Amy Winehouse's birthday: a reminder of the dark side of celebrity culture and why we should be kinder

If Amy Winehouse hit her career peak in this era, would we be so quick to lambast her for her personal problems?

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Amy Winehouse would have been 40 years old today, another incredible talent that seemed to burn out rather than fade away (to quote Neil Young). Mercurial is probably one of the best ways to describe Amy outside of her family and circle of friends; many of us laughed at her wry sense of humour between songs during her live sets, while we also winced at some of her darker moments - all caught by the press, of course.

In that era, the most salacious events had to be captured on film and then distilled into a headline that touted Amy as a ‘Jack of All Junkies’ to quote one media outlet, to commentary with people describing Amy Winehouse as ‘just a waste.’ We were looking at the likes of TMZ taking celebrity gossip to a whole new level, with a team of news researchers that could rival CNN, and newspaper coverage pivoted from mere celebrity dating stories and what not to wear think pieces to prying into the very private issues people were going through.

I recall housemates with copies of Heat magazine, or some equally cheaper equivalent, poring over celebrity ‘scandals’ such as Paris Hilton getting out of a car sans underwear, or when Lindsay Lohan’s circles of friends slut-shamed her. Amy took a number of barbs also, and it wasn’t merely relegated to tabloids either; the advent of the 24-hour news cycle meant that there was constant coverage of what Amy was up to, what she was drinking that day and the idea that she was the female equivalent to Pete Doherty, another infamous name from that decadent/decrepit era of musicians. 

During our morning scrum, Tom Morton asked me if I felt things had changed in a post-Caroline Flack world where we’re asking one another to be kind. The topic of whether this was a generational change came up - it was a good point; for us of a certain age, we grew up getting our celebrity gossip from newspapers a small news sections. 

The advent of widespread coverage on digital television enabled a whole generation to enjoy that voyeuristic urge that is just inherently human, the whole ‘staring at a car crash while driving by’ notion. Why else was ‘Big Brother’ popular when it first came out, for example? The intricacies of people’s day-to-day lives were something a generation of us enjoyed almost akin to gallows humour - could it be fair to say a generation that didn’t experience that new form of entertainment had a degree more empathy knowing now what we know about mental health and substance abuse?

Is the ‘fair game’ argument fair on Amy Winehouse?

British singer Amy Winehouse leaves Westminster Magistrates Court, in west London, on March 17, 2009.(Creidt: Shaun Curry/AFP via Getty Images)British singer Amy Winehouse leaves Westminster Magistrates Court, in west London, on March 17, 2009.(Creidt: Shaun Curry/AFP via Getty Images)
British singer Amy Winehouse leaves Westminster Magistrates Court, in west London, on March 17, 2009.(Creidt: Shaun Curry/AFP via Getty Images)

There is of course the argument that Winehouse being a public figure meant that she was’ fair game’ to report on, but perhaps in modern times, there would be a more sympathetic take on what the singer was going through, rather than currying interest on how dilapidated her life had become. Schadenfreude for our day-to-day lives that the rich and famous are every bit as human and full of foibles as us regular Janes and Joes. But what these days is fair to discuss and what perhaps isn’t? 

Is it fair game to critique her performances, at times the source of much ridicule in the music press once Winehouse was at her career peak? Yes, of course, it is, you would have to in the realm of being a music reviewer. Is it fair game though to take paparazzi photos of her at her lowest, or choosing just the right moment to get the most unflattering photo while she’s trying to navigate a sudden rise to stardom? Maybe not. 

That’s of course where the division lay in not what was reported about Amy Winehouse, but how it was reported. These days, a celebrity with a drug issue would normally get some sympathetic lines from some media outlets, leaving others to do what they do best - court controversy. Back then, it felt that someone with a substance abuse problem was just merely a ‘junkie’ who should know better.

It wasn’t as if those articles were an attempt to hold a mirror up to Winehouse and to show her ‘you need to sort your life out, please.’ It was more that part of our psyche that enjoyed watching someone rise and fall, only on this occasion, there was no redemption arc. Winehouse died, and the world mourned, but maybe not as much as celebrity columnists, whose bread and butter was haranguing Winehouse to the bitter end - where would their content come from now?

My editor Marina Licht argued that the very thing I am complaining about (hypocritically at times, I am only human after all - we all are, that’s the point) still occurs in the online domains of TikTok and Twitter. But there is a huge difference I retorted between some random person shouting an obscenity out of a car window towards someone, and then a media campaign that felt completely against someone who, let’s be honest, was in dire need of help.

To those who are celebrating Amy Winehouse today, celebrate that wonderful musician who had an utterly wry sense of humour and who I honestly believe just ended up becoming what the media were portraying her as. 

To those who maybe feel a touch of guilt ridiculing an alcoholic with substance problems with no escape from the limelight to try and better themselves, let’s try and be a little kinder knowing full well that empathy towards people who suffered as Winehouse did is something a generation of media consumers can appreciate more than mere titillation. That’s what the echo chamber of social media is for, is it not?