Amy Winehouse and Cultural Rock Star Death Syndrome - Rituals Week on BTR


Creative Commons Photo: Daniel Arnold

Sadly, the greatest commercial success any artist can attain is to die in their youth while at the height of their creativity. If this is true, then “lifetime achievement awards” are merely a consolation prize for an overstayed welcome.  Indeed, musicians work best from the grave, turning out volumes of unreleased music, consolidating their greatest work in competitively priced packages, and printing their likeness on any and every fabric that holds ink. We need not look any further than the aptly named, “27 Club”, a collection of exceptionally talented artists who succumbed to their demons three years short of a quarter life crisis. Perversely, induction into such a club is more of an honor than anything an artist could hope for while living. Jimmy Hendrix, one of the club’s most noted members, never lived to receive a Grammy, though that hasn’t lessened his status as a rock n’ roll icon 40 years later, nor has it weighted his position atop Rolling Stone‘s  “100 greatest” lists.

27 is a magical age to make an exit because of the unspoken potential a person possesses in their youth. Perhaps, had these artists lived so much as another year they would have produced even better work: chart topping albums and hauntingly powerful performances. At the same time, we can be sure Jim Morrison would have played for ever shrinking audiences as he aged and come to resemble the Mick Jagger of today, or that Janis Joplin’s voice would have diminished into a brittle version of its former self, alongside the likes of Stevie Nicks. Thankfully, this will never happen. The 27 club buries its members in a deep layer of permafrost. Generations of music lovers will harmoniously agree upon each member’s singular greatness. Their music will become mandatory listening for anyone who boasts a true love and appreciation for music.

Amy Winehouse is the latest famed musician to leave life at 27 years of age. At the moment, the events leading to her death are still shrouded in secrecy, but it was likely the cause of excessive living and recklessness. Winehouse’s music had a vintage tone and feel, often drawing comparisons to great female jazz singers such as Etta James and Dinah Washington. As a blast from the past, she would have enjoyed equal success in the 60s, singing music that since it’s birth has become timeless.

Despite many lackluster, if not drunken, musical performances prior to her death, few would speculate whether or not she’d rounded the bell curve of success. Her first two albums, Frank and Back to Black, were a study in the beauty of musical authenticity. She wrote songs about her tumultuous life and sang them with the grit of someone whose wounds were still fresh. Given the sensational tabloid headlines often appearing above photographs of her emaciated appearance, there is little doubt Winehouse starved for musical material.

What made her endearing to audiences was her seeming lack of poise before the media. We saw someone who was unapologetically themselves. Her sudden death was tragic. Even more unfortunate is the glamour associated with her struggle to overcome drug and alcohol abuse, coupled with her uncommon talent. Some critics may dig through history in an attempt to show causation between early death by addiction and remarkable artistic ability despite the wealth of living legends who have robustly entered the latter years of their lives, most notably Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen. But while the music industry and media deliberate upon Amy Winehouse’s legacy, all may agree that it is much better to burn out than to fade away.

Written By: Ugonna Igweatu