Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Girl Interrupted at Her Music


I have a confession to make: I am worried about Amy Winehouse. I really don't mean to be. It's not like we know each other personally. I haven't seen her live shows. I've never even listened to her album. But Yahoo! bombards me (almost daily) with the latest "news" about her young, damaged life, and what can I say? At my worst, I am a product of my culture. Our cultural obsession with the husky-voiced, tattooed, British, ancient-Egyptian-eyeliner-sporting, big-bee-hive-flaunting brunette is as contagious as it is distressing.

The first time I heard the catchy/overplayed/problematic song "Rehab," I tried to shimmy along to its hypnotic horns and drums, but I couldn't keep the beat. The lyrics threw a shard into my groove. Winehouse's suggestion that the word "black" was an appropriate substitute for "junkie" made me cringe. I also found myself thinking: "What if this isn't just a facetious party song? What if this is a danceable suicide letter?" A year later, I am convinced that the controversial hit single was indeed a cry for help.

Seriously, the woman is breaking my heart. I think of her the way I would think about a crazy ex — that is, I think of her mythologically. Amy Winehouse The Legend. Amy Winehouse The Addict. Amy Winehouse The Racist. Who is she, really? Amy Winehouse The Event is eclipsing Amy Winehouse The Musician. As an artist, I find this catastrophic. I want to be known for what I dared to create, not for how badly or how often I messed up. We barely remember that Amy Winehouse The Drunken Husband-Beater is also Amy Winehouse Five-Time Grammy Award Winner.

I feel an icky combination of helplessness and fascination when I watch YouTube clips of her super-stoned performances. I feel guilty for consuming endless documents of her path to self-destruction. She is simultaneously unintelligible, sparkly, fragile and brazen. It's like watching a proverbial train wreck in progress. She is a disaster I cannot prevent, a tragedy I cannot take my eyes off of. I imagine this is what people felt when they hung out with the brilliant but doomed visual artist Jean Michel-Basquiat or Marilyn Monroe. Elegant decay. You watch, but not because it's charming or because you feel entertained. You watch like it's a sad documentary. Something horrible is happening in the world, and you are transfixed. Amy Winehouse The Epidemic.

Is it an epidemic? All these rich white starlets "going wild." The ever-present paparazzi. The endless scandalous photos. Against my feminist will, I find that glamorized violence appeals to my morbid curiosity, especially when I'm standing in the checkout line at the supermarket.

I know people like Amy Winehouse. I know artists — some forgotten, some famous — who are also addicts. They are complicated and have not yet started the process of recovery. They are shiny denial. Gregarious and charming. Hilarious and outrageous. Self-involved and hard-loving. They are tricky, flirtatious and a strange kind of beautiful. They are unpredictable and predictable at the same time: you never know how badly they're going to screw themselves over, but you know it's coming. Any minute now, it's coming. You hope they'll dodge it, but it's coming.

My newest play, Expatriate, is about women, addiction and fame. Perhaps I keep thinking about Winehouse because she is an unfortunate case study in how closely related these subjects sometimes are.

Some people think "artist" is synonymous with "self-destruction." But I want to know how we can help addicted artists recover. What can we do to support those who have the impulse to self-destruct? How can we help addicts develop a will to live (cleanly)? Girl, Interrupted author Susannah Kaysen wrote: "What is it about meter and cadence and rhythm that makes their makers mad?" What can we do to promote artistic sanity? Is that an oxymoron? Artistic sanity? Do you think the music would be as good if the musician weren't so troubled? I do. My partner tells me that John Coltrane achieved genius after his "spiritual awakening." This was his term for getting clean.

There are already too many people making fun of Amy Winehouse, so what gentle words would you offer to her if you could? What would you have said to Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday, Dorothy Dandridge or Dinah Washington? How can we encourage musical icons to be the best, living humans they can be?

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