On March 17th, 2009, Amy Winehouse made international headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Charged with assault after allegedly punching dancer Sherene Flash in the eye at a charity event, Winehouse walked into a media circus when she showed up at a London courthouse that day. Paparazzi were everywhere, scrambling to grab a quality shot of the embattled soul superstar. The court date forced Winehouse to cancel her “comeback gig” at the Coachella Music Festival in California, and would not be her first or last brush with the law.
In comparison to our previous cases (D’Angelo and Lauryn Hill), Amy Winehouse has only dropped out of site musically; all you have to do is hit up a celebrity news/tabloid blog site to find the latest happenings in the twisted, dysfunctional world of Amy Winehouse.
Four years after an unprecedented and controversial rise to fame with the masterful Back to Black, It seems that Amy Winehouse is hopelessly lost in a sad, never-ending maze of drugs, violence and heartbreak. The obvious question arises…
WHAT THE F@%! HAPPENED?!
Born and raised in London, England, Amy Winehouse’s interest in music dates far back into her early childhood, when she began mimicking her father’s constant habit of singing jazz standards around the house. Receiving a guitar at the age of thirteen, Winehouse’s powerful contralto vocals and songwriting capabilities developed rapidly, leading to a stint in the famed Sylvia Young Theatre School (before she was kicked out for insubordination and piercing her nose), and later a record deal with Island Records.
Winehouse released her debut album in October of 2003. Entitled Frank, the album was only released overseas, but it made a big impression. Inspired almost entirely by the emotional pain of a failed relationship, Frank is a picture-perfect exercise in jazz-influenced neo-soul (ala Erykah Badu or Jill Scott), showcasing Amy’s incredible voice, as well as her expertly-crafted, humorous and heartbreaking lyrics. Produced by Salaam Remi, Frank would win numerous awards and was a moderate success on the UK Albums Chart; but of course, Amy hated the album. Feeling like her label and management were too involved in the formulation of the album’s sound, track listing and packaging, Winehouse was determined to do things on her terms and on her time with her follow-up.
During the three years between Frank and her next release, a lot of things changed. Along with the development of an eating disorder, Amy Winehouse met Blake Fielder-Civil, unquestionably the love of her life. Fielder-Civil would change the course Winehouse’s life and career, for better and for worse, in the years to come. Their relationship was passionate and tumultuous, lasting only six months, but it sent Amy into a tailspin. And when she reappeared in the public eye to begin promoting her next album, the public saw a very different Winehouse. Previously curvy and voluptuous, Amy was now rail-thin and covered in an assortment of tattoos, including a “Blake’s” tattoo across her chest. Now rocking her (in)famous beehive atop her slight frame and drinking and smoking incessantly, this Amy Winehouse was controversial, unpredictable and fascinating to the British public.
And then there was the music. Released in October of 2006 in Britain, Back to Black was a massive hit, propelled by the incredible success of the iconic “Rehab,” a true story about her previous management team’s failed attempt at forcing her into treatment. Amy left the facility after 15 minutes, deciding that she was simply in the throes of depression rather than addiction, and promptly fired that team; she hired a new manager that would let her do whatever she wanted, both artistically and personally. Amy’s performances were electrifying and intriguing, because of both her incredibly heartfelt vocal performances, as well as her affinity for drinking onstage. American audiences would soon be smitten as well; released in the U.S. in March of 2007, Back to Black debuted at number 7 on the Billboard 200 chart, setting the record for the highest debut on that chart for a British female artist.
Written almost entirely about her breakup with Blake Fielder-Civil, Back to Black is a harrowing journey into the heart and soul of a woman ruined by love, and the negative byproducts of that kind of heartbreak and disappointment. At a time when female megastars (like Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan) were making headlines for their “bad girl” behavior and rehab stints, Winehouse unknowingly captured the pop culture zeitgeist with Back to Black, espousing a tragic glamour and fiery vulnerability that fascinated millions, reaching across cultural and generational divides. Everything about Back to Black is perfect; the intoxicating girl-group pop sound, gritty Motown sensibilities, Hip Hop attitude and heartbreaking realness in songs like “Back to Black,” “Love Is A Losing Game,” “Me. & Mr. Jones,” and “You Know I’m No Good,” mesh flawlessly to create something catchy yet complex, retro but still undeniably modern. By the end of 2007, Back to Black was the best-selling album in the world.
Winehouse was touted as a world class vocalist, a supremely gifted songwriter, and a certified game-changer within the landscape of popular music. And then everything went wrong. Very wrong.
WHAT THE F@%! HAPPENED?!
After reconnecting in the months following the release of Back to Black, Winehouse and Blake Fielder-Civil married on May 18th, 2007 in Miami, Florida, to the absolute shock of her friends, family and fans. It was alleged, and has now been confirmed, that it was Fielder-Civil who exposed Amy to hard drugs around this time, and the results of this are incredibly obvious when examining the events that followed their union. By the mid-summer of 2007, Winehouse’s performances and appearances were growing more and more erratic, culminating in a disastrous month of August, in which Winehouse and Fielder-Civil were photographed running through the streets of London bloodied and bruised, after an alleged fight in their hotel room. Later than month, all of Amy’s touring plans were cancelled after a near-deadly overdose on heroin, ecstasy, cocaine and ketamine.
However, the downward spiral truly began when Blake was arrested for assault and “perverting the course of justice,” after trying to bribe the victim of a bar brawl with over $300,000. Winehouse could have been charged with this as well (as Blake was clearly going to use her money), but reportedly missed the meeting with Blake’s co-conspirators (which was secretly being filmed by London police) because of an Awards Show appearance. With Blake now incarcerated, Amy completely fell apart; she was photographed in December of 2007 roaming the streets of London disheveled, in only a bra and jeans, and later cancelled the rest of a set of incredibly erratic and shambolic gigs, in which she’d reportedly cursed at booing audiences and repeatedly forgot lyrics or stopped singing entirely. By January, a tape had surfaced on the internet allegedly showing Winehouse smoking out of a crack pipe and talking about having done ecstasy and valium. She was immediately enrolled in a treatment program, which she stayed in for all of two weeks, before leaving in order to perform via Satellite at the Grammys, where Back to Black won 5 awards, tying the record at that time for the most wins by a female artist in one night.
Winehouse’s record sales and celebrity soared as her personal life plummeted. But with each drug-induced night of depravity and physical violence (against bar-goers, camera-men, audience members, professional dancers, theater ushers, etc.), the memory of her incredible talent faded further into the background, as the reality of her off-the-rails lifestyle grew more and more apparent. Amy’s appearance went from edgy and sexy to messy and horrifying. Her health problems seemed to get worse and worse every day, with everything from impetigo to the early stages of emphysema being reported. And of course, she has been dead silent artistically.
Today, Amy’s true physical and emotional condition is anyone’s guess. After an extended stay on the Island of St. Lucia, Winehouse seemed to be getting her act together. The new Amy seems to be drug-free (although alcohol remains an issue), her complexion and general appearance seems healthy and positive, and the reports of new musical offerings nearing completion seem fairly credible. But if the reports of reconciliation with Blake Fielder-Civil are credible, we may still have cause to worry.
Of course, Amy Winehouse is a 26 year-old adult and can obviously do what she wants. Her relationship with Fielder-Civil led to an incredible work of art, but it almost killed her in the process.
Hopefully she’ll survive round two.