Even considering that she’s been splashed over the front pages of ‘Metro’ and ‘London Lite’ pretty much constantly since January, it’s been quite the week for Amy Winehouse. The Wino party bus rolled into Birmingham amid the aftermath of husband Blake Fielder Civil’s imprisonment for trial-fixing; that the subsequent tour dates have been ‘shambolic’ is hardly surprising. What is surprising is the fact that Amy’s crowds are still surprised by her on-stage breakdowns, fits of tears and shouting, drugged-up mania and stagey strops such as, lately, hurling away the microphone and walking out in the middle of a cover of the Zutons’ ‘Valerie’. Guys –it’s Amy Winehouse. You pays your money, you makes your choice.
Let me make a confession: I’m a huge fan. Never mind her bizarre hairdo and manic, self-destructive fits. Never mind her drug-use, her obvious eating disorders, her boozy, floozy, shambolic nicotine-diva behaviour. Never mind the fact that she’s a glorious trainwreck. I think Amy’s great.
The simple fact is that Amy Winehouse is breaking new ground. Never before has a female rock star -and Amy is unmistakeably a rock star, despite her sultry jazz-pop numbers – been so badly behaved, so publicly. From Jagger to the Doors to Nirvana to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers to the Libertines, male stars and groups have used drugs, turned up on-stage drunk or not at all, got into fights, trashed hotel rooms, had ill-considered, public love-affairs, and made a great deal of mess for their well-paid managers to sort out. This trend has rarely extended to female stars – in fact, ‘messiness’ of this sort has routinely spelt career death for any starlet with an eye on her own perfume label. Not so with Amy’s, whose lifestyle and cleverly constructed lyrical manifesto are all about hard-drinking, drugs, crazy men and glorious emotional anarchy, served up on a platter of ice-cold cynicism with a vodka chaser. I hardly dare to imagine what an Amy Winehouse perfume would smell like, but I, for one, wouldn’t let it anywhere near my pressure-points.
Stunts like, say, stepping out in blood-soaked ballet slippers are perfectly pitched to subvert the ‘sweet and innocent’ paradigm perpetuated by singers like Britney Spears in the late nineties. Alright, so Amy’s not exactly taking care of herself. She’s openly admitted to having ‘a bit of bulimia, a bit of anorexia’, and seems to be living on a diet of booze, fags and attention. Her car-crash of a marriage, up to and including the latest jail debacle, hasn’t exactly struck punches for female independence; the extravagant, passionate way Winehouse and Fielder-Civil have conducted their love-affair, however, is framed on more than an equal footing: Amy very much wears the trousers (or should that be the ballet slippers?) in this relationship.
She’s clever, non-conformist, and has a wonderful, cynical sense of self-deprecation. I can’t help it. I think she’s fantastic. Winehouse’s summer anthem, ‘Rehab,’ was a rallying-call against the forces of conformity and behavioural pathologisation. ‘They tried to make me go to rehab,’ she belts out with the force and passion of a woman three times her physical size, ‘but I said, no, no, no.’ Strange, then, that ‘go to rehab’ is exactly what newspapers and feedsites across the world seem to be suggesting that Amy do – the press have leapt, drooling, upon every drugged-up appearance, every instance of diva-like behaviour, as a sign that the singer should lie down and line up for institutionalisation like a good little girl.
Funnily enough, noone has yet tried to suggest that Mick Jagger – or any other male musical icon you care to mention – is clinically insane and should be institutionalised for his own good. Amy’s self-destructive non-conformity is much more threatening to a social paradigm that has always been able to cope with wild young men, but still can’t quite handle wild young women, except as charity cases or warning stories. Across the pond, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Lindsey Lohan have jumped on the Catastrophe Princess bandwagon, falling out of nightclubs without their knickers on and being locked up for drunk driving. Winehouse, though, refuses to fit neatly into the box the media have drawn up for female stars gone feral.
For one thing, she’s still very much on her feet. For another, she’s a phenomenal talent: Back To Black, her latest album, was this week confirmed as the top-selling record of 2007. Her music has even made me – me! – hum along to blue-eyed soul, and I normally like my noise with three chords and a man from Belfast shouting. Her lyrics are powerfully raw, emotionally honest; her compositions demonstrate a musical range and a depth of feeling remarkable for a 24-year old from Enfield. ‘Rehab’ ends with a confession that brings an unanticipated lump to the throat of anyone who’s ever been a substance user:
They said, I just think you’re depressed
I said, yeah, baby, and the rest…
It’s not just my pride
It’s just till these tears have dried.
She’s been justifiably lauded as the most important British musical talent to emerge in the past few years. Alright – so Amy Winehouse isn’t a good girl. She’s probably mad, certainly bad and quite possibly dangerous to know. She’s emotionally anarchic, self-destructive and an unashamedly bad role model for clean-knickered young people everywhere. And I, for one, hope that she never starts to behave.