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The Real Appeal of Amy Winehouse

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At some point during Amy Winehouse's Grammy acceptance speech, I realized my jaw was agape. I looked over at my signif, and so was hers. Watching the rail thin, strange and sultry singer fight for coherency in front of millions was breathtaking. She spoke like there were pieces missing--like the embodiment of the last few moments of a game of Jenga. God bless her for holding it together.

The whole dramatic scene, along with her ubiquitous presence in the tabloids, makes me wonder how much of Winehouse's acclaim stems from her music. That's not to say I don't like her music--I like it a lot. Her voice is kind of delicious, and you have to admire how she's brought Motown and 50's jazz club sounds to a new audience. But five Grammys? Five Grammys to an artist whose singing was overshadowed by her bizarre attempts at dancing (if you didn't watch, it's probably best described as shuddering). Was she under the influence? Or maybe detoxing? And isn't that part of the appeal?

The United Nations, of all things, certainly thinks so. This past November, their Drugs and Crime Office Chief decried Winehouse for glamorizing drug use. "Rock stars, like Amy Winehouse, become popular by singing: 'I ain't going to rehab,' even though she badly needed and eventually sought treatment." Getting past the obvious "Doesn't the UN have better things to do?" question, I think they're right--in part. Winehouse's success does glamorize drug use, but it isn't all her fault. You need only look at the way the media covers Winehouse to see that we glamorize her drug use. And this is nothing new. The glamorization of drug-addled artists has been going on for a long, long time.

One old and famous example of drug-induced art is Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem Kubla Khan. With the exception of Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, it's probably his most anthologized work. Notably, it isn't very good. Kubla Khan is tangled and unrealized, and while it's strange, it's not particularly interesting. It isn't close to the standards of a writer whom Keats thought was too polished. If you think I'm being harsh, here's what Coleridge himself wrote about the poem:

The following fragment is here published as far as the author's own opinions are concerned, rather as a psychological curiosity, than on the grounds of any supposed poetic merits.

So why is it so celebrated? Put simply, drugs. Coleridge imagined Xanadu during an opium-induced dream. When he awoke, he wrote what he could remember down in iambic tetrameter (it's just what those guys did). Here's the start of it:

In Xanadu did Kubla Kahn

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground

With walls and towers were girdled round:

And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,

Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;

And here were forests ancient as the hills,

Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted

Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!

A savage place! as holy and enchanted

As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted

By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,

As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,

A mighty fountain momently was forced:

Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst

Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail

While Coleridge was writing Kubla Khan, he was famously interrupted by a man from the nearby town of Porlock. He and the poet had to go handle some business. When Coleridge returned, he couldn't remember any more of the dream, depriving us of a Kubla Khan conclusion. This ill-timed man from Porlock has become something of a running joke among writers, reappearing in the work of Douglass Adams, Vladimir Nabokov, and even getting mentioned on Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

The man from Porlock might well have wandered in on Amy Winehouse during her Grammy speech. It would have been a fitting interruption to the same old, but still intriguing, story.

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