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Amy Winehouse: the life, the art, the media spectacle

By Claudia Congrave

Amy Winehouse has been as hailed one of the most talented singer-songwriters of her generation. Her early death in 2011 at the mere age of 27 was a devastating, albeit unsurprising, conclusion to a life that contributed so heavily to the cultural landscape of contemporary jazz music. Despite criticisms of her “self-destructive, wild child” image, Winehouse’s musical legacy lives on a decade after her death. However, as well as the influence of Amy’s music, the media campaign against her during the height of her fame was of great significance and largely impacted our understanding of morality and celebrity media presence. Amy’s Identity and Public Persona

Amy Winehouse was a British singer-songwriter who rose to fame in the early 2000's. Her identity and public persona were largely influenced by her ‘nostalgic sensibility for fellow working-class girl groups of the 1960’s’, such as the likes of The Shangri-La’s, The Shirelles and The Ronettes. This inspiration was invoked through what would become Winehouse's iconic and unique look; a beehive hairstyle, tailored dresses, heavy winged eyeliner and a multitude of tattoos that featured the imagery of 1960 pin-up magazines. Nevertheless, throughout her career, Amy Winehouse’s persona became less about her bold exterior and the resurrection of the tones of her musical icons. Arguably, attention to the singer’s personal life matched, if not exceeded, the popularity of her songs. The character and personal life of Amy was laid entirely bare and became common place within the public sphere. Some have described her as enacting her version of 'excessive performativity', one that broke the rules of the contemporary feminine celebrity that had become the norm. In fact, scholars have gone as far to argue that Winehouse’s public self was one largely associated with that of male celebrity, accounting for her rebellious nature. Excessive drinking, disorderly behaviour, being overtly sexual and appearing scantily dressed, visually disorganised and messy were all factors in shaping Amy’s wholly defiant nature. Thus, Amy’s self-authored persona emphasised an overtly active rebellion against social expectation and normative femininity- a rebellion conducted in excess.

Meaning, Style and Influence Although details of Amy’s personal life were used to vilify her, she used them to shape her music in a purposeful and uniquely raw way. Winehouse's songs are transparently autobiographical and tell a story of moments in her life, from her father's infidelity and her relationships with married men, all the way to her experiences with substance abuse that she details in her famous anthem 'Rehab'. This was the way Amy intended her music to be, identifying a lack of vulnerability and realism in the music of her time and seeking to revive it. She once stated; So much music these days is like ‘You don’t know me. I don’t need you’. And all the music then was kind of like ‘I don’t care if you don’t love me. I will lie down in the road, pull my heart out and show it to you’. I love all that.” (Amy Winehouse: In her own words, 2015) Due to the emotional exposé of her music, it has been argued that Amy’s music paved the way for artists to write more honestly about their own experiences and trauma. Whilst the truthful narrative of Winehouse’s music has been heralded as a key component in her music’s success, her revived style has always been a subject of interest. Amy’s music has been described as an expression of the romanticism and active feminine sexuality among working-class women in contemporary society, as was prominent of the 60's. In her own words, Amy described her music as borrowing from the blues, soul and jazz that comprised her music tastes- "The music that speaks to me the most has always been jazz. My music is everything I've ever listened to coming out."

Amy Winehouse produced two studio albums in her lifetime, with ‘Frank’ in 2003 and ‘Back to Black’ in 2006. Her debut album ‘Frank’ included brutally candid tracks, such as ‘Stronger than Me’ and ‘I Heard Love is Blind’. This album garnered a lot of exposure for Winehouse and was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize before charting at number seven in the US Album chart. Whilst it is the sound of ‘Frank’ that established Amy as an up and coming artist, it has been accused in hindsight as representing a completely different sound to Amy’s later music. Nevertheless, ‘Frank’ made musical history for Amy and established her as America’s highest chart position ever for a British female artist at the time. ‘Back to Black’, however, was the album that transformed Amy Winehouse into a global star. Singles such as 'Rehab', 'You Know I'm No Good', ‘Back to Black’ and 'Tears Dry on Their Own' are comprised of subjective lyrics concerning an even deeper set of experiences than were detailed in the debut. Through production with Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson and an injection of deeper soul influence, Back to Black was a resounding success. At the 50th Annual Grammy Awards, the album won 5 awards and to date has sold over 10 million copies. Amy and the Press - in Life and Death As discussed, Amy’s public persona was an integral component of her identity as an artist. Her public demeanour associated her with a certain group of celebrities who the press reserve harsh criticism for-those being women of a white, working-class background. There are multiple media frames common of celebrities who fit this mould. For example, Holmes and Negra (2011, p3) explore the presentation of the ‘trainwreck'- the celebrity who is shown as out of control 'physically, emotionally and/or financially'. This was true of Amy’s framing in the press, often featured alongside humorous headlines that were intent on making fun of her issues. Examples of this are endless, with just a few seen in the Daily Mail and the Mirror, publishing the headlines "Back to Beehive as Wino drinks until 4 am" (Foster, 2008) and “Amy’s drunk face doesn’t surprise us anymore” (the Mirror, 2011). Paul Willis (2011) contested that the media’s role in Amy’s tragic life should not be overstated, believing that her ‘musical ability was matched only by her talent for self-destruction’ that made her ‘perfect fodder for the tabloids’. Even so, the bad taste in which the media hounded Winehouse was undeniably cruel and fuelled the caricature, car-crash image that lingers today.

Whilst Winehouse’s name was prevalent in the media during her life, nothing compares to the attention it garnered after her death. Hearsum (2012) recalls the media surge that followed after the BBC’s official broadcast announcement of Amy’s death on the 23rd of July 2011. Amy’s Wikipedia and presence in the ‘27-club’ wiki page was updated, as well as a full obituary posting in the Telegraph online. Within hours Twitter was saturated with fan condolences and it was estimated that 20 million users on the platform across the following weekend were using it to discuss Amy Winehouse’s death. In just a week, OK and NOW magazine had released their special features and the singer’s biography had already been updated and republished. This not only shows the extent of Amy’s influence but also the power of contemporary media in mediating the death of celebrities. Compared to traditional media models for celebrity death broadcasts, such as those that followed the deaths of Elvis Presley and John Lennon, the reach of the media when reporting Amy’s death was far wider. The news was also transmitted much quicker to the public and, in this case, much faster than it did to Winehouse’s own family. Gordon (2011) stated: "It seems wrong that the world knew about Winehouse's sad demise before her father did".

As a consequence, Amy’s death highlights the blurred moral boundaries when it comes to reporting on celebrities in the press. Reversing the damage: AMY 2015 Documentary The negative contribution of the press towards Amy Winehouse’s memory cannot be disputed. Nonetheless, an attempt to reverse these effects was made through the 2015 documentary, ‘Amy’. Film director, Asif Kapadia, produced the Academy Award-winning documentary 'Amy' in an attempt to intervene in the public's memory of Winehouse and show the world who she was- the girl behind the name. Kapadia publicly stated that the documentary would overturn the common tabloid image of Amy as a ‘trainwreck’, revealing the young girl in need of protection that the intrusive media failed to portray. Created as ‘true fiction’, the documentary pieced together video and photograph footage contributed by personal sources like her former manager, Nick Shymansky, alongside videos of Amy’s performances and interviews. Lent (2007, p70) discusses how the pattern of the ‘Amy’ documentary follows a ‘generic pattern’ that is common of female biography, one that displays women artists as ‘interpreting artwork through life events’. This is certainly true of the film, revealing lyrics on screen in accordance with the life events that influenced them. For example, exploring her father’s infidelity and abandonment through the lyrics of ‘What is it about Men?’ and the trauma of her relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil with the song ‘Love is a Losing Game’. Therefore, the presentation of the film allowed for the connection between the songs and Amy's personal experiences. The rawness of the documentary was the main factor in its success; gaining institutional recognition, premiering at the Edinburgh film festival and being nominated for and winning multiple awards. The film shortly became one of the highest-grossing British documentary films of all time and, despite its 'harrowing' and 'tragic' description, has become a ‘dominant symbolic object in the public representation of Amy Winehouse’ (Polaschek, 2017). Music Resurgence Where there has been a series of films and documentaries made in Amy Winehouse's wake, it is her musical influence that lives on most potently. This legacy has been strengthened through a musical resurgence after her death. As has been the precedent for the passing of artists, such as Michael Jackson, music sales notably surge after the death of musicians. In Amy’s case, Back to Black climbed back up to number 4 in the Billboard Top 10 Albums chart. Musical success was not contained to Amy’s two pre-recorded albums, as the public saw the release of new music also. Within a month, a previously recorded duet, ‘Body and Soul’ with former idol, Tony Bennett, was released. This release marked what would have been Amy’s 28th birthday and was an indication of the progress the singer had made through her battle with substance abuse in her final years. Towards the end of 2011 the first posthumous album from Amy Winehouse, ‘Lioness: Hidden Treasures’ was also released. The album was composed of a collection of unheard tracks, including the duets with Tony Bennett and Nas. The album debuted at number 5 on the Billboard albums chart and sold more the 114,000 copies.

The concept of generating profit from an artist’s music after their death is one that is largely controversial. On one hand, it has been hailed as a ‘tribute’ to deceased artists (Martin Cooper, 2011), whereas others have described it as being in ‘bad taste’ (Hearsum 2012). Largely, it has been concluded that there are right and wrong ways to honor an artist’s work. Nevertheless, industry insiders noted that Amy’s death certainly set her ‘brand in stone for a decade-long income stream’.

(Amy Winehouse statue via Time Magazine)

Ultimately, the impact of Amy Winehouse’s identity and musical style established her as a unique sound and personality. She was responsible for uprooting the nostalgic tones of 60’s soul and jazz and popularising them in a contemporary era, as well as redefining the expectancy for celebrities to fit the mould of perfection. Furthermore, the attention paid to her life, both before and after her death, is a testament to her significance, as well as reassurance that she will not be forgotten. Nevertheless, as we progress further from the time of Amy’s life, it is worth studying and remembering the media’s manipulation of her misgivings for their own gratification. While most of us remember Amy the way she should be, it remains a sad fact that a dark cloud covers her memory at the hands of the media.


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