(Originally Published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
He can only hold her for so long,
The lights are on, but no one’s home.
— Amy Winehouse
It’s a seemingly trite verse lifted from a tune which appears on the late Ms. Winehouse’s sophomore (and, unfortunately, final) album “Back to Black.” Without context, it doesn’t mean much. When examining the all-too-brief life of the woman who wrote it, though, it becomes as searing as her out-of-this-era voice.
The lights were certainly “on” in one way or another for Ms. Winehouse. Five Grammys. International sales certifications named after every precious metal in existence. Top 10 hits in what seems to be every country that hosts broadcast radio.
But no one seemed to be “home” to discipline the young lady with all the accolades. Certainly not Ms. Winehouse herself.
Images of the singer trolling the streets of London, barely coherent, come quickly to mind. This seems to be how the media favored her. She was the celebrity screw-up. The headline disaster that struck once a weekend. An easy target. The butt of the joke. All for being brutally honest about her life, including her addictions to alcohol and crack cocaine.
She was an addict. But she was also one of my biggest inspirations.
Fans know the tragic last years of her life as the “old” Amy. This wasn’t the Amy they wanted to see come out with another album. This was the Amy that whenwillamywinehousedie.com preyed upon; certainly not the Amy I hoped would survive.
The media awaited — and at certain points, even I painfully expected — the breaking news of her death-too-soon.
“I’m absolutely disgusted that her death is receiving more coverage than the tragedy in Oslo,” one of my friends said to me. “People are crying for Amy but can’t even point out Oslo on a map,” he continued, “It’s just proof of this country’s pathetic obsession with fame as well as the total lack of empathy with the common person, albeit in a different part of the world.”
His frustrations have been echoed by many a hipster-Greenpeace-vegan hybrid since the news arrived of Ms. Winehouse’s death. I mean, “anti-establishmentism” is the bees knees nowadays.
It’s not hard to see that Ms. Winehouse was a godsend to many. The fact that news of her death impacted so many people is no fault of the media which is reporting it. If a story is being read, it would only make sense for an outlet to cover it. The public has spoken, and news of Ms. Winehouse’s passing seems to be hitting home with far more than just those “pathetically obsessed with fame”.
News of her death hit me as hard as the first note I heard escape her tiny, delicate frame. I was 16. She was around the same age that I am now. But her voice smoldered with tinges of another era (though it’s done heapings of injustice by any comparison whatsoever) that took me to a place I could experience only by way of headphones and “Back to Black” on repeat.
The time I spent with her music was time I spent getting to know her. Loving Amy was not, for me, about an obsession with fame, as my friend seems to think. When an artist becomes a celebrity because she expresses extraordinary creativity, as Ms. Winehouse did with every song she wrote and performed, she forms a relationship with her listeners. Not only of a consumer-supports-artist nature, but even on a spiritual level.
The darker side of life pervaded Ms. Winehouse’s music. Whether it was in crooning a beautifully subdued rendition of the 1958 Teddy Bears’ hit “To Know Him Is To Love Him” or tackling original tracks like the disturbingly honest “Rehab,” Ms. Winehouse never downplayed her struggles. She needed no safety net, and the public certainly never provided her one.
Underneath the veil of fame was a dark, lonely, self-deprecating human being who placed herself on display through her art. Any fan of hers will tell you that. Her songs are like a diary, written for all of us to read.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m as big of a Britney Spears fan as the next guy, but I’ll never be more than a “fan” of music products like her. We feel safe with products. Ms. Winehouse was anything but “safe,” in both her artistry and her personal life.
She was a danger to herself and no one denies that. But her public struggle made her a shoulder to lean on for so many people she never knew. And it made her death more tangible to those who loved her. Ms. Winehouse’s lyrics touched the similarly afflicted hearts of those who clung to her as the second coming of Billie Holiday.
Many of the hundreds of thousands mourning her death are simply mourning a friend. We’re not elevating her death above the tragedy in Norway; we’re grieving a personal loss that just so happened to coincide with an unspeakable act of terrorism.
As a culture, we seem to have an “I told you so” mentality. Amy Winehouse detractors “aren’t shocked” or “couldn’t care less” about her death, as I gather from countless Facebook postings and conversations with friends. Now that their “prophecy” has come true, the stake needs to be driven deeper. It can’t suffice that she succumbed to a disease that’s little different from a fast food-induced heart attack or smoking-induced lung cancer. We feel the need to keep talking. Like it’s an addiction.
The song “He Can Only Hold Her” continues:
How can he have her heart,
When it got stole?
Ms. Winehouse’s heart may have been damaged and easily stolen in her search for acceptance, but I’m thankful that I was given at least a piece of it in recompense for the part of mine she’s since taken to the grave.
Rest in peace, Amy. I have a feeling the angels will be doing more listening than singing thee to rest.