Update 7/24/11: Please see the blog entry about Amy Winehouse’s death.
I love writing this blog: one day I get to think about university-geek doctors researching neuroplasticity, and the next day I get to think about train-wreck celebrities who are flushing their enormous talent down the toilet by saying “no, no, no” to rehab.
In other words, Amy Winehouse. Who today cancelled her European tour after showing up drunk and/or wasted on drugs in Belgrade, Serbia a few days ago.
Amy Winehouse is dying for approval.
Catch this video of Winehouse shot Saturday night, in which the audience boos her:
She stumbles around, stops in mid-verse a few times, and drags a band-mate over to help her finish her lines. Aside from the fact that she’s completely wasted, here’s what I noticed about Winehouse in this video (and this may be simple projection on my part):
- She gives two of her tall dark and handsome band-mates prolonged hugs and repeatedly seeks their attention during the song.
- She is wearing a corseted skin-tight sequined tiger-print “dress,” which pushes her breasts up to her collarbones.
- Her posture: despite the fact that she’s taken off her heels, she still can’t stop jutting her tits out in front and her butt out in back. She has learned to “present” her body in a compulsively sexual way.
What’s driving Winehouse is so obviously her need for other people’s approval. … Extremely insecure. I say this because I notice the tendencies in myself, OK?
So, you’re thinking, Yeah, so what. This is what performers do, this is how they’re motivated—by looking for approval.
It’s not what performers used to do. Performers used to be allowed to focus on their musicianship and their skill, and not sacrifice their health and sanity and life for a buck. Musicians used to be straight when they played gigs and they received fees that were sane and reasonable, which kept ticket prices affordable. Musicians wore suits, and dresses that covered their bodies. Think the Beatles. Think the Supremes, or Aretha. I mean even Janis Joplin, who was also dying for approval, wore clothes! … Then came Madonna, and MTV, and music became as much about using spectacle and voyeurism and pretend narratives—Yesterday I was Marilyn Monroe; today I’m a henna-tattooed Indian yogi; tomorrow I think I’ll be a disco cowgirl—to raise ticket prices. It’s no longer much about the actual music. Because as everyone knows, the art itself never makes you any money. It’s the tours and the merchandise and the peripheral press coverage, the celebrity.
So Amy Winehouse, a dyed-in-the-wool alcoholic and addict with fantastic pipes and something of a knack for songwriting, arrives at 20 years old, just a kid, in the mid-2000s. She’s getting drunk and cutting and starving her body. Of course she can’t agree to go to rehab! Fuckin-A. Her voice is being compared to Sarah Vaughn’s and Ella Fitzgerald’s, which may or may not flatter her and make her aware of her extraordinary potential. What’s important is, she is being called “controversial.” Newsweek is saying she is “a perfect storm of sex kitten, raw talent and poor impulse-control.” She gets this. When poor impulse-control is part of what makes you so top-dollar, what makes people APPROVE OF YOU so much, how can you go to rehab? Rehab is all about regaining impulse-control. It’s all about saying “no, no, no” to things that are going to kill you.
Like, for example, drinking, and smoking crack and ciggies till you come down with emphysema.
Like, making more money at all costs.
I have a couple good friends who enjoy Amy Winehouse’s music. I must admit I’d never heard any of her songs before I listened to “Rehab” this morning. I’m trained in voice, and Amy Winehouse has an amazing gift. The tune is catchy and the words are perhaps more ambiguous and lyrical than they might at first seem. It’s unclear to me, at least, whether the singer in “Rehab” means her lines entirely without irony.
The man said, “Why you think you here?”
I said, “I got no idea
I’m gonna lose my baby
So I always keep a bottle near”
What I notice in the 2006 video for “Rehab” is, she is being produced in the same sleazy way that she performed in her Belgrade concert. She frankly looks like a prostitute. A “slut,” as we used to say in high school. Her lips have been pumped up to porn-star proportions. A year or two later, so will go her breasts.
On Saturday (ironically, the same night Amy Winehouse was stumbling around in Belgrade) I went to a house concert. Stacey Earle, a sister of Steve Earle, and her husband, Mark Stuart, performed a two-hour gig for 40 people. I took a friend of mine who blogs about rock music. He wrote me later:
Their performance was so beautiful and sincere. Her songwriting and his guitar—why aren’t folks like this more ‘successful’ and others like (fill in the blank) fill stadiums? Its not the songs—the songs are BEAST!
I replied, “Others (fill in blank) are more successful IMO because they sell sex and youth.” What they also sell is spectacle. In Amy Winehouse’s case, it’s the spectacle of sickness. Pete Townshend used to destroy his guitars onstage. Amy Winehouse is destroying herself. When you watch her onstage, you get to feel like you’re witnessing the ruination of something beautiful that has become iconic, as though you were present at, I dunno, the ripping in half of the veil in the temple? the self-immolation of the Vietnamese monk?—plus, as a bonus, if you’re lucky and Winehouse isn’t too wasted, you get to hear a bit of beast entertainment thrown in. Same with Charlie Sheen.
Or you can choose to pay to watch Mark Stuart and Stacey Earle, who wears no makeup and doesn’t dye or even style her hair, and who hasn’t bothered to “fix” her crooked teeth (“I think if she fixed them, her entire way of singing would change, and maybe not for the better,” my friend mused), who has a different and equally powerful vocal gift and who is able to play two hours without losing track of her songs or her lines. She’s not dying for approval. She’s not filling up arenas, because why?—she’s healthy and sincere? “Sincerity” doesn’t necessarily make a million bucks. But it makes great music. And when you’re an addict, it might keep you alive.