I remember watching Amy Winehouse walk up the red carpet at The Brits in 2007. Actually, strike that, I didn’t watch it – not at first. I felt it. I was facing the other way, reporting for TV, the camera trained on the carpet behind me. Her arrival sent a charge through the atmosphere that literally made my head whip around like an owl. It wasn’t a fame thing, or anything to do with success (she wasn’t the icon she has since become). I don’t know what it was, just that it was, and that I never saw anyone else do that to a gathering of people, before or since. This is what I told Asif Kapadia, when I interviewed him about his new documentary, Amy. That and about watching her sing Love Is A Losing Game at the Mercury Prize in 2007. All these years later, I can’t even think about it without getting goosebumps – I’m not surprised he chose that performance as the centrepiece for his film, which opened this weekend.
Twelve years since her debut and four years since her death, it feels like Amy’s legacy is starting to make sense in a way that her death never will. So, this week, I thought I’d take the opportunity to send out some thanks to Amy for some of the amazing things she gave us in the short time she was here.
...For choosing your own path
I don’t know what you were doing in 2003, but I was pretty plugged into the music scene. I had a show at a cutting-edge London radio station; went to, and played at, clubs; I listened to new music for a living. Believe me when I say that the last Next Big Thing anybody was expecting was a BRIT School graduate who made her name on the jazz circuit. Amy took the entire music industry by surprise. There have been a million imitators since, which is ironic – one thing she taught us is that the next Amy Winehouse will be nothing like Amy Winehouse.
...For being ahead of your time
Amy’s sound is a classic case example of Steve Jobs’ maxim, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward”. At the time, Amy’s retro sound, infused with raw, autobiographical lyrics and contemporary slang, was often miscast as a pastiche. I liked it, but didn’t know then what I know now – that her work was pointing towards everything that was about to happen. To the digital landscape, which was in its infancy at the time, but which we all inhabit now; where the past never really passes but is readily accessible at every moment, where inspiration can come from every era all at once.
...For showing us what needs to change
I often wonder what would have happened to Amy if she had been just a few years younger. If the media age she made her way in was not one of gossip magazines, tabloid headlines and photographers on her doorstep, but the social media, blogs and opinion pieces that dominate the conversation now. It might not have saved her – but would her experience have been any better? Would sites like ours have provided an alternative perspective to tabloid media? Would new writers who now have a platform have spoken out on her behalf? Could she have reached out to her fans on social media? Would it have been easier to see how weird and wrong it was that crowds of men could wait outside her front door, blind her with flashbulbs when she came out and sell their pictures – of a vulnerable addict, bloodied and confused in the street, to a public hungry for those images… and all that could be considered a legitimate business? How many of the terrible things that happened to Amy are still happening, and to what extent are we complicit in them?
...For the 4th wave
The 4th wave of feminism came after Amy died, but it would look very different if she had never lived. In a decade when women prided themselves on having their shit together, hers was all over the place, in public. The framing of Amy’s story reveals the misogyny of much of the press and the music industry (she, like Janis Joplin and Billie Holiday, was a “car crash”; Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix were tortured geniuses) She was derided as a mess. She was criticised for glamourising the illnesses that destroyed her. People winced when they talked about Amy’s transgressions, even as they lapped up every detail and sang along with every word. But they understood nothing about the life-saving connection that can be made when somebody brave enough, or hurt enough (and I think Amy was both), puts their pain on display. It’s impossible to count how many people she inspired, how many hands she held as people lived through horrors of their own with only her music to comfort them, but it’s easy to see that it happened because her influence is everywhere – on the street and underground, from teenage girls to drag queens. Amy spoke to, and for, the hurt and the marginalised. She will continue to do that for years to come. Amy opened up the conversation by exposing everything about herself that girls are taught to hide. She demonstrated the power of allowing yourself to be vulnerable.
...For the music
Which still sounds so fucking great.
Thanks for everything you left us, Amy. I just wish you hadn’t left us.