We were secular Jewish girls in 21st century London, but Amy Winehouse was our saint. Even before she died, Winehouse was our Lady of Rebellion, an icon of brooding talent and great eyeliner for legions of London teens. She was the intercessor between us and the god of hedonism we were learning to venerate. She was both relatable and achingly distant, triumphant and tragic, horrid and beautiful. And when she died, Amy became our martyr. Her death felt like a personal condemnation.
I vividly remember that summer, all of us sitting in the Hawley Arms, recounting the times we had seen her, or almost seen her, or the people we had known who'd known her. The ladies' bathrooms in the Hawley Arms and the sign for Camden Square are covered in messages to her, reassuring her that "you are now safe in heaven," and quoting her lyrics. One girl even made a pilgrimage to the newsagents where Amy was always photographed buying ice lollies and newspapers with her own picture on the cover. CDs are obsolete, but I still see copies of Back to Black peeking out of nooks in my friends' bedrooms, Amy watching over them from the cover.
Asif Kapadia's new film, Amy, recounts her martyrdom at the hands of the press. Relic after relic of found footage, from her promising childhood to her early death, has been collected and pieced together in a modern hagiography. In her last years, Amy lost control of her own image; her story veered into tragedy, following the contours of familiar narratives.
We love our martyrs now as we did then: for fighting their demons valiantly, before succumbing to them completely. Otherwise, they wouldn't be mortal.
In the Medieval ages, female martyrdom was simultaneously terribly public and terribly lonely. The eyes of the press feasted on Amy's body, battered and bloodied after each altercation. Saints seem indestructible for a very long time, until they prove not to be: St. Catherine of Alexandria's touch shattered the spiked wheel she was to be killed upon, and then she was beheaded. We love our martyrs now as we did then: for fighting their demons valiantly, before succumbing to them completely. Otherwise, they wouldn't be mortal. St. Margaret is said to have been swallowed whole by a demon, before bursting it from the inside out; later, she was sentenced to death. The media portrayed our lady Amy as someone condemned to death long before she died. Despite all the vitriol, she still seemed forgiving of her captors: There are photographs of Amy bringing tea and biscuits to the journalists stationed outside her house around the clock.
But just because you end up a martyr doesn't mean you want to be one. Amy was working on a new album, still singing in her last interview before she died. Saints don't choose their fates, even if they accept them: St. Augustine famously wanted "chastity and continence, but not yet." Maybe Amy could have escaped martyrdom; Kapadia observes that many close to her were aware of how close to the sun she was flying. The frightening possibility is that no one stopped Amy because we needed her narrative to end in that perversely satisfying way, with an awful bang instead of a whimper.
Churches all over London are emptying out, their congregations aging and ceilings deteriorating. But popular piety doesn't die, it just finds new saints.
Now, her image is graffitied all over Camden, her thick eye-shadow, beehive hair, and tattoos making her instantly recognizable, in the same way we might recognize St. Lucy by her eyes or St. Cecilia by her viola. Some of the images present her with wings or an abstract halo behind her, and in these she often appears sad or pensive, cool as the Virgin Mary. Camden has been losing its edge for a long, long time, but thousands of tourists still visit to pay their respects to the 60s counterculture it once housed. With her conscious adoption of 60s imagery, and her subsequent membership in the 27 Club, Amy became the ideal patron saint for the area.
Churches all over London are emptying out, their congregations aging and ceilings deteriorating. But popular piety doesn't die: It just finds new saints. A local estate agent had to start vetting people who asked to view Amy's house because of the number of tourists who made appointments in order to get inside and take photographs. Almost immediately after Winehouse died, flowers, candles, messages, and bottles were left in front of her home and the surrounding trees. Teenagers and tourists gathered there in great crowds. Eventually, Camden council put up an uncanny statue of Amy in Stables Market, to redirect the worship somewhere else. The council keeps clearing the offerings away, but sometimes at night you still see them there: young girls like the one I once was, heads bent before the house, paying silent homage.
Amy is out in US and UK theaters now.
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