Amy Winehouse at Lollapalooza Chicago, August 2007. (Roger Kisby/Getty Images)
Last month, Miley Cyrus took to the stage at England's Glastonbury Festival and belted out a cover of Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black." It felt appropriate given that Cyrus was sharing the stage that day with Mark Ronson—the man who produced the original track for Winehouse, as well as the album that spawned it. Miley's rendition was a fist-in-the-air take on what the BBC recently referred to as "the millennial 'I Will Survive'."
It was impossible not to notice how far removed this version was from the original. In Amy's hands, "Back To Black" was agonizing to the point of being an audible ache. In Miley's, it was merely a defiant singalong. It was a sad reminder that, though she only died eight years ago, the gulf created by Amy Winehouse's absence is still so enormous, it actually feels like she's been gone for much longer.
Part of the reason for that is just how impossible it is to keep Amy's spirit alive. All of the things that made her such a compelling performer and human were perfectly intangible, and simply cannot be replicated. Still people can't stop trying. Since she died, there have been endless murals, biographies, tribute acts, merch items and covers competitions. None of which have come even vaguely close to capturing the detonative clash of raw sensitivity and streetsmart wise-assery that Amy barreled through life with. Eulogies have a tendency to gloss over people's sharpest, most uncomfortable edges, and pop culture loves to paint stars who died young in only the most tragic of lights. Amy Winehouse is dealing with both in equal measure.
She is not the first legend this has happened to. Eventually, all musicians who die too soon fall prey to the public's desire to mythologize them, but the process reduces them to their most memorable selves; shells devoid of the complexities that made them great in the first place. What we're left with is Jimi Hendrix kneeling before a flaming guitar; Kurt Cobain in blue flannel, crying at the side of the stage; John Lennon, naked and fetal, clinging to Yoko.
Arguably, Amy has been reduced to bare essentials at a faster pace than her predecessors, probably thanks in part to the fact that she was a Halloween costume before she even died. The tattoos and the eyeliner and that stack of beehive hair piled onto too frail a body—Amy hid behind these things in life, and they are concealing her in death too.
In 2014, on what should have been Amy's 31st birthday, a bronze statue in Amy's honor was unveiled in her North London neighborhood of Camden. The likeness was good and the hair flower was real, but, by its very nature, it reduced Amy to her physical signifiers—which in a larger sense, is about the biggest disservice we could do her. One couldn't help but feel that Amy herself—self-deprecating and lacking entirely in airs and graces—might have found the whole thing somewhat preposterous. One of the funniest things about interviews with Amy was her inability to suffer fools and sycophants. This statue is a magnet for both.
Ironically, our memories of Amy have also been muddied by the Winehouse family themselves, in their repeated attempts to tell their own versions of her story. An exhibition her brother Alex put together, Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait, featuring a collection of Amy's personal effects, toured the world, appearing at San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum in 2015. Her father Mitch released a book titled My Daughter, Amy in 2013. Her mother Janis released another, Loving Amy, A Mother's Story in 2016. The family has even backed the controversial Amy Winehouse hologram currently in production.
Arguably, since her passing, the closest anyone has come to bottling and preserving Amy Winehouse's true, multi-faceted self was 2015's Amy. The film distinguished itself by pulling zero punches, effectively documenting both the majesty of Winehouse at work, and the horrifying consequences of her most self-destructive impulses. It caught her sharp wit and her selfish side; her sensitive core and the caustic walls she put up to try and protect herself.
Some scenes also served to show some of the uglier realities of the relationship between Amy and her dad. In one now-infamous moment, Mitch brings a TV crew to Saint Lucia even though his daughter is trying to recover outside of the spotlight. After he chastises her for being rude to two fans who wanted a picture, she says "I don't want to be made a mug [fool] out of, dad." Sound engineer, Shomari Dilon comments in a voiceover: "She just wanted her dad and he didn't just come by himself. He came with cameras and audio guys." After the movie's release, Mitch Winehouse insisted that this depiction of him was "misleading." But it's hard not to recall it every time he makes yet another public appearance to talk about Amy or endorse something related to her.
The sheer number of people who have produced tributes to Amy Winehouse in the last eight years speaks volumes about how much she's still missed, and how much money can still be made from her. Arguably Amy would be best served posthumously if the world simply followed the instructions she left us. She told journalists repeatedly throughout her life that she would like everyone to just focus on her songs. In one early MTV UK interview, she said: "The more people see of me, the more they’ll realize that all I’m good for is making music."
Before Amy Winehouse died, I had been in the habit of listening to Back to Black daily. After her death, I abruptly stopped and shelved that record for a full five years. In the immediate aftermath of her loss, listening to the more searing moments of the album—in full knowledge that there would never be a happy ending—was simply too dark. I tried to engage in other ways but they too felt uncomfortably masochistic. (It took me 20 minutes after the Amy documentary had finished to stop crying long enough to get out of the movie theater.)
In the end, for me, the solution to keeping Amy Winehouse's spirit alive was the very simplest one—I just returned to the music with fresh ears, and made a concerted effort to remember how it felt the first time. Going back to the start was the easiest way to erase everything that had happened in between—the substance abuse, the relationship drama, the sanitized, simplified version of her we see so often now. Back To Black and Frank are the only things we know for sure represent how Amy Winehouse wanted to be seen by the world, and they are a more realistic reflection of her than any hologram ever could be.
Try as other people might, the only person who was ever any good at telling Amy's story was Amy herself. Only her albums can do that now. We should let them.
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