*For much of her brief career, the international press treated Amy Winehouse, the troubled 27 year-old British singer/songwriter who died suddenly on July 23, as if being a pop singer was her side job.
To be sure, the press gave the young performer plenty of accolades during her meteoric rise. On both sides of the pond, the media sang her praises.
But as it became clear that Winehouse’s assorted struggles with drugs and men would be played out in plain view of the world, the press realized that in Amy it had the gift that kept on giving: On her good days, it would cover her triumphs as an entertainer; on her bad days, it would be there to chronicle every stumble she made as a human being. Tragically, for Winehouse, the bad days soon outnumbered the good. She became known as a tortured spirit who every now and then performed and recorded.
Of course, you can’t put your business in the streets and not expect the media to exploit it. That’s part of what the media does best. However, it was with a particular glee that the press seemed to shadow Winehouse’s woes. “You won’t believe what she’s done now,” went the collective tease. “She’s at it again,” read the cynical headline over a paparazzo’s catch of the day.
And now, at her passing, the media has done Winehouse a final injustice. It has made her the savior of modern soul.
In perusing early reports of her death, I heard Winehouse alternately compared to such cultural forces as Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. It is true that in death, we are all lovingly transformed. At Winehouse’s untimely end, in some circles she somehow became the sheer embodiment of contemporary black music.
And with all due respect, that’s just not fair.
It’s unfair to those iconic figures in musical history, both long gone and still among us, who, more than merely finding favor among a particular audience, literally helped shape the distinctly American forms known as Soul, Rhythm and Blues and Jazz.
But mostly, it’s unfair to Winehouse, who in the span of not quite a decade and just two albums–including 2007s multi-million-selling “Back To Black,” which featured the wildly successful single, “Rehab”–was more successful on the American charts than any British female singer had been in years.
“Back To Black” earned Winehouse five Grammy Awards. Her worldwide acclaim put the spotlight on a slew of new UK singers, including Lily Allen, Duffy, Leona Lewis, Jessie J and Adele.
That’s a lot of success to own without being compared to the Queen of Soul or anyone else. Were Winehouse here, it’s easy to believe that she’d be the one protesting loudest to the dramatic plaudits. In the media’s sensationalistic quest to puff her up, the implication is that who Winehouse actually was and what she accomplished on her own, isn’t enough.
But then, that’s what the media does: It builds people up, then just as diligently goes about the meticulous business of tearing them down. And then, quite often, it does something else: it earnestly reinvents people and boldly rewrites events, in the process diminishing just how impressive the simple truth can be.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].