It’s not the thing to vilify someone just after they’ve passed. But against that grain I’m going to be critical here of Amy Winehouse who died last week. It’s not her music I’m condemning but her demeanour which I think undermined her credibility. She was diminished as an artist in my view because she didn’t hack it. She didn’t have the grit to face down her addictions and really push through when it mattered however bad she felt. She didn’t keep the show on the road.
It’s an old ethic in the business that anything less than comatose, the gig goes on. It goes on especially if you’ve been given enormous rewards for little more than cobbling together a small collection of pop tunes. Real artists really do the work. They do it even when the going’s tough - especially when the going’s tough.
Winehouse was too much the waster. Clearly she had a musical spark and could come up with back-of-the-envelope song sketches. But a crafter she was not. She depended on the talents of producer types, guys who have the staying power for artistry. Mariah and Britney were constantly marked down for needing substantial input from others. There’s nothing wrong with that and let’s not forget Amy Winehouse was not a self-contained artist either. Like Lily Allen she caught an early break and became part of a successful team. Any talent can have a hit record with some luck but having the mettle to build a career against the trials and pitfalls, to take the knocks and scrapes, to endure the meltdowns and failures, to live with the attendant emotional problems, the difficult relationships, to endure all that and still perform, still produce, still be able to bring the house down, that’s the real deal, that’s the true artist.
Amy fell short. She couldn’t match the moment, couldn’t be bigger than her problems and just do the work. She came apart in a spaced-out haze cancelling a tour and leaving thousands disappointed. That’s not an artist. That’s a casualty. There are creatives whose personal lives are totally shot who will still get up there and give flawless performances and you would never know their troubles. Lennon was depressive throughout much of The Beatles. When he was tripping out at home on the couch indulging a plethora of addictions he still got off his arse when it mattered, even just to save face, to match McCartney song for song. Laurence Olivier went through crippling stage terror, night after night on the brink. But the show went on as it does in the theatre where the ethics of professionalism are deeply hewed like military discipline.
Such is the artist’s integrity. Such is the gallantry at the heart of the performer. You do it despite everything. You do it no matter what even when no one wants it which is the hardest do of all. Winehouse was lucky that way. Early in the game she became very much wanted and had a captive audience, a luxury afforded only to the few. She wasted it. Had she rallied, had she battled through, had she kept her edge, kept doing work that befitted her considerable vocal talent then that would have made her heroic. That would have made her an artist worthy of the title.
written 2011 just after the singer's death