Amy Winehouse fans on why her music, personality and presence are still very much remembered.
It was a July afternoon in 2011 when the news that Amy Winehouse had died hit the headlines. At just 27 years old, the multi-award-winning singer was found dead in her flat in Camden, after years of being scrutinised by the media and suffering publicly with drug and alcohol abuse and bulimia. Equally tragic and predictable, her death shook the nation, with fans everywhere feeling the deep sadness of their loss.
As Maddie, a fan who saw Amy perform at Glastonbury in 2007, puts it: “It was really hard to process. She was so young and felt so alive. Even though she was unwell, it was still such a shock.”
A decade on, Amy’s music, personality and presence are still very much remembered. Last year, her album Back To Black was listed in The Guardian as the best album of the 21st century, and documentaries are still being made to mark her life and career, including the 2015 Asif Kapadia film Amy and a new BBC programme featuring her mother, Janis, that is to be released this month. But what is it about her legacy and death that makes it so difficult to come to terms with?
Released in late 2006, Amy’s second album, Back To Black, coincided with the rise of Twitter, Facebook and the iPhone. Though not the first celebrity to be hounded by the press, she was, at the time, one of the most cruelly targeted. Her problems were well documented. Videos of confused and chaotic performances spread instantly online. While vulnerable moments were secretly captured, then widely shared on social media, as well as in the tabloids. In a world that was growing ever more dependent on the internet, the paparazzi worked hard to satisfy our need for constant information. “The world was desperate for more stories about her. People couldn’t get enough,” Maddie says.
Rosa, a 26-year-old fan from Birmingham, agrees that the constant media targeting is partly to blame for the pop star’s downfall. “I make a million mistakes; I go out and make a mess of myself; I’ve had arguments in the street. These are things that a lot of young people do. But not all of us are stalked by the press,” she says. “I think that has made coming to terms with her death all the more difficult. I was absolutely distraught. I messaged everyone I knew. I couldn’t stop talking about it.”
10 years later, Rosa still finds Amy’s passing “incredibly sad”. Describing the artist as her “guardian angel”, she talks of the timelessness of her music. “The poetry and brutal honesty of her lyrics really captivated me as a teenager. Particularly as I was going into young adulthood, the sexual explicitness of her words was so empowering,” she says. “But listening to it now, the emotion and grief in her songs are still so relevant. I was borderline obsessed with what she was writing about, and she is still my favourite writer now.”
It is the complexity of her lyrics, too, that still draws Lizzy, a 23-year-old from London to Amy’s music today. “You don’t find the authenticity she gives very often. It is what makes me keep listening to her. You can’t help but think about what she could have done if she was still with us, and what more she had to offer,” she says. Lizzy admits that she doesn’t think her love of Amy will pass any time soon, with her friends even joking that her room has been made into an “accidental shrine” to the artist, with several posters and candles. “There will never be anyone like her. Amy is difficult to forget,” she says. “But it is upsetting that her amazing music is clouded by her drug and alcohol abuse.”
Though Maddie agrees that Amy’s music has an enduring quality, she thinks the tragedy of her life and death has confirmed her lasting status. “You hear the pain in her lyrics even more now she’s gone,” she says. “When you listen to her music, it is difficult to forget her trauma.”
Comedian Suchandrika Chakrabarti recalls how Amy Winehouse “could make heartbreak into great art” and marks this as one of the reasons she chose to create a fringe comedy piece about the pop star this year. After losing both her parents in her 20s, she wanted to write a show about grief, both on a personal and collective scale. “I thought Amy was a good way in,” she explains. “I remember going to talk to people in Camden Square a few days after she had died. Everyone was wearing eyeliner and drinking and smoking during the day. It felt like a really odd tribute, but there was clearly a lot of pain. The people there found comfort in each other.”
For Chakrabarti, it is the way we mythicise Amy that makes her death so hard to reckon with. “There is something about really famous, talented women that makes them seem insulated from the things mere mortals have to deal with. Of course, they’re not – but, because of this, we make them into legends. As fans, we want to see ourselves reflected in her,” she says.
Despite only ever being in a room with the pop star once, at a concert at Hammersmith Apollo, she remembers Amy’s death as having a “personal effect”, particularly as she seemed to be getting better. “Still,” Chakrabarti admits, “there is something about her lasting presence that makes it seem like she could just turn up tomorrow.”
The audiences at the recent performances of her play, Chakrabarti says, shows Amy’s continued appeal. “I’ve had crowds full of her fans, and that is nothing to do with me. It is all about their love for her,” she says. “People still feel close to her. We feel like we know her. And that is because of how exposing her music is, even today. It is quite fascinating.”
Part of the reason Amy’s death still affects her fans, Lizzy argues, is because of the feeling that “we are all partly responsible”. And looking back, the missed opportunities seem obvious. Should we have kept buying tickets to watch her perform when we knew she was suffering? Should people in the public eye, like Simon Amstell on Never Mind The Buzzcocks, have kept joking about her alcohol consumption when it was clear she was in trouble? Probably not – but in the end, would it have saved her?
Despite her well-publicised eating disorder and substance abuse, Amy Winehouse will always be remembered as a powerhouse in music. Though her life is shrouded in tragedy, it is her unique ability to convey emotion through lyrics that has kept her fan base loyal for 10 years after her death. As Rosa reflects, “She is so appreciated; I still find new things in her music even now.” While we can never really know if anything could have made a difference to her life in the end, what we do know is our memories of her talent are enduring.