When does the media cross the line between journalism and exploitation? As writers, how responsible are we for the well-being of the people we cover? I can’t answer these questions, though I struggle with them every time I stumble upon an article about how far Scott Stapp has fallen off his rocker or what Jack White puts in his pre-show guacamole. The truth is I love writing about music. I love reading about music. But all the inconsequential gossip that exists in the orbit around music — well, sometimes that stuff bothers me.
It’s especially disheartening because sometimes that stuff fascinates me, too. I think back to 2002 when Kurt Cobain’s Journals were published for all the world to see. My first reaction was one of self-righteous disgust; my second reaction was to buy the book and read it cover to cover. It was déjà vu all over again when Montage of Heck was released earlier this year, and I found myself attempting to justify a morbid curiosity. Well, he’s already dead. How much harm can another documentary do?
Not every celebrity, of course, has the luxury of witnessing their stardom from the grave. Amy Winehouse certainly didn’t, at least not at first. The British singer-songwriter struggled mightily with addiction, drug abuse, and even bulimia — and she did it all under the Sauron-like eye of a paparazzi machine that refused to look away. Every single misstep, every tiny fall from grace was broadcast across tabloid covers and Internet home pages because that’s what the people wanted, and rule one of entertainment media is to give the people what they want. It was hardly a surprise when Winehouse died of an overdose on July 23, 2011. She was 27, the same age as Cobain.
Amy, British filmmaker Asif Kapadia’s new documentary about Winehouse, is not interested in exploiting its subject. Instead, it tries to understand her in a way that few people bothered to before her death. It also seeks to answer the same questions I posed earlier about just how responsible the media is to the people it covers.
Consequence of Sound recently sat down with Kapadia and the film’s producer, James Gay-Rees, to talk about Amy and what lessons it might have for journalists in the Internet age. Our conversation reminded me of the open letter our own Alex Young wrote to Jack White a few weeks back. In it, he admits, “Sometimes we fuck up, sometimes we say and do things we might regret … We try to learn from these experiences for the better.” My hope is that we keep learning, from Winehouse’s story as well as our own mistakes.
There’s a specific line I remember from the film: “‘Rehab’ made Amy a star.” That’s kind of a perversely ironic line, don’t you think? What that song is about — Amy’s very personal struggle with addiction and with drugs — is what the media latched onto, even more so than her music.
Asif Kapadia (AK): Because that was the first time people [in America] had heard of her. Actually, that song was used when Britney [Spears] was having her breakdown. That was the song that all the TV shows used in the background. Before people [in America] knew who Amy was, that song had become the soundtrack to everybody else’s issues.
James Gay-Rees (JG): And nobody had ever written a song about needing to go to rehab. So I think it was just the right song at the right time.
AK: And she turned it into a dance song. I mean, people were dancing to it! It was all very funny and ironic, but in reality, like we show in the film, it was a cry for help. It was also a personal diss against her first manager, Nick [Shymansky]. Nick is the person it’s about — “he tried to make me go to rehab.”
Amy the film pays so much attention to how parasitic the media is, but do you think Amy the person also fed off it and benefited from it? Was some of that attention a positive force, maybe not in her life, but in her career?
JG: I think it’s a really good question because she was a very contradictory young kid. She had a very conflicted approach to lots of things … I think that given her issues, it’s possible to imagine that, on the one hand, it was pretty reassuring and exciting to get that affirmation from media in the first instance. And obviously, if you’re going to play that game, then you’ve got to be prepared for the flip side. I don’t think she had thought forward about that flip side and what the potential downside could be.
And when you throw that song into that dynamic, then you’ve got a very potent cocktail, because then the media goes, “Hang on, if this girl is calling out for help, why is she still getting pissed and falling over in the street?” She became a viable sort of target, even though she clearly was in need of help.
At Consequence of Sound and many other online music publications, so much depends on social media and getting readers to visit our site. A lot of our news stories do involve inconsequential information about these stars and their personal lives. I’m wondering if that culture is really what Amy’s downfall was, as opposed to something intrinsic about her. Is there anything different between Amy and, say, Billie Holiday?
AK: It’s timing. Her bad luck was to be the one who had that experience growing up, to be surrounded by those people and have that kind of talent, all at the same time the media changed and went digital. It’s just bad timing.
She was one of the first people that everyone could talk about [and] turn into clickbait. In England, there was a media war going on between two organizations, and literally they all wanted a piece of her, because if you put her on your website, people would look at it, and she kept giving them something new every day. She was always there to be photographed, and for whatever reason, other people around her let that go on. When I see it, I’m shocked. Why is nobody there? Why is she living on that street? Why are they able to camp outside her house? All of that was happening, and a lot of it was timing.
JG: And then you throw drugs into that mix.
There’s a moment when Amy’s walking up to the stage at the Brit Awards, and all of a sudden the cameras and the applause get cranked way up in the mix. From the audience’s perspective, it’s a sensory overload. The viewer really feels how awful and overwhelming it is in a way that “normal” people don’t often get to experience. Is that something you tried to achieve?
AK: We come from making drama and fiction films, and we don’t think of documentaries as being a lower form of filmmaking than fiction or drama. So the idea is that you use all the tools you have to make the most cinematic movie that you can make. It’s all of that stuff — the sound and the picture and the editing and all of that — together with this really interesting thing with Amy: She’s always looking straight at you.
Right from the beginning, in photos we found of her and her friends, it’s just her looking at the lens. And then Nick gets the camera, and she’s talking to Nick straight in the lens. Then she takes the camera and starts talking to herself … The whole thing is very much a direct response. At one point, when she’s fighting the people taking the pictures, she’s really fighting us, trying to punch the camera. The references when we made these films weren’t necessarily [other documentaries]. For that section, for me the reference was Raging Bull.
So you tried to capture something visceral — something physical — about what it was like to be Amy.
AK: What’s it like when someone is punching you, and you have the old-fashioned cameras going ch-ch-ch? That’s the thing, you’re basically trying to distill what it would be like to be her.
JG: A lot of her friends were saying it was petrifying. You’ve got no idea. You’re being chased by, like, 50 big guys literally pushing each other over. When we went to Cannes recently, we had our own little photo shoots, and even that is quite overwhelming … to be literally chased down the street by the people, I think, is genuinely very scary. And she was tiny! A tiny little creature.
AK: The whole thing, it’s almost to show that fame and all of that — it’s not that great. It’s not all that it’s cooked up to be. Just be aware. It turned out to be this horrible experience for her and some of the people around her, but other people were kind of loving it and living off it.
I wanted to talk about the media’s responsibility for what happened to Amy. There’s a specific moment in the film, the Spin photo shoot, where she’s posing with this broken shard of glass and kind of cutting herself. I kept thinking, “Wow, the media is almost creating this narrative of self-destruction.” I mean, they were certainly feeding it.
AK: They gave her a mirror to smash!
Yeah, and she’s holding the shards at her stomach. It’s almost a parody of self-abuse.
AK: It’s “rock ‘n’ roll.”
How culpable do you think the media is for what eventually happened to her? And, in general, what does responsible music journalism look like to you?
JG: We would love for this film to basically give people pause for thought in the UK. Now, in retrospect, it’s pretty clear you’re dealing with someone who had mental health issues at some level. She clearly wasn’t in great shape, but it became completely acceptable — whether you’re a late-night chat show host or a tabloid headline writer — to say whatever you wanted in order to sell a newspaper. Hopefully, we can now see that this was totally inappropriate. A line was crossed.
AK: But the most popular newspapers in the world are the tabloids, and the most popular websites are the ones with the most photos of people you can click on … It’s the industry, and it’s the consumer, and I think that’s the thing. It’s the fans who were buying tickets to see her when she was not well. It’s the people egging her on and buying her a drink in a pub in Camden, so they could say, “I had a drink with Amy Winehouse.”
But do you think they’ve been set up by the media?
JG: If they didn’t have those things to watch in the first place, then it wouldn’t inform the way they see them.
AK: But it’s not simple. It’s everyone.
I know it’s a hard thing to balance. We do longform features and reviews and have some great content on our site, but that stuff will get a fraction of the clicks that some throwaway celebrity news story will.
JG: I have a 14-year-old daughter who lives on her phone, just basically ingesting shit all day. And you’re fighting a losing battle. I mean, we had a school talk the other day, and the teachers basically said, “You know, that’s her reality. When she’s in the classroom or even when she’s at home having supper with you, she’s stepping out of her reality into you.” And that’s really right, and I think it’s why there’s going to be a massive backlash against Steve Jobs, because he’s fucking created an entire generation of screen addicts.
JG: I’m serious! All the time my daughter is saying, “Look at this photo,” and it’s of some totally minor celebrity you’ve never heard of being sick all over themselves. And it’s like, “Stop looking at that rubbish!”
AK: I’ve got a friend who’s a well-known photographer in England, and he’s about to do a magazine that’s only available in print. I think there is some point where, if you really want to [create] those kinds of articles, you have to find the people who will actually physically get the thing, keep it, and read it. Because online, people don’t have time to read that 10-page thing.
JG: It’s that temptation. There’s always something better to go on and read.