Maybe this is an odd subject for someone who usually writes about social or political issues. But it is a social issue, in a way. Amy Winehouse died a few days ago. I'm not sure how but the list of guesses is pretty short. And for someone who doesn't really go in for mawkish displays of competitive mourning for celebrities I've never met (the Princess Diana grief-fest still nauseates me), I'm somehow surprisingly sad.
I've seen the predictably bad taste jokes (some of which are funny though, I admit!), but even more than that, various parroted and mis-spelled Facebook status messages along the lines of "who gives a shit?" Dozens of people died in Norway, country X's brave soldiers don't get this much attention, etc. etc. Which is all true. As it's also true that the Norway terrorist incident cost fewer lives than the famine in Somalia on the same day, yet got more attention. That's just the way news works: life in Baghdad still sucks, but it's not news eight years on. Dying African babies was due a headline again 20+ years after LiveAid, but it can't be interesting every day, can it? Unless you're the one whose babies are starving to death, but they don't watch TV...
But the thing is, for some weird reason, I do actually give a shit. Yes, I know she was a serial abuser of alcohol and other drugs. Yes she has made a whole bunch of very stupid life decisions. Yes her dignity was in tatters for years. But as she's dead now, isn't it time to stop calling this woman names? Tragic, foolish...no doubt. But to put it bluntly kicking a corpse seems a bit unnecessary. We've all made our mistakes, had our destructive phases and habits. Personally I used to drink like a fish - I think there's still a stool at the bar somewhere in the Intercontinental that has the shape of my buttocks moulded into it. I took a decision to clean up my act and did so more easily than I ever thought possible. But I had no public eye or media pressure on me - only friends and family - and many true ones who remained constant throughout.
I think it's worth considering how weird a life must be for an oddball musical creative type who finds sudden huge fame at the age of seventeen. After all, would you have been able to take it in your stride? When I was seventeen, I was full of BS just like Amy (but without the talent, obviously...) I was a typical, uncomfortable, hormonal and confused teenager, dripping with obnoxious braggadocio, yet underneath still painfully insecure. Loud and vehement, sarcastic and abrasive, yet completely vulnerable and ignorant. Ms Winehouse seems to have stayed that way all her life, and I certainly kept many of those unpleasant qualities well into my twenties, and even still. Yet I can't really imagine what it would have been like to be immersed suddenly in a world of genuine admiration for what I could do, but surrounded by people who were adding up in their minds just what I could be worth.
One figure who stands out amidst the media circus, and always has in some way, is her father, Mitch Winehouse. I've always been impressed by the dignity and steadfast love he's shown in public. According to him, and to others who knew her, Amy was "all about love" - an affectionate, generous and loyal person. So the sad thing, and I think what really made me think about this at all, let alone write about it, is this: that a woman with all that talent (and what a talent!), with all those qualities, should lead such a troubled and unhappy life, and ultimately end it alone. I somehow suspect that for all her apparent blessings, she didn't have a good friend in the world. Sure, it's hard sometimes to feel pity for someone who seems to have everything - fame, fortune, public adulation - and screws up. But when I try to imagine being in those shoes, it's not so hard to forgive, and pity her I do.
Every society can be judged by how it treats those less fortunate, and for all her gifts, I don't think society has been kind to Amy. The celebrity culture, the ridiculing of morality, the coldness and individualism of modern civilisation, all played their part, and perhaps they always have. That might seem like a strange thing to say, but really, how fortunate is someone with an extraordinary and celebrated gift, with wealth and privilege and millions of adoring followers, if this is the outcome? I am not sure she was so fortunate at all. I think I'd rather be anonymous and loved and mourned by my friends, than known by millions but cursed casually by strangers even after my premature and miserable death.
That, more than anything, is why I'm sad to hear about Amy.