The music world is still reeling from, but not necessarily shocked by, the passing of UK soul songstress Amy Winehouse.
The English singer/songwriter with the messy Beehive and powerful voice is probably best known stateside for songs such as “Rehab” and “No Good,” which some believe may have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is true that the last few years of her short-lived life have been nothing more than a public bender of drugs and alcohol. After several unsuccessful stints in rehab, battling emphysema brought on by smoking and an eating disorder, most of us who adored her music and watched her slowly deteriorate, felt that it wasn’t a question of if she was going to die, just a matter of when.
Even her parents, who for years fought for their daughter to get help, acknowledges that self-destructive habits overshadowed her distinctive musical talent. For them as well as many of her fans, it is not easy watching someone die before our eyes, especially when we feel that her death could have been prevented. There are many athletes, musicians and actors, who have destroyed their careers and disappointed their fans, with the deadly cocktail of drugs, sex, or alcohol. Kurt Cobain, Whitney Houston, Heath Ledger and a litany of others, are all example of entertainers whose careers, and in some cases their lives, took a backseat to the same demon: drugs.
It would stand to reason that the old meme is right: Some of our most creative artists are also very destructive and troubled. I don’t pretend to understand the motivation of a person to use drugs until it kills them. However, I’m not interested in writing her, or others like her, off because of addiction. As outsiders we have powerful tendencies to set up judgments about folks based upon our narrow set of standards of universal hierarchy. For many people, money plus celebrity equals instant happiness. And if fame and money doesn’t lead to happiness, than obviously you weren’t appreciative enough.
I don’t think that celebrity contributes to whether or not a person lives a great life, nor do I think it has an effect on a destructive one. Fame tends to only highlight what might already be there. In some ways, Winehouse, or any other celebrity, is no different than a person with cardiovascular disease or diabetes still eating stuff that they know ain’t good for them. The difference is that Winehouse had to live her pain publicly, whereas regular folks like us do not.
J.K. Rowling, author of the wildly popular Harry Potter series, once said of people’s expectation of her success that most people want her to be very simple. “They wanted me to say, ‘I was poor and I was unhappy, and now I’ve got money and I’m really happy.’ Sometimes it’s just not the easy for folks. And while we are discussing how tragic, how pathetic and how preventable a celebrity’s downfall is, let us also reflect on how brutally honest it is.
The message really is that people, for the most part, are not perfect and sometimes, are really messed up and no amount of success or money will change that. Those of us who call ourselves fans could hear Winehouse’s demons loud and clear on her critically acclaimed “Back to Black” album. Ironically, It was her ability to accurately portray life’s bitter messiness within her songs that help to propel her as an international celebrity in the first place.
Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things.