On a Saturday afternoon exactly five years ago this weekend, the sad if not entirely unexpected news broke that the troubled British singer Amy Winehouse had died at the age of 27.
Shock and sadness was soon displaced by something more sinister and ugly on social media platforms, as an unmerciful row broke out about whether Winehouse should be mourned at all. Anders Behring Breivik had just carried out a gruesome lone wolf terrorist attack in Norway, killing 77 at Worker’s Youth League summer camp and a car bomb explosion in Oslo. The United Nations had also just declared the first major famine in over 30 years in Somalia. In the light of these terrible events, some sanctimoniously suggested it was wrong to be upset about a mere singer.
Twitter suddenly became a deeply unpleasant place following Winehouse’s death. An undercurrent of ‘she’s deserved it’ emerged, which not just displayed a shocking lack of humanity, but downright ignorance of addiction and mental health issues. Some people seemingly couldn’t grasp the fact this was someone’s daughter, friend, partner, ex-wife, neighbour, or even fellow human. She was a ‘celebrity’ and a ‘chronic addict’, and therefore seemingly fair game; just another member of that ghoulish ’27 club’ nonsense.
Five years later, the world has made little or no progress in this regard, despite the relentless march of technology. If anything, contemporary culture has polarised and fractured even further. Rather than touching tributes to the beautiful beehive-haired Londoner with the astonishing foghorn voice and cracking songs, there are gossipy headlines about her notorious former husband Blake Fielder-Civil snatching a handbag or claiming Amy was considering killing herself. Even in death, the lurid soap opera of Amy Jade Winehouse is still a tawdry tabloid circus.
Social media conniptions, spats and meltdowns worsen by the day. Celebrity break ups such as Taylor Swift and Calvin Harris degenerate into grotesque online feuds for all to see. On the night of the horrific attack on the Nice seafront, Twitter again clogged up with bile, finger-pointing, consternation and rage. Social media can be very useful, frequently funny and highly entertaining, but it can also be a complete cesspit.
“It’s possible to have a clear attitude towards Twitter if you’re not on it,” an editorial in print and digital culture magazine N+1 said in 2012. “Few things could appear much worse, to the lurker, glimpser, or guesser, than this scrolling suicide note of Western civilization.”
Addiction will always be with us, but attitudes to it are backward and in denial. For all her well-documented hell-raising, Amy Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning rather than an overdose. The coroner’s inquest concluded that she died by death by misadventure, nothing she had five times the legal drink-drive limit and “the unintended consequences of such potentially fatal levels was her sudden death.” Five times the drink-drive limit is much less than a lot of your typical sessions on a Saturday night, even considering Winehouse‘s persistent health issues.
“Drugs and alcohol are not my problem,” Winehouse’s friend Russell Brand once noted about his own battles with addiction. “Reality is my problem, drugs and alcohol are my solution.”
Irvine Welsh made a brilliant point in an article about Joy Division, New Order and the death of Ian Curtis. “To outsiders, the death of a famous youth often provokes both unfathomable tragedy and phantom romance, the latter part amplified by stardom’s iconizing qualities,” Welsh writes. “As you get older however, you see that the real horror of this is just how widespread the illness of depression is, and how devastating it can be.”
The humane and heartfelt response to events like the Norwegian massacre, Somalian famine and Amy‘s death is to feel saddened by them all, but there appears to be some deranged modern fascination with a hierarchy of sympathy and empathy. In the hours and days following Friday, November 13th in Paris last year, people openly mocked, jeered and lambasted others for changing their profile picture to the colour of the French tricolour. The horrible phrase ‘selective grief’ was thrown about with impunity.
On a Saturday afternoon five years ago, I came back from picking up the weekend papers and groceries and checked Twitter – something I now do a lot less often than half a decade ago. While the announcement of Amy Winehouse‘s death had a sad air of inevitability, I was very shocked and upset, and spent the weekend listening to her classic Back to Black album on repeat. I remember driving up to the Dublin mountains on a beautiful sunny Sunday and putting it on over and over again.
My father was sick at the time. He subsequently deteriorated to the extent he died less than a year later. In his final days, when I received a phone call summonsing me his bedside, I fumbled to turn on the ignition to drive over to him. By a weird coincidence, Back to Black by Amy Winehouse funereally blasted out of the car radio.
Rest in peace Amy xxx