I was introduced to Amy Winehouse through some arguably questionable parenting, with my mum blasting the Back to Black album on a boombox every time my sister and I took a bath. While some would frown upon a 5-year-old knowing all the lyrics to “Rehab”, I for one am grateful this appreciation came early, before the media’s voyeuristic exploitation of her tragic death created a legacy of suffering rather than success.
The 14th of September would have been Winehouse’s 40th birthday, so now is an apt time to address the way the media has failed to commemorate her extraordinary contributions to the British pop scene and why, on an individual level, we need to rethink the way we remember her.
Amy Winehouse is remembered for dying. Her death has been sensationalised to such an extent that her legacy as an artist has been lessened. However, the media’s obsession with the darker aspects of her life began long before her death. The British tabloids profited from her struggles with addiction and mental illness, regularly plastering images of her intoxicated or distressed onto the front page. An affront unfortunately not singular to Winehouse but a reality shared by many young female celebrities in the 2000s, who were so regularly made into spectacles and whose bodies were deemed suitable topics of commentary. The media’s contribution to the singer’s suffering was made horrifyingly tangible through her dramatic weight loss, as in 2006 she was reported to have dropped four dress sizes due to people talking about her weight. While she displayed a bitingly raw honesty in her music, declaring that “every bad situation is a blues song waiting to happen”, this vulnerability was cashed in on by countless publications. Tragically, the very frankness that makes her music so moving opened her up to the exploitation of the minutiae of her private life.
This disrespect from the mainstream media sadly increased after her death with an endless stream of biopics and biographies that continues to this day. Tasteless and unnecessary, these exploitative versions of her satisfy the modern obsession with celebrity but take us further away from the ‘true’ Amy and direct the focus away from her art. Sam Taylor-Johnson’s biopic Back to Black, which has been endorsed by her father Mitch Winehouse, is due to reach cinemas in 2024. However, it has already received much online backlash due to images circulating of Marisa Abela, the actress playing Amy, in what appears to be a scene depicting a public meltdown. It is immensely disappointing that 12 years after her death her downfall is still being dramatised and rehashed for profit.
Amy Winehouse has become a symbol of the devastating effects of addiction and the relentless way the public and press lambast young women in the spotlight. Although it is important to address certain preventable factors that influenced her, such as the voyeurism of the media, she shouldn’t be reduced to a symbolic warning. She was so much more than a helpless victim or hedonistic self-destructive force as she is so frequently portrayed. In George Michael’s words, she was “the most soulful vocalist this country has ever seen”. Harnessing the retro influences of 60s girl groups and Motown, Winehouse’s unconventional neo-soul renders her a pioneer, instrumental in the third British invasion. Her music is distinctly funny, littered with witty one-liners like “what kind of f****ery is this?”. Many of her lyrics also read like poetry, with her hit single “Love is a Losing Game” included in a final year English exam at Cambridge University.
No doubt these biopics will keep on coming, so it’s important that we strive to centre her musical innovation and success rather than her struggle. We owe it to Amy to challenge the disrespectful media depictions which dominate her memory. I endeavour you to remember her not as the singer found dead on the floor of the bedroom of her hotel, but as the boundary-breaking ‘Queen of Camden’ who revolutionised the pop industry through her emotional authenticity and blending of contemporary and vintage influences.
Image from Wikimedia Commons