Amy Winehouse, whose minor 2006 hit "Rehab" was not at all ominous or even cheaply faux-ironic on your Twitter feed the other day, celebrated her 28th birthday September 14 by playing a small show in her native London. Winehouse, whose personal life hasn't really given entertainment reporters much to go on, released a modestly successful follow-up album and has lately performed on the club circuit to a legion of devoted fans, who are not sure what Ms. Winehouse does with her free time. Cats, maybe?
Said one tabloid reader, "I have no idea who that is."
What's strange about Amy Winehouse's death -- what makes me, at least, feel extremely uncomfortable about the knowing way it's been covered, the "Could she have been helped? Was fame too much? What would she have been without the drugs?" variety of celebrity self-help-at-a-distance article -- is that her looming presence in the public consciousness was inflated and eventually maintained mostly by the prospect of her eventual breakdown. Where does sadness stop and complicity begin when public demand and the press's desire to fill that demand turns a talented, extremely troubled singer into an extremely troubled public figure?
Amy Winehouse the boring 28-year-old club singer who lives in an apartment with cats could have produced the same music, died in a cat-related accident, and gotten perhaps a day of back-page coverage. The press-public-marketing feedback loop didn't make the real Amy Winehouse a drug addict and it probably didn't accelerate her death, but it's managed to obscure the fact that hundreds of thousands of people who never heard "Rehab" all the way through, let alone Frank, were interested in Winehouse, at the end, only because she had become a story -- a face that stumbled around in pictures and forgot the words to songs, whatever those words happened to be.
That's a disservice. Winehouse's personal demons as they intersected with her music were interesting and relevant, given her insistence on playing that self-destructive character in songs and interviews. Winehouse's personal demons by themselves, as they were over the weekend, make me wonder what we really want out of our artists, besides column inches.