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Laurie Penny: Amy Winehouse never, ever let us down

Winehouse was never interested in the normal rules of female celebrity.

We live in a hard, spiteful world that gorges on gossip and outrage and tramples on talent. As the tributes pour in for Amy Winehouse, who died on 23 July at the age of 27, we should remember that throughout her short career, the young singer was bullied by the press for the same vulnerability that made her music so powerful.

Winehouse was always more than an amazing voice. Her songs are as remarkable for their emotional authenticity as they are for the raw, precocious power of her singing. Her breakthrough album, Back to Black, is one of the great records of the early 21st century, and it is sublime precisely because it is about suffering: the ugly intimacies of addiction, the untidy angst of being young and lovesick and desperately unhappy, distilled into something rich, bitter and fine.

In a music industry that seems set on a trajectory of icy, impenetrable perfection, of inoffensive singer-songwriters with cookie-cutter good looks making coffee-table records for the curtain-twitchers of Middle England, Winehouse wore her flaws as brazenly as her 13 tattoos. And she was hounded for it to the point of breakdown.

The gossip press loves nothing better than to watch a young woman fall to pieces. The tabloids scented blood long before Winehouse appeared in public with flecks of it spattered on her ballet pumps, and began to hunt her through the streets of London and New York. Her song lyrics were quoted back at her in endless dissections of her obvious distress, mocking her refusal to "go to rehab" when she eventually did just that. In 2009, she had to take out a court order to stop press photographers from camping outside her house.

With the ethics of the tabloid press under scrutiny, it is worth asking why hacks felt the need, as the science writer Martin Robbins observed, "to pursue so aggressively and mercilessly a talented, but vulnerable, young woman". The day before the Sunday Mirror broke the news of her death, its sister paper sneered about Winehouse's appearance at a gig "like the embarrassing auntie you don't want at a family reunion". The same papers that gloated over Winehouse's deteriorating health and published grisly pictures of the car crash that was her personal life now carry solemn tributes to her achievements. The same papers that called Winehouse fat when she arrived as a fresh young talent in 2003, then gloated over her emaciated appearance as she succumbed to the pressures of fame, are saying how worried they always were about her weight.

A recurring motif of the many articles taunting Winehouse as her addictions lurched out of control was her failure to be “a good role model". Photographs of the "troubled singer" were regularly used to illustrate hand-wringing pieces about how young women everywhere were spiralling into a moral soup of loose-knickered, hard-drinking degeneracy.

Part of the joy of Winehouse as a pop phenomenon, however, was that she was never interested in the normal rules of female celebrity. When asked in 2007 why Amy Winehouse meant so much to me, I wrote that she was the only woman singer who you could never imagine releasing her own perfume - and if she did, you wouldn't want it near your pressure points any more than you'd dab yourself with Essence of Keith Richards.

It should not be the job of every female who achieves success through her own talents to be a model of ladylike good behaviour. Pete Doherty, whose substance misuse has likewise furnished the gossip papers with almost a decade of slobbering disapprobation, was never asked to be a role model. Young women need role models, but we also need artists and icons.

Winehouse was consistently iconic, from her trademark scruffy beehive and eyeliner to the raw soul of her voice. It is one of the many ways in which she never, ever let us down.

Much has been made of how her premature passing places her in the macabre coterie of musicians, from Morrison and Hendrix to Joplin and Cobain, who died suddenly at the age of 27. The superstition surrounding the so-called 27 Club is no more than a tasteless attempt to attach meaning and order to the senseless waste of young talent. Yet perhaps the association will allow Winehouse to be remembered not as a frail addict, but as the damn fine music star that she was.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia