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Death Becomes Them: The Post-Mortem Legacy of Cobain and Winehouse

on September 24, 2015, 12:00am

Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Alyssa Pereira looks at Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain and discusses our tendency to let their deaths shape the way we view their lives.

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There is a retrospectively twisted Phil Spector quote that points out the pessimistic way people talk about those who have passed. “It’s like when somebody dies — all the people do is yell, ‘He died, he died,'” he said in 1969. “I yell, ‘He lived.’ A hell of a lot more important than the fact that he’s dead, is the fact that he lived.” The quote was picked up by Greil Marcus in an examination of a lesser-known Amy Winehouse cover of “To Know Him Is to Love Him”, a classic but (some might say) undeserving 1958 hit by Spector’s band The Teddy Bears.

As Marcus says, the record was a soulless product of morbid beginnings — Spector said in an interview long ago that it was inspired by etchings on his father’s gravestone — and played as “a dirge at its most lifelike.” It nonetheless became a hit and eventually caught the ear of the budding Winehouse, who performed the song in a BBC Radio studio.

“With the slightly acrid scratch that sometimes crept into her harder songs dissolved in a creamy vortex, the feeling was scary, and delicious,” Marcus wrote of the recording, adding “each word as she sang it demanding the right to be the last word, or merely wishing for it, the song expanded as if, all those years, it had been waiting for this particular singer to be born, and was only now letting out its breath.”

Many people of a certain mindset have this sort of opinion about Winehouse after her death — the exaltation, the lionization, the bold inferring of genius. Marcus, who reiterated his analysis during a brief lecture he gave at the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s exhibit in San Francisco recently, clearly had a point; the song in discussion is an exceptional work and very much worthy of inclusion in his recent book The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs.

Still, that sort of syntax is common these days when discussing the work of Winehouse. Would we be talking about her like this if she weren’t dead?

The premature death of an artist provokes a dangerous absolution from criticism of their work. Many disengage with the work in an analytical way after this sort of musician passes. Whether that’s due to fear of appearing in bad taste or to developing a postmortem reverence is irrelevant, because the ultimate result is that we halt the discussion about their music. We’re playing the record and hearing nothing but loss. We hear nothing of the life that went into it.

Death is by nature a private event — it’s the most private moment there is, really, as no one but the dying can fully detail the nuances of the affair from the beginning to the aftermath. But for musicians as widely recognized as Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, or Janis Joplin, this exclusive experience is set within the public framework of celebrity. It’s not seen, but it’s clearly understood by the public. The vagueness around the series of events causes a celebrity’s death to take on a nebulous quality.

Both the Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck and the Amy Winehouse exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum ignore the events leading up to the end of the widely celebrated life. In the former, Courtney Love discusses a day when Cobain overdosed on pills and champagne in a hotel room in Rome after, as Love says, she “thought” about cheating on him. He would end up in a coma for 20 hours. The film ends with text adding that Cobain took his own life a month later. There is no mention of any of the events that occurred in the last few days of his life.

An exhibit running at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco is currently offering a sunnier look at Winehouse’s life by displaying her possessions, including clothing, childhood photos, books, and records. Following her death, these things ended up with her brother Alex, who then lent them to two museums (in London and San Francisco) for display. While touching and certainly introductory to a lesser-known adolescent Winehouse (although it was positioned as more of a comprehensive look at her life), the exhibit not only ignores her death, but also her struggles with depression, drug and alcohol abuse, most of her music-writing methodology, and the entire existence of her ex-husband Blake Fielder.

Amy Clothes

© The Jewish Museum/The Winehouse family. Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.

The ostensible idea was that the exhibit would celebrate the artist’s life rather than the artist’s death, and yet it feels like a gray cloud shrouds it in doom. It would not feel so strange were it not for the fact that a large part of Winehouse’s life was spent being very famous, on display for the world, for better or worse. That her death went ignored in the exhibit bred the question as to why someone with a seemingly happy childhood was damned to suffer. The true cause of death becomes a mystery, leading to speculation and gossip: Why did she die? Was it the drugs? Was she miserable?

Death is the most important event in someone’s actuality; to lessen that act is to discount the artist’s life and work and reduce the expanse of their multitudinous existence when the loss is felt.

For example, that Winehouse was watching videos of herself in the last few hours of her life, as reported by her bodyguard Andrew Morris, says something about her passion for work, her dedication to detail, and perhaps also her vanity.

A collection of newly released death scene photos currently being promoted by CBS News on your Facebook page makes use (and profit) of that curiosity, offering a morbid peering into the last minutes of Cobain’s life. But does it do us any good to look at these pictures?

In Western culture, we view celebrity deaths through a unique filter. Studies done on the public following the extensively mourned death of Princess Diana revealed that when it comes to celebrities, we feel our emotions through a proxy. Without having an intimate connection with the actual artist, we conjure a relationship from scratch from their music, interviews, or tabloid photos.

“A creative person opens herself to the world; she allows the world to invade her,” Marcus said when he spoke at the CJM exhibit. “She has the ability to open [herself] to what’s around her.” That openness, that honesty in the work of both Winehouse and Cobain allowed fans to construct fallacious familiarities, and when they died, those false kinships were disproportionately mourned by the public — by people who didn’t actually know them.

Prematurely lost celebrities are loved, mourned, and remembered for what they represent — the troubled starlet, the brooding genius. They become the bespoke fantastic tragic heroes of music. It’s the ideal template of the artist, in a way, one that never realizes their imperfections. The media responds to the aggrandized grief of the public, feeding it. The public eats, and the fever sustains. It feels in bad taste to discuss the artist’s work in any way but positively.

Amy notes
Notes left on the wall in memoriam of Winehouse at the Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait exhibit at The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.

But why? One theory posits that mourning is narcissistic — that people incorporate a loved object or person into their own sense of self. Perhaps we’re able to split the identity of the dead artist into two — the creative mastermind and the depressed junkie — and then disassociate each from the other, casting off the problematic identity. We absorb the former beloved musical genius personhood as fabric of our own identities, and after that, any impetus to criticize or judge the work of that person would feel like a reckless self-attack, so we refuse to do so. As a result, we don’t really talk about their art unless it’s in an affirmative way for fear of hurting ourselves.

This affirmation evolves into a sort of canonizing of the artist. Their work (if not their lives) begins to exist an untouchable vacuum, free from critiques. However, this isn’t useful; in actuality, it seems an insult to the musician by negating their life’s work. Both Winehouse and Cobain abhorred fame and wanted to be taken seriously as artists. It’s likely that neither of them thought of themselves as geniuses, despite the attention. Postmortem, it doesn’t matter.

That doesn’t mean the media treated the two equally. News reports of their respective deaths provide a depressing summary of the disparate ways in which we discuss troubled musicians and their legacies based on their gender. It’s a topic covered thoroughly in other articles (most notably by Molly Beauchemin for Pitchfork), but reiterating the argument is necessary for this discussion.

A report that aired following Cobain’s death painted the visage of a man broken by those who surrounded him. Producers built a case for why Cobain shot himself, citing the stress surrounding the Vanity Fair profile chronicling Courtney Love’s drug use, the box store banning of Nirvana‘s In Utero for its provocative fetus-laden album cover, and a seemingly unreliable doctor who prescribed a too-potent tranquilizer for Cobain’s stomach issues. In the reports that followed, Cobain himself was lionized, described as troubled, but a “brilliant musician and an absolutely incredible songwriter.”

Blame was often hoisted onto others for contributing to Cobain’s death. Love, in particular, is often incriminated — sometimes literally, as in the case of conspiracy documentary Soaked in Bleach — and is frequently criticized for not seeking further help for her husband.

When news broke of Winehouse’s death in 2011, the BBC was quick to the punch. A short breaking news segment was added to live coverage, with the anchor primarily looking down and reading bare facts surrounding the reports of her death. He breaks character subtly to look into the camera with an almost nonexistent simper and say, “Her death is being treated as unexplained,” as if he wanted to say, “We all know how she died. She had this coming.”

In stark contrast to the treatment of Love following Cobain’s death, Winehouse’s long-term boyfriend, Reg Traviss, was rarely even brought up in the discussion about what could have been done to save the pop star, despite reports that they had planned to marry.

One of the other important contradictions to note between Montage of Heck and Amy was the different ways in which the subject was remembered reacting to criticism of their work. In Montage of Heck, Cobain was described several times by Nirvana bandmate Krist Novoselic as someone who “really hated” to be embarrassed by criticism. That an artist’s work would be criticized and judged seems an obvious notion, but Winehouse was never really portrayed reacting to negative reviews of her bad performances. She wasn’t even presented as someone who engaged with the critical conversation about her music as a whole. It seems far-fetched that she wouldn’t have had a stance on what others thought of her work, and yet, while Cobain is depicted as angry or pleased with how music journalists received his music, Winehouse is represented as childlike; mischievous and precocious, but not allowed an opinion at the adults’ table.

Amy Festival Passes
Installation view from Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait, Jewish Museum London, July 3–September 15, 2013. Photo: Ian Lillicrapp. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco

It’s clear that with the evolution of the news coverage over the past several years, it has begun to seem less politically correct to discuss the deceased in depth, which is problematic for the progress of art.

Where is there to go from here?

The easy thing to say is to remember that no art and no music can be immune to criticism, but in practice, the idea of writing about the work of a musician too recently departed in any way but positively can feel like setting one’s self up for a PC firing squad.

There needs to be a shift in the cultural processing of the death of the famous artist — no simple order, obviously — that emphasizes the body of work over the temporal body of the musician. Music is an ephemeral event; its beauty relies on its ability to build a permanent sentiment within its listeners while existing only in transience. It may serve us to remember musicians in that way as well: as artists attempting to leave an immutable oeuvre that will outlive their bodies.

That then leaves us with an unsavory task: to discuss what they’ve left behind and to try to realize the value in the estate of their body of work. It’s our obligation to preserve the integrity of arts criticism, and if we don’t accept the task, the musicians’ most incredible moments are lost in the noise, undiscovered when their entire repertoire is elevated to the same degree.

As Marcus said at the exhibit, artists open themselves to the world around them. In turn, they give the world something. That gift, as perennially tied to the artist as it may be, is ours now, and it’s up to us to understand it and learn from it as well as we can.

Ultimately, any other course of action would be a disservice.

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Alyssa Pereira works for CBS Radio and has contributed to Spin, Paper, and The Bay Bridged. She tweets.

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