Amy Winehouse. July 23 2011: Dead at age 27,
the misadventure of alcohol poisoning.
2008 Grammy Awards: Record of the Year, Song of the Year,
Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, Best New Artist.
Winehouse’s premature death and public self-abuse is a tragedy for women, a lethal role model for girls. Her flamboyant failure to survive challenges feminists: why does a profound talent like Winehouse – described as a young Ella Fitzgerald – crash and burn despite the opportunity feminists have labored to bequeath her generation? Have we paved the way for every success but that which matters most?
Blame her fans for “over-demanding consumption of authenticity;” blame the schools where Amy “didn’t get a lot in class” or blame the failure of her synagogue to form her in the Jewish tradition of female prominence. Blame her for not taking control of her addictions. These factors play a role. But Winehouse was a brilliant singer-song writer and she tells her own story.
Do you hear a mournful young woman as anguished over her fading dreams of love as she is unwilling to let go of her image that a man should “stronger than me?” This was Winehouse’s debut album Frank. Then barely 20 years old, looking healthy and full, Winehouse’s 2003 lyrics unfold a heart wrenching longing for a man, a male as healthy in his masculinity as Winehouse is prepared to be in her femininity:
You should be stronger than me,
But instead you’re longer than frozen turkey,
Why’d you always put me in control?
All I need is for my man to live up to his role,
Always wanna talk it through – I’m ok,
Always have to comfort you every day,
But that’s what I need you to do – are you gay?
Winehouse’s conclusion – “you should be stronger than me” – bemoans her slipping femininity, teetering about on high heels, struggling to steady a drunk posing as a man. She takes us to the precipice of dashed dreams and overwhelming disappointment as a complete gender role reversal shifts the floor boards :
Cause I’ve forgotten all of young love’s joy,
Feel like a lady, and you my lady boy
Three short years later, Winehouse’s lyrics transitioned from complaining “you my lady boy” to an alarming self-loathing, rawly expressed in this cut You Know I Am No Good.
Here we experience a leaner, meaner, more calloused, worn and tattooed Winehouse who has turned her lyrics against herself. Her longing remains but, now, she’s bad; she cheats sexually on someone who does not seem to care and her dreams are defeated, not by “my lady boy” but by her own behavior. She holds herself at fault for her misery. She is 24 years old – and will be dead soon.
I cheated myself,
Like I knew I would
I told you I was trouble,
You know that I’m no good,
These lyrics from You Know I Am No Good, like others on her 2007 Back to Black, offer “an album’s worth of heartbroken songs,” roundly agreed to reflect the deeply troubled and dysfunctional relationship and marriage she attempted with Blake Fielder-Civil, a drug-user and convict. While Winehouse reportedly had subsequent relationships, her passion for Fielder-Civil remained the prominent narrative in her life, even as their family and friends urged that the relationship was doomed.
Despite their families’ efforts to separate the pair, Winehouse insisted that Fielder-Civil was the love of her life. She persisted in a drug-ridden, abusive relationship that was many things, but not tender, nurturing or loving. Fielder-Civil never approached her hope for “a man to live up to his role.” Her lyrics and talent remained tethered to a dream of masculine love impossible to realize in a Fielder-Civil. Somehow, despite the reordered world delivered to her by empowering feminists, she remained unequipped to distinguish her longing for manly love and the “lady man” upon whom her young emotions attached.
Compare now a very different, very feminine Winehouse who appears to us posthumously. This Winehouse seems a near-caricature of her own longing: coy looks, relaxed face, liquid movements, shy but flirtatious glances – as Tony Bennett croons her to her the old fashioned way, Body and Soul.
Released after her nearly-suicidal death, we are left to savor this decidedly tragic image: an once-in-a-decade talent melting with her deepest longings – and then vanishing. Gone forever. This is the tragedy of Amy Winehouse: prepared to pursue celebrity and fame, but never equipped to find and secure the love of a good man.
I call upon all feminists to reflect upon this story – not unlike many others being played out by young women celebrities. Should we not spend more time helping our young women find complete fulfillment – even when that means forging a traditional male-female, committed relationship of love and loyalty? Should we not support them in love with the same intensity we support and encourage their careers? If we did, we might still have Amy Winehouse and her powerhouse talent to enjoy into old age.
I miss her. I feel we failed her. I leave you with this gritty-as-grime Youtube in which Winehouse’s shares her stunning talent – as well as her desperate pain. Feminism certainly failed this young woman.