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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.

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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war