Womaness as Madness: Amy Winehouse

May 18, 2023

Collage created by Sadie with cut-out and cropped photographs of Amy Winehouse by Rama/Eurockéennes07  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 France and images from Pexels

Sadie Souter explores how female individuality and expression are so often confused with madness

In this series of three articles, I’m going to be taking a closer look at Amy Winehouse, Frida Kahlo and Sylvia Plath who inspire me with their unashamed femininity and creative power.

Chapter Three: Amy, Back to Black
I turned it into songs and that’s how I got through it

We only said goodbye with words. Amy Winehouse dies her one hundredth death. Holding her head high, tears drying on her icy cheeks, she begins
to walk.

The click of her heels reverberates into her skull. The spade clanks against the earth, so instead she uses her bare hands. Pulling up chunks of grass, mud clogs her fingernails, clawing until she sees the shine of mahogany amidst
the dirt.

She feels the chasm in her chest ache for what is in the box at her feet. She traces her black-gloved fingers over the metal plaque and shivers. Her breath catches in her throat as the lid slides off. A tiny withering heart, the size of a coin in her palm. The world wanted a piece of her, and they took it. She closes her eyes. She goes back to black.

Amy Winehouse is often considered someone born out of their time, yearning for the Hollywood Renaissance of the 1960s, away from the plastic, fast paced 2000s. Her struggles with addiction, after rising to international stardom at 23, led to her tragic death at just 27.

Amy’s childhood was chaotic, her parents divorcing when she was nine; all played out to a soundtrack of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn. Her mother, Janis recalled “It’s always been her dream to be a singer. That was all she ever wanted. She was always singing around the house”.

Amy self-medicated with her music and in Amy’s own words, “There’s a lot of people that suffer depression that don’t have an outlet. They can’t pick up a guitar for an hour and feel better”.

It’s difficult to remember Amy’s life without understanding that the consumption of her suffering makes us, in a way, complicit in her death. Kapadia’s famous documentary, ‘Amy’ arguably feeds this romanticisation of tragedy. Kapadia uses paparazzi footage to illustrate the same darkness that the media catalysed, leering at her frail body and lingering on her self-destruction.

Amy’s death, like her life, was illuminated by the flashing of cameras

It’s impossible to know if things would have turned out differently if she had never found fame quite so young, so completely or even at all. In one of the last lines of the film Amy says, “If I could give it back just to walk down that street with no hassle, I would”.

Sucked up into the whirlwind of fame, Amy’s life became increasingly dictated by the media in 2006, after the release of her second album ‘Back to Black’. She was hounded by the press at every turn. Her battle with her mental health meant that the constant obsession with her appearance only propelled her downward trajectory.

As a tabloid target, her vulnerability was exploited, and her death, like her life, was illuminated by the flashing of cameras.

Journalist Deborah Orr describes this phenomenon of celebrity culture breeding addiction, in her article about Amy’s struggles, “The chasm between outer adulation and inner self-doubt can be filled by addiction that the media then feeds upon”.

On the 23rd of July 2011, Amy Winehouse became yet another name among the “27 club”, whose members are celebrities who have died at 27, including Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Janis Joplin. A concept that perpetuates harmful myths that glorify the tragic deaths of the young and famous.

Her comeback tour in 2011 was marred by her substance abuse; she turned up late to the stage in Belgrade, mumbling along, barely able to stand until she was booed off stage by her fans. The footage from that performance shows a lonely girl, despite swarming crowds, pushed to her limits by a culture of greed and consumerism. Yet still, Amy refused to go to rehab and ironically it became her biggest hit.

The lyrics to ‘Rehab’ are so poignant in hindsight, Amy’s first manager, Nick Shymansky sadly recalled, “She’d written this huge hit that’s undeniably brilliant, that was a complete mockery of our friendship and of what she needed. And the whole world’s dancing along to it, and really, she was writing about a decision that five years later would result in her being dead”. Read the full interview here.

Amy ushered in this new wave of young female singer-songwriters to write, speak and sing their own truths

Amy’s album ‘Back to Black’ became the UK’s twelfth best-selling album of all time. It documents Amy’s intensely painful break-up with Blake Fielder-Civil. The full extent of their sickly co-dependent relationship reveals itself with this outpouring of songs about loneliness, betrayal and abandonment.

Love and loss intertwine with her substance abuse but it is not glorified but nihilistic and painfully honest. The album is haunting, blurring the lines of blues, jazz and R&B, conjuring up nostalgia for simpler times. The references to 60s pop culture are complimented by Amy’s blunt and earthily funny lyrics, sung in her whiskey-soaked voice. This intriguing pairing of sounds mirror the bittersweet nuances of everyday relationships.

‘Wake Up Alone’ was the first song to be written on the album and it chronicles the torture of keeping busy. She fights against the breathless loneliness she feels now her days are empty, conflating her infatuation with love with her addictions to drugs and alcohol.

Her vices are personified by a nightmarish creature that is “fierce in my dreams, seizing my guts”. The song melting into a surreal daze as her mental state deteriorates, the claustrophobic moon looming above, bathing her in a melancholic “blue light”.

She dances rose-tinted love scenes before you and then snatches them away. Promises of perfection fade into bleak reality and we’re forced to confront our emotions head on, as we, like Amy, wake up alone.

In this era of intimate storytelling and songwriting, with the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter tearing down stigmas around gender, sexuality and race, ‘confessional artists’ are in vogue. Amy Winehouse ushered in this new wave of young female singer-songwriters to write, speak and sing their own truths.

History lacks female voices, but the present is ours. To make and mould and shape madness and magic into something brand new. Over the last century, what it is to be a woman has been exploded and redefined. No longer frail or sinful or stupid, women’s voices are beginning to count, albeit very gradually.

Women like Frida, Sylvia and Amy have made suffering, bravery and, most importantly, vulnerability a strength instead of something to be exploited. With each self-portrait, poem, novel and song, the path to breaking down these stigmas becomes a little clearer and the world seems to make a little more sense.

Womaness is vibrancy, wisdom, innovation. The only madness is to be silent.

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With You is a charity providing free, confidential support to people experiencing issues with alcohol, drugs or mental health.

Rehab 4 Addiction offers a wealth of resources and information about addiction and mental health.

Also you can find help here through The Amy Winehouse Foundation.

Sadie studied songwriting at BIMM, London. She’s now at Manchester University reading English. Sadie likes trip hop and live music. In her free time, she writes poetry, edits photos and plays the keyboards.

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