Amy Winehouse’s death was really depressing, and has been sinking in over the last few days (overshadowed as it has been by events in Norway.) I find the online reaction of the “oh, wow, she’s joined the 27 Club” kind ( i.e. that, like Hendrix, Joplin, Cobain etc she died at 27) depressing too. There’s nothing magic about the number, it’s just that it’s far too young. That somebody’s alienation should have succeeded in destroying them at 27 is less romantic, glamorous and bohemian than an indictment of an exploitative system, simultaneously voyeuristic and punitive, that sells people’s creativity like any other commodity. It’s an indictment of the media’s fucking over of a vulnerable young woman who doesn’t fit some sort of idealised notion of womanhood and is therefore fit to be ridiculed and hounded to death. There’s nothing ‘iconic’ about it.
Above all, it’s an indictment of the fucked up attitude to drugs embraced for decades by all the British mainstream political parties, policed by media moguls like Murdoch, who would politically destroy anybody who broke with the “War on Drugs” consensus. I am assuming, by the way, not that heroin killed her but that heroin addiction played a part in her death. Like Billie Holliday before her, people like Amy Winehouse are often self-medicating to control emotional pain. If that leads them into heroin addiction (smack being the ultimate painkiller, both physical and emotional), then they should receive medical doses of diamorphine as was done in the 1960s (when the number of addicts was a fraction of what the policies of successive governments have driven it up to, and the chaos caused much less).
Instead addicts are demonised and criminalised, and are forced to enter a dangerous, criminal world to secure their drugs. They are put at risk from adulterated substances, driven to burglary and prostitution and all too often an early death. It’s not so much the drugs that kills them (pure heroin is non-toxic) as the lifestyle illegality imposes on them. Amy Winehouse had the money to avoid the worst aspects of this but was destroyed anyway. Antonin Artaud argued that a society that had not managed to alleviate the suffering of individuals should not be surprised, nor should it attempt to ban, the substances individuals use to control their pain.
As the pressures of life are exacerbated by economic hardship, more people will seek respite and relief in hard drugs and hard drink. A decent society that cared about its people would attempt to deal with these problems in a humane way and would look to reforming itself so that social pressures were less overwhelming. But of course history ended. This is our new neoliberal paradise, our free market utopia in which all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
So don’t worry - there will be more Amy Winehouses .