Tag Archives: Deborah Curtis

What kind of fuckery is this? Amy Winehouse & the destructive economy of popular music

No-one’s got the emotional tools to deal with being looked at by a million people. Live the dream? Live the nightmare.—Robbie Williams, Take That

There are industry-specific conditions, which tend to target certain kinds of pop workers: singers—frontmen and women—appear most vulnerable. Why the singers? Perhaps because there is arguably a closer relation between their instrument, which is the voice, and the body; perhaps because they are the focus in the band of fans’ attention, and feel the adulation and pressure more; perhaps because the singer is often also the lyricist, who writes the band’s subjective and expressive text. In Laurie Stras’s view, ‘the jazz or pop singer has a privileged and vital role … as an agent through whom identification becomes easier, less intellectual or abstract, more corporeal’.

Pop stardom is an illness that can seriously, even fatally, threaten health and undermine ability; to do well in this career is frequently to be or to get a bit or a lot fucked up. Its workers employ medical terminology to express the condition. His then manager described the unattractive transformation of Ian Dury, following the chart-topping success of the single ‘Hit me with your rhythm stick’ in 1979, as the result of him suffering ‘a very bad attack of number one-itis’.

Deborah Curtis notes that, round the same time, as Joy Division became more successful in late 1970s Britain, her husband and that band’s frontman ‘Ian [Curtis] contracted what was known as LSS (Lead Singer Syndrome)’. Number one-itis and LSS are the medical metaphors that describe the industry’s sheer damagability, which may be focused most on, but is not restricted to, those who make it. The pop and rock industry has a notable capacity to facilitate the ruination of its workers; it’s a high-risk, hi-vis workplace culture where one is never quite safe.

English jazz-pop singer Winehouse’s sung question, ‘What kind of fuckery is this?,  the opening verse line from ‘Me and Mrs Jones’, a song on the hit album Back to Black, contains a startling tabu neologism for a pop lyric—one of the signs of Winehouse’s freshness, her creative innovation, of course—which resonates in the context of her lyrics’ self-dramatising commentary on her life and her love life, yes, but also I suggest on her position in relation to the industry. Back to Black is, after all, the album that famously (perhaps now we must say notoriously) opens with a song and a hit single called ‘Rehab’, in which the young woman, barely into her twenties, recounts, to a fabulous retro 1960s-soul-style dance track, the twin pop lifestyle pressures of health and hedonism. ‘Rehab’ is in fact a refusal of treatment, a rejection of advice, with listeners singing along to its refusing chorus—no, no, no; we are complicit.

The control / rock ‘n’ roll dialectic I discuss elsewhere in Shakin’ All Over when looking at the out-of-control performing pop body is relevant here too, in the context of the industry’s treatment and behavioural expectations of its own lead workers. If we speak the cultural policy language of creative industries or creative economy, we should acknowledge too that there is and has long been a destructive economy at work in popular music.

In the discourse of popular music, and perhaps especially of rock (via jazz), a romantic eschatology has developed and endures, which can in some genres become an extreme and urgent ending, though in others it is melodramatic or pathetic. This is confirmed by the favoured perspective of the media industries on young musical death, in which, for example, as Jeffrey S. Sartin notes in an essay called ‘Contagious rhythms’, ‘popular movies were made about Mozart, Charlie Parker[, Ian Curtis, Amy Winehouse] and Kurt Cobain, not about Aaron Copland (died age 90) or Eubie Blake (died age 96)’.

Live fast, die young. Bird lives. And now he’s gone. I hope I die before I grow old. Time takes a cigarette. Goodbye my friend, it’s hard to die. No future. Death disco. Is there life after birth? Do it, do it. I hate myself and I want to die. It’s better to burn out than to fade away. When we’re dead they’ll know just who we are. I’m just gonna close my eyes. Teenagers scare the living shits out of me. No, no, no.

[extract from Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability]

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Shakin’ All Over, number 3: ‘She’s lost control’, Joy Division (1979)

SAO cover lo resConfusion in her eyes that says it all. She’s lost control. / And she’s clinging to the nearest passer-by. She’s lost control…. / And she screamed out kicking on her side and said ‘I’ve lost control again’. / And seized up on the floor. I thought she’d die. She said ‘I’ve lost control’.

How might neurological and cognitive impairments be not only voiced but corporeally performed in music? According to Manderson and Peake, ‘[t]he injured or diseased body is a body out of control, often at both the cellular and the systemic level, in terms of stability, mobility, and bodily functions’.

I look at a specific pathology in the world of the neuro-diverse, the neurological disorder of epilepsy, which is the most common of the serious neurological conditions—around half a million people in Britain have it, for example. It is an umbrella term for a complex set of conditions—there are over 40 types of epilepsy—with the mutual feature being, according to he National Society of Epilepsy’s website, ‘the tendency to have repeated seizures that start in the brain’, caused by the interruption of electrical signals between nerve cells.

I show that epilepsy is of such interest to us due to its extreme potential within a popular music context as a physical performance of being out of control, what Oliver Sacks in Musicophilia calls the ‘kinetic stutter’ as a form of involuntary dance. For, when fitting, the body may indeed rock and roll.

The link of neurology and music is not a new one, of course: the pathological category of chorea, after all, has its etymology from ancient Greek—dance—and links also therefore with choreography, chorus, choir. Dance, song, disease. In Greek, Latin, and English, neurological disorder is inscribed in the activity of making music and the activity of moving to it alike.

Perhaps we should be considering Neil ‘Shakey’ Young and Ian Curtis, our epileptic stage singers, not as the exceptionals, the curiosities, displaying their control issues nightly before the crowd while they sang of them also, but as the very centre, the nerve centre, of popular music. After all, they are the ones who are shakin’ all over, who are all shook up, who show us that there’s a whole lotta shaking going on; they epitomise it and they embody it.

Although Mitzi Waltz and Martin James state in their recent article on Curtis and disability in Popular Music that ‘epilepsy was never mentioned in any of the band’s live reviews at the time’, a July 1979 gig was reviewed by Mick Middles, later co-author of a Curtis biography, in the weekly British music magazine Sounds thus:

During the set’s many ‘peaks’ Ian Curtis often loses control. He’ll suddenly jerk sideways and, head in hands, he’ll transform into a twitching, epileptic-type mass of flesh and bone. Suddenly he’ll recover. The guitars will fade away…. Then, with no introduction, the whole feeling will begin again. Another song, another climax.

While he would sing of losing control, the audience would watch him seemingly doing it, and the journalist would record it for those not there yet so they would know what to expect when they saw Joy Division. The music press reviews of live gigs were, in Deborah Curtis’s phrase from her powerful memoir about life with her husband Ian, Touching From a Distance, becoming like ‘psychiatric reports’. Curtis was by now sometimes experiencing successive grand mal seizures, without necessarily recovering consciousness between each one—the medical emergency situation termed status epilepticus. Suddenly he’ll recover…. Then, with no introduction, the whole feeling will begin again….

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