Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Karen Heller | The ruin of a talent, shrilly told by tabloids

Black-eyelined soul singer Amy Winehouse is prodigiously talented and perennially wasted, as common a combination in popular music as a driving bass line and thumping kick drum.

Amy Winehouse: Addicted, malnourished, and Lagerfeld's "style icon."
Amy Winehouse: Addicted, malnourished, and Lagerfeld's "style icon."Read moreMATT DUNHAM / Associated Press

Editor's Note: The following column originally ran in the Inquirer on Dec. 12, 2007.

Black-eyelined soul singer Amy Winehouse is prodigiously talented and perennially wasted, as common a combination in popular music as a driving bass line and thumping kick drum.

The difference is that Winehouse is self-immolating publicly, the tabloid appearances more numerous than her concerts. In the rank fishbowl that is the London press, Winehouse has become the Sun and the Star, the Mirror and the Mail.

She's Britain's Britney, with true talent. In photos, she looks distraught and an unwitting participant, so much roadkill making the constant crack-ups all the more painful.

It's hard to sing along to her hypnotic song "Rehab" - "They tried to make me go to rehab, I said No, No, No" - without sensing you've traveled far beyond irony into the realm of distress.

Because Britain has punitive libel laws yet nonexistent privacy restraints, a phalanx of heat-seeking photographers camps out on the stoop catching her in the wee hours in crimson bra and bare feet.

Abuse is a constant in the rock world. Years ago, the specifics were unknown. Stars were demigods, cordoned off from the throngs by a velvet rope of privacy. Artists revealed what they wanted to reveal, which was frequently little. It seemed shocking when icons dropped dead to remain forever 27, even when it happened time and again.

As recently as the early 1990s, Kurt Cobain's woes were cushioned from the public, though his loudmouthed Love was another matter.

The evolving tragedy of Amy shows no signs of quitting. It's playing out daily before us like a slo-mo car crash we're unable to stop. The unfettered access is creepy. It's like we're camped out in her bedroom closet, peeking at every disaster.

Consider this past week. Winehouse was nominated for six Grammys. Her mother, Janis, aiding the circus, published a tortured letter in England's News of the World, perhaps not the best parenting technique. She wrote that Winehouse's jailed husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, "might not be my favourite person" who can "get you doped up." She advises that "early fame has overwhelmed you, it's dizzied you and muddled your mind. For a moment, forget you're a superstar."

That's hard to do when your mum pens a pained letter for 3.3 million readers.

Simultaneous to this wrenched appeal, one of Winehouse's representatives announced: "Amy is thrilled to be nominated for six Grammys and is very much hoping to attend. She is determined to be ready and well for that performance."

And, simultaneous to all this, designer Karl Lagerfeld displayed his fall Chanel collection in London declaring Winehouse his new muse. "She's a style icon."

After all, what could be more fashionable than a malnourished reputed bulimic, drug addict and alcoholic prone to crying jags?

"She is a beautiful, gifted artist," said Lagerfeld, who has never hidden his disdain for larger people, though, until quite recently, he was one himself. "And I very much like her hairdo," known to tower six inches in a distressed rats' nest. "I took it as an inspiration. Because, in fact, it was also Brigitte Bardot's hairdo in the late '50s and '60s. And now Amy has made it her own style."

Lagerfeld sent out pubescent models, some possibly weighing more than Winehouse, with Pisa-listing beehives and raccoon makeup, though Winehouse would never be caught wearing something as bourgeois as a Chanel tweed jacket. She has trouble enough with the shoes.

"Amy," Lagerfeld declared, "she is the new Brigitte."

You root for Amy Winehouse and her considerable talent all the while wondering if, in some way, you aren't contributing to the destruction.

Jimi, Jim, Janis, Brian and Kurt all flamed out in high style and at 27, an absurdly young age, only to be lionized to this day.

In this regard, Winehouse is proving to be precocious.

She's only 24 with six Grammy nods, crashing headfirst into success and despair, with a codependent husband in jail, exhibitionist parents with questionable judgment, and the paparazzi documenting her emotional and physical distress. Meanwhile, a haute designer appropriates her disheveled style and eating issues to market to the elite while proclaiming her the new Bardot.

There is no need for fiction.