Not Only The Good Die Young

Amy Winehouse’s death is a sad thing or many people and a tragedy for her family and true friends. Parents outliving their children, for whatever reason, is fundamentally the greatest loss in human existence.

She was a notable pop culture figure, emphasis on that. That that seems to have been sufficient to put her obituary on the front page of the New York Times is sad in multiple ways. Why? I expect this from People and TMZ, they love stars who spray paint their impending, self-induced doom across the cultural landscape, but what editor decided the Times should do this now? This past week also so obits for Lucien Freud and Elliot Handler, two people who have left a huge, deep and permanent imprint on culture (in the case of Handler, he helped create the modern, cultural imagination). Neither was on the front page.

The other sad – to me – thing about such a grand feature on Winehouse’s death is that she was nothing more than a barely mediocre pop singer with a small and quickly forgotten output. The combination of her race, her looks and cultivated image, and her lifestyle, attracted gawkers and opportunities that are few and far between for less perversely compelling figures who also have talent. All the musical skill and production expertise around her could not improve her singing; a small, tight voice that can only express a touch of unearned sass, less range than a New York City hotel room and no phrasing. She can’t even make the short, choppy lines written for her sound very musical.

Ears can hear this, but fashion, infatuation and a self-conscious desire to be ‘with it’ that mostly boils down to buying what the marketers are hoping you find ‘cool’ conspire to help the mind lie about its experience. In live clips, she can barely hold her own with Madonna, who is an awful singer. With the gloss of the studio, she rises to the level of wan and dull.

If that is enough to earn front page notice, I’m expecting they’ve already got a generous space above the fold carved out for when we lose Sharon Jones. Except, of course, they haven’t, and they won’t.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.