

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On July 23, 2011, the machine didn’t light up for Amy Winehouse, and she was pronounced dead of alcohol poisoning at her house in Camden, London, England. Emergency respondents carried her body, which was bloated with as much as three bottles of vodka, to an ambulance that was parked in the shady Camden lane on a late-summer London afternoon. Paparazzi and fans competed for views and photographs of the physical remnants of an artist who had once written words so personal that the melodies that carried them had to be more robust than the diseased and tortured body from which they seemingly defiantly soared—a body torn apart by an eating disorder, drug and alcohol abuse, arrests for assault, depression, possible early-onset emphysema, paparazzi harassment, and heart problems.

The machine didn’t light up for Amy, even though she’d eventually enter many clinics, even though she told the world in one of her most personal revelations that she screamed, “No, no, no,” when “They” tried to make her go to “Rehab.” She confessed, at the age of twenty-two and in the same song, that she didn’t “ever want to drink again,” that she “just needed a friend.”

Amy was twenty-two, buried in a loneliness that converged on her body through the corners of her eyes, so that the color black shadowed and eventually overcame all the words she wrote, the relationships she had, and the people who surrounded her, first in the form of an adoring family, then in the mass of an adulating public, and, finally, in the proliferation of paparazzi pictures and videos that consumed screens, pages, and minds the world over, constructing an image of a foul-mouthed diva, devilish and dangerous, forever chasing destruction, whether it came in the form of drugs, sex, or violence.

The color black came to Amy in a boundless repetition of people whose existence had been prototyped and capitalized until their very subjectivity vanished in the darkness of an ink bottle, a television set that had been turned off for the night, and a computer that had been shut down. In this regard, Janis Joplin and Judy Garland were her intimates, and not her personal reference points, Ronnie Spector, Bettie Page, and Brigitte Bardot, all of whom were destined for longevity. No, like Joplin’s and Garland’s, Amy’s life was short (she died at the age of twenty-seven, having sung just five years before, “And I wake up alone”), and, like them again, she suffered the blight of a depression deepened by a celebrity industry that invaded her body like a virus intent on eroding her self-image, self-esteem, and sense of self.

A dichotomy arose. Who was Amy? The manufactured, mad, bad, and dangerous to know tornado of an artist, who, like Garland, spun wildly out of control in a house without mooring, a frenzy of drugs, booze, sex, violence, and limitless talent? Or the girl whose heart, from that September 14 day in 1983 when she was born, pumped the blood of Frank Sinatra and Ronnie Scott, of Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington, through her veins, so that out of her mouth came an pure expression that empowered the people who heard her with a feeling that they could reach their highest potential as individuals?

Amy’s contralto carried the lyrics of the first songs she wrote at the age of fourteen, the music of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra with which she performed at the age of sixteen, and the tunes on her first album, Frank, which came out when she’d just turned twenty.

But before Frank came the Industry and its “secret” development of Amy as a potential radio-friendly unit shifter. Lawyers, managers, and a record company took the girl and fashioned her into what Kurt Cobain had become: an “authentic” artist who rebelled against the prevailing trends of the time.

“Amy Winehouse”: the girl enemy of all the Pop Idol and American Idol winners.

“Amy Winehouse”: the girl singer whose raspy contralto was a “genuine” slap-in-the-face to Will Young, Michelle McManus, Kelly Clarkson, and the other “manufactured” music reality show victors of the day.

“Amy Winehouse”: the girl who titled her first album Frank as a tribute to both the “authenticity” of its jazz-influenced tunes (Amy co-wrote every song, apart from two covers) and of Frank Sinatra, the Jersey boy who’d made it—it was assumed—solely on the basis of his intimate baritone.

Even though Frank was nominated for multiple BRIT Awards, sold over a million copies, and won an award for its single, “Stronger Than Me,” the album didn’t satisfy Amy, who felt that the record company had had too much control over which mixes were used and which songs were chosen. It’s no wonder why the passive voice is so apropos her, or that Simon Fuller—the man behind Pop Idol and American Idol—and his management company signed and oversaw “Amy Winehouse” in the lead-up to Frank.

The Industry, however, couldn’t contain the rebellious rawness that came out of “Stronger Than Me,” in which Amy told a lover in a Johnny Rotten-meets-Sarah Vaughn rant: “Don’t you know you supposed to be the man?” and “I always have to comfort you when I’m there.” She simultaneously became the song’s man and woman, tearing apart traditional notions of what emotions could and should be associated with which gender. She was strong and vulnerable, a woman who knew reality (“Why’d you always put me in control?”) and a girl who’d “forgotten all of young love’s joy” and just wanted her hair stroked.

It was this gritty knowledge of reality that defined her words and voice, that somehow made her addictions and disorders all the more believable, especially when the media began to hound her to death. The tabloids traced and photographed her so much that they forced her to go Back to Black on the record that she was writing and recording at the time.

The word “to” in the album’s title was crucial. Amy stated that she was returning to an outlook and a state-of-being in her new songs that were true to herself: songs that were introspective, full, and, in some ways, self-condemning. The glossy production of songs like “Rehab,” “You Know I’m No Good,” and “Love Is a Losing Game”—which sounded like Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound filtered through a contemporary lens—belied the suffering that gave them birth. “I told you I was troubled / You know that I’m no good,” she sang, confessing the burden of a sexual relationship in which she blamed herself for reaching orgasm only when she thinks of her ex-lover “in the final throes.”

The “final throes”? Of sex? Of death? Of both: Amy was revealing the darkness that was overtaking her in a single that was a major hit on the pop charts in most European countries. She was revealing the darkness that was overtaking her in an album that sold over twelve million copies and was nominated for a BRIT Award and the Mercury Prize, in an album that included songs with titles like “Addicted,” “Wake Up Alone,” “Tears Dry on Their Own,” and “Some Unholy War,” in an album that was inspired by her destructive marriage to Blake Fielder-Civil, the man who introduced her to heroin. It was an album, Amy told Rolling Stone, about how she’d wanted to die.

So, the downward spiral of the almost five years that passed between the release of Back to Black, and her death on July 23, 2011 came as no surprise. It was all too apparent in the lyrics. But the hounding media, which relentlessly constructed her as the doomed rock star and the Cobain for the new millennium even before she died, put her on the run from her audience, her family, her friends, her lovers, and herself, to the point where she woke up alone and trapped with three bottles of vodka at that house in Camden that wasn’t home enough to shelter her.

Patti Smith wrote an elegy for Amy, just as Shelley wrote Adonaïs for Keats. “This Is the Girl” presents Amy as a holy paradox: the girl who concurrently had “a ball” and “yearned to be heard.” Alone in the crowd of the endless party of her endless fame, Amy was “spirited away, hurrying inside.” Smith crowned her with the poet’s laurels for voyaging inside herself to an internal realm where imagination—the artist’s only salvation and outward emanation—broke down, turned against itself, and became complicit in the media’s construction of “Amy Winehouse.” And because this manufactured image had become the real Amy to Amy, Amy’s only recourse was to go back to the black of the timeless oblivion before she assumed consciousness on September 14, 1983.

Excerpted from Paul Gleason’s book-in-progress: Heart Failure: A Love Story