What Gives Anyone the Right to Judge Amy Winehouse?


Anyone who’s spent more than five minutes on the internet will know that the YouTube comments section is pretty much the sewer of the virtual world (along with the comments section on this post, obviously). Even so, it was disheartening to see the deluge of vitriol that arrived as soon as the videos of Amy Winehouse’s comeback performance in Serbia appeared this morning. “What a disgusting woman!!!” tut-tuts one top-rated commenter. “Complete disgrace. And she’s trusted as a role model for our youth!” mewls another, deftly playing the “Won’t somebody think of the children???” card. “More like back to crack hahahaha,” giggles another. “I hope she overdoses like the rest of them,” sneers someone else. And so on.

The sense of schadenfreude is almost palpable, and it’s pretty fucking unpleasant. As we said, no one expects reasoned reaction from the YouTube comments section, but there’s been a similarly vituperative tone in the way the whole sorry business has been reported in the press.

There’s certainly a genuine frustration in seeing someone with genuine talent waste it. But generally, such sentiment is notably absent from most media coverage of people like Amy Winehouse. Instead, it’s all salivating coverage of every salacious detail of her latest collapse or stint in rehab, wall-to-wall coverage of a slow disintegration. It’s hard not to get the impression that people are taking more than a wee bit of perverse pleasure this, reveling in the fact that a singer who’s pissed away most of the goodwill and career momentum her breakthrough album Back to Black garnered her is continuing to do just that. People are sitting back and giggling at the spectacle of Winehouse wasting her talent with an inability to get off drugs and booze. Serves her right for being talented and famous, eh? That’ll teach her!

But, wait, why is this any more entertaining than a balding accountant slowly drinking out his days in measures of scotch at empty bars or in a lonely living room? Or the spectacle of the sad, old crackhead who walks in fractured circles talking to herself and has clearly been sleeping on the subway for years? The answer: because Winehouse is what we like to call a celebrity, because we don’t know her personally, because we don’t have to deal with the fact that someone we know is an alcoholic and a drug addict and all that entails.

Clearly, anyone who actually shelled out for tickets in Belgrade to the concert has every right to lambast Winehouse for her performance. The rest of us, though… Well, plenty has been written over the years about the general weirdness of celebrity culture — the way people seem to live vicariously through the travails of the Kardashians and the Hiltons of this world, luxuriating in the drama of their rises and falls. It’s a bloodsport. We love our stars to swig Jack Daniel’s and snort coke and have copious sex because, well, most of us don’t get to do that ourselves. If they don’t, we call them boring and snigger at the fact that they can’t keep a man.

And if they do, we wait for them to fuck up, and then we pour opprobrium on them on the way down. Or maybe we cheer along, because it’s hilarious, right? It’s all harmless fun. But really, what’s remotely enjoyable about Amy Winehouse’s excruciating, ongoing decline? And what gives anyone the right to judge her?

There’s always the argument that singers and sports stars and actors are somehow supposed to be role models (an accusation, curiously, that we rarely seem to throw at people in genuine positions of authority, no matter what sort of shit they get up to), as if that gives us the right to shake our heads when they diverge from whatever image they’re supposed to conform to. We worry that our children might look up to someone like Winehouse, perhaps, and think that hey, being a mumbling alcoholic looks like fun.

But if we’re honest, that’s not the motivation. No one seriously believes a singer like Amy Winehouse — whose songs adorn more dinner party mixes than teenage iTunes libraries — is seen by anyone under 21 as any sort of role model. No, it’s just that the general public likes nothing more than a good train wreck (a fact that’s been recognized by every writer over the last decade who’s penned a op-ed piece comparing reality TV to the Roman circus or an auto da fé or any other metaphor of public excoriation and humiliation). We just love to tut-tut and wag our finger disapprovingly. We can’t get enough of it.

Five years ago, when the news of the singer’s “troubles” first began to bubble to the top of the tabloid press’s oleaginous sludge “journalism,” the Guardian ran a piece entitled “Emotional Carrion,” in which commentator Lindesay Irvine argued that “what is not very well concealed in the closer and closer focus on public figures in distress is the actually murderous bloodlust fuelling the coverage,” and also noted that the public’s pretty much insatiable appetite for such coverage often exacerbates whatever problems the stars we claim to care about are facing in the first place. Boo fucking hoo, you might say — but seriously, think about it. How well would you handle being tailed by the paparazzi day and night?

Five years later, it makes for pretty sad reading to look back over articles like this from the early days of her career, and to look at what she’s become. This isn’t some scripted drama playing itself out for our amusement – it’s a person who clearly has a shitload of problems slowly collapsing before us. Watching Winehouse’s decline is about as much fun as flicking through the Faces of Meth website — and if you think that is kind of hilarious, there’s something just as wrong with you as there is with every other asshole who titters at Perez Hilton and thumbs through the National Enquirer to satisfy that nasty part of themselves that secretly wants to know what terrible things the celebs have done now.

Winehouse’s decline is sad, plain and simple — as is the way it’s been turned into an ongoing tabloid docudrama for the consumption of a public as ravenous for celebrity scandal as ever. As is the way it’s lapped up by the same monumentally hypocritical ambulance chasers who then have the gall to criticize Winehouse for her behavior, for problems that are ultimately the business of no one but her and her close family and anyone else directly affected by them. As Bruce Springsteen wrote years ago, “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.” But what a depressing start to the week.