Obviously, writing about music and the people involved in it means that I often write about death. On my birthday last year I started the day with the less than brilliant task of writing an obituary about Frank Sidebottom, and I’ve written countless other such retrospectives and news stories about the passing of musicians and music industry figures over the years.
But writing about death is one thing, it’s the initial discovery that is usually the most affecting moment. In the case of Amy Winehouse (and this is something I’m slightly reticent to admit, being someone who is supposed to be on top of the news at all times), I learned of her passing via a text from my mum.
I was at ATP’s Portishead-curated I’ll Be Your Mirror festival in London. I’d stopped my incessant checking of Twitter and RSS feeds for an hour, in which time the news had broken. It reached me in four words: “Amy Winehouse is dead”. That was pretty much all the news there was, but it seemed like a lot to take in all at once. Usually there’s at least some time spent trying to confirm if it’s true or not, which eases you into it. This seemed so very definite.
Actually, I was surprised how hard it hit me. I found it more upsetting than the average death of a celebrity I’d never met. I still find it quite upsetting. I think it was partly because I’d always thought she would one day overcome her addictions and make a big comeback. But also, I think it was just because I always kinda liked her. She was funny. And that was the real tragedy; she was both talented and likeable, but became as well, or perhaps more, known for her drink and drug use.
That said, unlike many casualties of rock n roll, her music did prevail. She never got to the stage, I don’t think, where people were going to her gigs just to see a car crash. Audiences weren’t, unlike many who went to see Babyshambles at their ‘peak’, just being voyeuristic. People wanted her to perform, and perform well.
But, of course, there was plenty of voyeurism going on outside her shows. When I first joined CMU in 2008, she was pretty much a daily fixture in the tabloids. She was never that far from CMU, either. It would be wrong of me to suggest we’d been holier than thou when it came to covering her troubled personal life, and particularly her marriage to Blake Fielder-Civil.
With that in mind, you might find the rest of this a bit hypocritical, but I’ve written before about how uncomfortable a lot of the media’s coverage of death makes me feel. Especially when there are unanswered questions. The rush to find answers to such questions in these days of 24 hour rolling news often overtakes the reality of the situation.
Like many last Friday afternoon, I was glued to BBC News coverage of the terrorist attack in Norway. At that point, the horrific massacre of 69 young people was still unknown and the focus was the bomb that had gone off in the government building in Oslo. The explosion had happened less than two hours previously and yet BBC reporters continually asked people caught up in it if they were still in shock. Unsurprisingly, they all were.
Then a government spokesman was interviewed, and quizzed on who he thought was responsible and what sort of bomb it was. Questions he was clearly not going to be able to answer, and thankfully he didn’t attempt to, merely pointing out that the dust hadn’t yet settled and they were still trying to help survivors. Sometimes I wish 24 news channels would switch off when it was clear there’s not actually anything to say.
I’m not trying to draw any comparison between the attack itself and Amy Winehouse’s death, but there was a similarity in the way we grabbed for answers where there were none. To some extent, this is understandable. We’re a curious bunch. But as soon as it was announced that Amy had died, the quest to find out how was on. Speculation was rife, and many media outlets seemed happy to report on any rumour going. But the fact is, we don’t know what happened, and won’t know for sure for at least another month, as a postmortem was inconclusive. Until the results of toxicology and histology tests there will be no answers.
At least, I suppose, that speculation sticks to the topic in hand. It has perhaps been more shocking to see how many websites were comfortable using Amy Winehouse’s death as a means of drawing in Google-searchers to boost web statistics. Websites whose remit does not stretch to the death of a pop star – technology websites revealing that people are talking about her on Twitter, the blog of a men’s magazine publishing a critique of Blake Fielder-Civil’s fashion sense, and (most amazingly) a look at what small business owners can learn from Winehouse’s death.
Reporting on speculation and drifting out of remit is something we’re all prone to do, of course. CMU does it a lot. But we have become a society that craves content and information in greater and greater quantities. We want to own more music than we can listen to in our lifetime, we want news to be constant. I’m as guilty of this as anybody. Shit, I’ve made it my living. But sometimes, I think, a little restraint goes a long way.
Remember, sometimes less is more, and with that in mind I think the NME should be commended for its excellent cover this week.
Originally published on CMU, here.