Before I dive into the creative lessons I learned from Amy Winehouse, a quick disclaimer.
Every other artist I’ve turned upside down in this series peaked well before Amy had even been born. However, the reason I chose her is not so different from my other selections, who were picked based on a couple criteria:
- They changed the world in some significant way
- There are ample sources to draw information from
Admittedly if there is a missing piece from Amy’s repertoire at this point as it relates to masters of creativity, it’s the unmentioned criteria #3:
3. Stands the test of time.
I’m jumping to a conclusion there, of course. But seeing as the next generation of musicians (Bruno Mars, Adele, Alessa Cara, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Sam Smith, John Legend and others) have already credited Amy for influencing their careers, I believe it safe to say her work will not be forgotten any time soon.
Let’s dig in:
1) Good from Bad
As with many stories of lasting creatives, this is one of tragedy.
Although you don’t have to create a disaster of a personal life in order to have a successful career, Amy navigated many tough circumstances right from the start. Early on, we see a pattern begin to emerge: Amy’s personal life takes a hit, her musical life gets a boost. It is nearly impossible to tell which inspired or caused the other. It seems for Amy that pain and success went hand in hand, twisted snakes spiraling ever downward:
1992: Amy begins to blossom on stage as a teenager — while her parents separate in a blaze of arguments and fighting
2003: Amy releases her first record, Frank, which becomes a huge success — then she has a falling out with her management company and meets Blake Fielder-Civil, the boyfriend with whom she began doing illegal substances.
2006: Amy blows up the music scene with her album Back to Black — simultaneously sinking deeper and deeper into addiction
2008: Amy wins 5 Grammy awards including Song of the Year and Record of the Year for Rehab — but she is unable to attend the event due to health concerns
2011: Amy steps out of her reclusive nature to record with Tony Bennett — and then passes away later that same year
Even after the tragic early death, we see the flip side of that coin as well. Her family created a foundation for young artists likely to fall into similar trappings as the late vocalist. Her brother, Alex, quit his career as a music journalist to do so.
The foundation has worked with nearly a quarter of a million students in the seven years since her death.
Substance abuse claimed one Winehouse. This gave the others incentive to claim a potential 250,000+ from the same fate.
As far as I can tell, it works like this: Fame does nothing more than offer you access to more options. More good. More bad.
It’s just a shame Amy missed a lot of the good.
2) Be Honest
In a documentary released the year after her death, a recording plays of Amy in her young career and an unnamed interviewer:
Interviewer: “So how often do you think about how famous do you will be?”
Amy: “I don’t… I don’t think I’ll be famous at all.”
And then she says:
“I don’t think I could handle it.”
This reminds me of a similar audio exchange I heard with Swedish DJ Avicii, who died earlier this year at 28:
Avicii: “People’s perception of who Avicii is isn’t who Tim* is.
Avicii: “I never really liked being the center of attention”
Interviewer: “You are [the center of attention] though.”
Avicii: “I know, and that’s what makes it weird.”
*Tim is Avicii’s given name*
2 years before his death, Avicii’s health began to decline and he was hospitalized for acute pancreatitis (like caused by excessive alcohol use).
Now, read this next line because it is important:
In Avicii’s documentary, he is seen on a hospital bed working at his laptop on a song.
You read that and think
“Ah, see. He was a workaholic. Look at him, trying to make music instead of recovering.”
I read that and think:
“Ah finally, he’s gotten some space to do what he loves.”
What does that have to do with Amy Winehouse? Everything.
Even as her career began to explode, she swore she never expected anything. She speaks over and over again of “loving to sing,” and “wanting to sing,” but also talks about “never desiring to be a singer.”
It’s unclear from the research, but it’s likely both Amy and Avicii were introverts. All people are affected by environment. Introverts are simply more affected. An introvert will typically flourish more under strong parenting than an extrovert. The opposite is also true. Introverts will be damaged more when surrounded by bickering parents, addicts, greedy label executives, etc.
Were the path available for Amy to become solely a songwriter and backup singer, she may still be alive.
Of course, nobody would know her name.
3) Brand brand brand brand brand
Every time you see Amy, she probably looked close to this: Black eye shadow and big eye liner. Big heels. Slimming dress. Beehive hairdo.
Suggested by Amy herself and realized by stylist Alex Foden, Amy’s look was unforgettable. It became more unforgettable later in her career when the hair got bigger, the heels got caller, and the eyeliner got thicker.
“She was a 5-foot-3 almanac of visual reference”
Quick, take a guess at what Mark Zuckerberg is wearing right now. How about Bill Gates? If Steve Jobs were here, you know what he’d have on.
People are recognizable for a reason. The simpler and more repeatable your brand, the easier it is to remember you.
4) Tragedy as marketing
If there’s one thing America loves, it’s watching from afar as a skinny, good-looking, happy, talented girl spins out of control and into a skinny, high-haired, foul-mouthed wreck.
It’s worth pointing out that the boom in reality television during the time of Amy’s rise gave us explicit permission to watch people fall apart. Popular shows like Survivor and Big Brother created an implicit rule for all media: those who create the most drama get the most camera time. At our most basic level, it’s hard for us to resist the magnetic pull of a disaster unfolding in slow motion.
I’ve said this before, but one of the magnificent things about human beings is our ability to create work which will be here after we are not. Winehouse’s legacy and music may never go away.
This is equally true because of, and in spite of, her early departure.
5) She wasn’t innocent
The point here is not to lionize substance abuse.
At the end of the day, Amy Winehouse was sitting in a pub with her boyfriend, saw him and another friend with bags of cocaine, and made the choice to say:
“Hey, let me have some of that.”
She decided to consume the drugs. She refused to go to rehab. She switched to alcohol once drugs were removed from the situation.
Only a few years ago, that would be all the explanation I required:
A stupid girl made stupid choices.
Now I know that isn’t the whole story. It rarely is with people like her.
6) Genius does not necessitate tragedy
Many times when I am doing research, I will ask myself this question:
“What do I believe to be true and how could I disprove that?”
The allure of tortured genius hangs over our culture like a think, ugly veil. It seems baked into art itself. If you don’t have demons, you can’t make great stuff.
However, I believe this is an exception rather than a rule. Although Picasso certainly dealt out his fair share of damage to those who surrounded him, T.S. Eliot did so less. Albert Einstein managed to go through his whole career without even a brush with a mental hospital (although admittedly his work was so far beyond the realm of what most people were thinking about, it’s possible people accepted his madness).
More to the point, there are millions of creative people who will never make a single negative headline.
Depression is on the rise. Suicide is on the rise. Our picture of mental health in the human race is not exactly admirable at this moment in time.
When Avicii died, I cried. When I began research on Amy, I listened to Back to Black on a loop and sobbed. Demi Lovato overdosed a few weeks ago and while I didn’t cry, I wasn’t smiling.
Every time a creative genius gets into trouble, I take it personally. Amy is my sister. Avicii is my brother. Demi is my cousin.
Creative people surround you every day. They sit next to you on the train. They walk past you getting coffee. They are your friends, your family. They are full of potential genius. They are doing good work, even if you have no idea who they are.
Protect your creative friends. Protect yourself.
After all, we are the future.
Much love as always ❤
— Todd B