No need to explain the background to this particular feature: if you’re a music fan, you’ve no doubt heard the news that British jazz singer Amy Winehouse passed away on Saturday, at the tragically young age of 27. Since then both the internet and old-media mouthpieces have been lit up with continual mentions of the ’27 Club’.
For those unfamiliar with this particular cultural meme, the 27 Club is a collective term for the group of legendary musicians whose lives ended at that age: Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison among others. It’s a concept which is often talked about in mythical, almost admirable terms: these people were the true ‘martyrs’ of rock and roll, ‘refusing’ to grow old and stale, living forever in a romanticised bubble of youth, vigour and creativity. Cobain himself once mentioned a strangely prophetic desire to become part of this club. As certain factions of today’s youth might put it, to become part of the 27 Club can indeed be considered ‘epic’.
Well, you know what? Screw that.
You can frame it any way you like, but the fact remains: for a creative and talented individual to die before they even hit their 30th birthday is a damn shame, and all the silly glamorisation of the concept isn’t going to take that away. Yeah, sure, Hendrix, Joplin and Winehouse may live on through their music, but most sane people would much prefer them to live on by, y’know, still being alive.
Yet within minutes of her death, Twitter was abuzz: Amy had joined the 27 Club. She was part of the mythical pantheon now. Part of musical history in a unique and special way.
The fact that all these musicians died at the age of 27 is a coincidence, nothing more, and dragging them together under some arbitrary umbrella bracket is both trivial and grossly disrespectful. It may not do so intentionally, but it holds these figures up as ‘icons’ for the wrong reason – and promotes and maintains the idea of being a self-destructive mess as something to aspire to.
We’ve touched on this issue before on the BAMM blog, but nothing raises it more powerfully than the death of Amy Winehouse: that rock and roll ‘excess’ is often unthinkingly viewed as hilarious, party-boy behaviour, encouraged even beyond the point at which it strips away a person’s talent. God knows, this writer isn’t a particular fan of Pete Doherty, but seeing all sorts of lackies and hangers-on fuelling his quest to get ever more wasted is never a pretty sight.
But who cares: because destroying yourself is cool, right? It’s nihilistic and awesome. Shit, it makes you just like that guy from Fight Club and stuff! Hence Kurt Cobain gets comic books written about his life, in which he appears as a weeping, majestic angel; the spirit of rock given beautiful flight. Yeah, all very nice, but let’s not forget the fact that in the midst of Cobain’s death, a little girl was left without a father, eh? Fun fact: shooting yourself doesn’t make you the ‘martyr for a generation’. It makes you dead. Wastefully, horribly, pointlessly dead.
UK newspaper The Guardian was recently guilty of this abstract glorification. When Amy Winehouse performed in Belgrade a short while back, she was booed offstage, as she was a slurring, shambling, susbstance-addled wreck. But that didn’t matter – because it was deemed ‘rock and roll’. Fast forward to last Saturday and we get all manner of tribute pieces lamenting the fact that ‘no-one helped Amy’ and that music industry culture ‘encouraged her excess’. Hypocrisy much?
Let’s remember Winehouse for her music, not for becoming part of some made-up cultural ‘phenomenon’. And – like a young Kurt Cobain – if you have a talented friend who expresses their desire to join the 27 Club, send them to a f**king doctor. Help them out. Stave off their dark impulses, rather than encouraging them. And hopefully look forward to years of creativity and great art to boot.