A few days after singer Amy Winehouse’s death last weekend, the celebrity news website TMZ conducted a poll about her life and legacy.
Among the questions: “Amy will be remembered as a (a) junkie (b) great singer.”
Seventy percent of the more than 520,000 votes went for “junkie.”
Likewise, 80 percent said she is to blame for her death; 85 percent said they “saw it coming.” On the televised version of TMZ, founder and host Harvey Levin summarized the results bluntly:“People don’t really care. At least they don’t consider her death a great loss to the music world.”
Website polls are dubious at best, so the truth must be surmised with a healthy dose of skepticism. In this case, the numbers don’t really matter anyway. They’re merely the tail that is not wagging the large dog, which is social media and the onslaught of celebrity journalism, from local blogs to TMZ to Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World.
Winehouse was familiar to all of them. She fed the paparazzi like a keeper feeding lions at the zoo: regularly and generously. Eventually she became a caricature, someone famous for being infamous, someone better known for her bad behavior than for her good music.
Her death July 23 set social media on fire. Many of her fans grieved. Singer and songwriter Krystle Warren posted on Facebook: “Thank you, Miss Winehouse, for stopping in. We’re so appreciative you did. Rest in peace.”
Some expressed sarcasm or indifference. Others cracked jokes via her most famous song, “Rehab,” in which the lyrics decline what she probably needed more than anything.
Winehouse’s death was unexpected, but given her very public battle with drug and alcohol addiction, it came only as a mild surprise to most. Many people reacted as if she were the chronically absent or incompetent employee who finally got the firing she deserved.
There were also plenty of mentions of the fabled “27 Club,” a growing list of rock stars who share a macabre coincidence: They all died in the year preceding their 28th birthday: Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, who all died within roughly two years of one another, and Kurt Cobain, who committed suicide in April 1994.
Toxicology results are still pending on Winehouse’s death, but at her funeral, her father said she had been taking great strides to get clean and healthy.
That conflicts with YouTube footage from June, which shows her getting booed off the stage after stumbling and mumbling through a few songs during a show in Serbia. Her European tour was subsequently canceled.
In an essay a few days after her death, comedian/actor and recovering addict Russell Brand wrote about his friend and her very public descent into addiction: “Our media though is more interested in tragedy than talent, so the ink began to defect from praising her gift to chronicling her downfall. The destructive personal relationships, the blood soaked-ballet slippers, the aborted shows, that YouTube madness with the baby mice. In the public perception, this ephemeral tittle-tattle replaced her timeless talent.”
Pitied and ridiculed is no way to go through life, especially when your every public move is documented and then unleashed into the viral world. Even in death, Winehouse gets no privacy and is afforded little dignity. TMZ has posted several post-mortem images, including paramedics removing her body from her home. There is also YouTube footage of two comedians from Brazil who crashed her private funeral Tuesday and feigned sorrow and mourning — a crass twist on the “Wedding Crashers” movie. (One of them also crashed Michael Jackson’s funeral.)
Winehouse had released two studio albums: the unheralded “Frank” in 2003 and then “Back to Black” in 2006, which went platinum in the United States and received some considerable critical acclaim, mostly for its rich and evocative display of gritty ‘60s pop-soul.
“Black” put Winehouse into another, more prestigious club. She joined five other women who have won five Grammys for one album — the second most by a female artist for a single album. (Beyonce set the record in 2010 with six).
Another member of that Five Club is Lauryn Hill, who won her five for “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” released in 1998. Within two years, Hill entered self-imposed exile, unable to endure the exposure prompted by her success.
She told Essence magazine, “For two or three years I was away from all social interaction. It was a very introspective time because I had to confront my fears and master every demonic thought about inferiority, about insecurity or the fear of being black, young and gifted in this Western culture.”
Hill went through her post-Grammy identity crisis privately, long before the advent of YouTube or social media, viral photos and video, TMZ and Perez Hilton. When she made the news for some errant behavior, she was granted mostly sympathy or indifference, not ridicule. Certainly she was granted more grace than Winehouse (or Whitney Houston) for the way she battled her demons and insecurities.
Empathy or tolerance for substance abuse can be hard to come by because the affliction is often misunderstood. Addiction, Brand said, is not a pursuit of pleasure; it’s a flight from injury.
“The priority of any addict,” he wrote, “is to anaesthetize the pain of living, to ease the passage of the day.”
You could argue that as a singer and recording artist, Winehouse is getting a reputation she doesn’t deserve. Her output and influence pale in comparison to the others in that “27 Club.” But that doesn’t mean her music should be eclipsed by her personal problems. Her two albums have sold about 2.6 million copies combined in the United States. But that’s fewer than the number of people worldwide who have viewed videos of her show in Serbia.
If she is remembered more for her self-destructive lifestyle than her music, Winehouse is ultimately the one responsible. As Brand proved, there is a way to halt the descent and rediscover sobriety. But addicts need help and support, and she didn’t catch many breaks along the way.
If the first step in recovery is admitting there’s a problem, we all should cop to a thing or two, like a case of voyeurism or schadenfreude. How else do you explain the fascination for someone so many people disliked or didn’t care about?