How Amy Winehouse's death changed conversations about mental health in music

On the 10th anniversary of the singer's death, a look at whether things might have played out differently today

It was a tragedy foreseen in song. “Now my destructive side has grown a mile wide,” Amy Winehouse sang in 2003. That was long before the album Back to Black brought global fame, before the backstage dramas and the painfully premature end.

On Friday, the 10th anniversary of Winehouse’s death will be marked worldwide, with celebratory shows, plus the requisite revelatory documentaries. Her striking image and traumatic story now tend to overshadow the prodigious young talent. Regrettably, modern life intervened. But would things be different today?

Irish photographer Charles Moriarty remembers Winehouse, pre-fame. He took the photograph that adorns her debut album, Frank, and the two burgeoning talents became firm friends.

A mutual acquaintance brought them together. “He said: ’She hates everything that's been done by the record label,’” Moriarty recalls. They shot in London, then New York, and had fun, “as that pressure wasn’t there, yet”.

But the ambition was already apparent. “In New York, Amy did this whole hair-up thing, the beehive, which was the first time she'd done it for photos. I did ask, ‘Why were the other photos not working?’ And she was like, ‘They're not me.’”

That famous look was a personal choice (“it represented the sound she was creating”), but the narrative has shifted about why things went bad. Winehouse’s hedonistic ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, was the initial tabloid villain. Then Asif Kapadia’s remarkable 2015 documentary, Amy, pointed to callous management and family interference.

Perhaps that path was already in place, though. The lyrics quoted are from the song What Is It About Men, which laments her parents’ separation, apparently an early catalyst for her destructive behaviour. “You can point fingers to people, but – as much as that is the case – unfortunately, Amy was an addict,” says Moriarty. “I think she was in a constant battle with herself. Addiction is cruel.”

Flowers, pictures and messages are left in tribute to late soul music and pop star Amy Winehouse, near the house in north London where her body was found the previous day, on July 24, 2011. Soon after the 27-year-old songstress's death was announced on July 23, fans started gathering in Camden Square, north London, to bid farewell to a star whose songs often reflected her tempestuous lifestyle. AFP PHOTO/CARL COURT

Talking about his early photos of the singer, Moriarty says: “Amy looks probably healthier, but she was not particularly well then. I don't know how long she'd suffered with her eating disorder. There's a lot of different levels, to how she ended up how she did.”

Watching Kapadia’s documentary inspired Moriarty to belatedly publish his Winehouse shots as an acclaimed book, Before Frank, in 2016. “The film broke my heart and I wanted people to see the person,” he says. On Friday those pictures will reappear at the event Back to Amy, raising funds for the Amy Winehouse Foundation and the charity MusiCares. Streamed live from Nashville, Tennessee, the event will include live performances and an exhibition, while Moriarty's images will also be transformed into wearable non-fungible tokens.

Music has changed since 2011, and so has the media landscape. This summer, journalist and broadcaster Suchandrika Chakrabarti debuted her live show I Miss Amy Winehouse, a comedic but cathartic look at how the singer soundtracked her life. “I’m the same age as Amy,” she says. “The older I get, the younger 27 seems.”

Her fate may seem inevitable now, but the media tone at the time was hardly sympathetic, as Winehouse missed shows or messed them up. The cruel jokes and stories are often conveniently forgotten, given what happened next.

“Oh, I remember, I remember,” says Chakrabarti. “As someone who has worked in news, I know that those headlines couldn't be written today. There would be pushback on social media now; rightly so. We're more informed. Amy never felt like a joke to me.”

Quote
I know that those headlines couldn't be written today. There would be pushback on social media now; rightly so... Amy never felt like a joke to me.”
Suchandrika Chakrabarti, journalist and broadcaster

Did Winehouse’s death change things? “With Britney Spears's conservatorship in the news, I think this question is on a lot of people's minds,” Chakrabarti says. “I really hope so. I do think that Amy's story has had an impact on how we look at mental health and addiction now.”

According to research carried out in 2017 by music-focused academics Sally Anne Gross and George Musgrave, Winehouse’s death was a turning point, “a significant moment” for the record industry, with “much soul-searching and discomfort” caused by Kapadia’s film. Their research helped to inspire a dedicated collective.

Music Industry Therapists and Coaches was founded by Tamsin Embleton, a successful live booker who retrained as a psychotherapist and teamed up with mental health professionals with experience of the industry's unique pressures. Embleton’s own speciality? “The psychological impact of touring,” she says.

Tours are often tipping points, even before they begin. Winehouse’s final days included a breakdown caused by imminent shows. Today that trip would surely be cancelled, and support for musicians’ welfare is improving, says Embleton. Labels “are getting involved”, but making mental health a priority remains difficult.

“If someone like Amy was suffering and needed financial assistance for therapy, we currently don’t have a way to help them,” she admits. And Covid-19 is compounding those complaints. “It’s higher in musician populations, too," Embleton says. "[British charity] Help Musicians UK conducted a survey of 700 musicians: nine out of 10 said their mental health has deteriorated.”

Thankfully, bodies such as Music Industry Therapists and Coaches are tackling these issues, and today, artists have more immediate outlets to express themselves. Moriarty echoes Chakrabarti’s view that social media can actually be positive, offering fan support and a place to share difficult subjects. “It promotes the wrong things a lot,” he admits, “but it has given people a voice.“

FILE - In this July 4, 2008 file photo, singer Amy Winehouse of England performs during the Rock in Rio music festival in Arganda del Rey, on the outskirts of Madrid. British police say singer Amy Winehouse has been found dead at her home in London on Saturday, July 23, 2011. The singer was 27 years old. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano, File) *** Local Caption ***  Britain Obit Amy Winehouse.JPEG-00636.jpg

Winehouse’s outlet, originally, was music. In the great soul and blues tradition, her struggles inspired her songs, which now influence new generations. That happened directly to Brittany Butler, from Boston. In 2017, her soaring cover of Winehouse’s song Just Friends won a contest hosted by the Amy Winehouse Foundation. That link “was very emotional for me,” she says. “Channelling her troubles made her one of the few modern artists whose raw talent cut through.”

It is hard to recall a singer from the past decade – and beyond – with such a varied fan base, from cool teens to Sinatra-loving grandparents. Winehouse’s heroes were jazz legends “but she still managed to be distinctly Amy,” says Butler, who has forged a very post-millennial career as a singer and podcaster. “She created something beautiful and new out of something old, while remaining unapologetically true to who she was. As a musician, that’s really the ultimate goal.”

And a decade on, she remains a compelling soul.

Updated: July 23rd 2021, 3:10 AM
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