“Please don’t touch the display, miss.” The security guard had already warned me twice, so I snapped some pictures and quickly moved on. Inside the display’s glass was the drum kit Dave Grohl played in Nirvana’s third album, In Utero. It was part of the Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses exhibit at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture—which was the reason I was visiting on an unusually sunny Saturday afternoon in March 2013. My fear of flying means I travel only if there is something I really want to see, like my mom, or the sweater Kurt Cobain wore in the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video. I visited the exhibit multiple times while I was in Seattle, along with the other destinations on the “grunge vacation highlights” spreadsheet I carefully researched and compiled before my trip.
On my last day in Seattle, I still had one big item left on my sightseeing agenda: the house where Cobain died in 1994. The idea of visiting the spot made me uncomfortable because of the morbidity attached to it, but like many other Nirvana fans, I was also curious. In the end, I decided I would regret not seeing it, so I mapped my route to 171 Lake Washington Boulevard East and, because I am a total cliché, listened to In Utero on the walk from my hotel.
The house Cobain died in sits on a hill in Seattle’s posh Denny-Blaine neighbourhood and overlooks Lake Washington. He lived there only for three months, with wife Courtney Love and their daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, purchasing it for $1.48 million (US) in January 1994. Some fans labelled Cobain a sellout for living in a four-bedroom, five-bathroom house in a wealthy neighbourhood where his neighbours included Starbucks CEOs and tech bigwigs. He famously sang, “Teenage angst has paid off well,” and judging from his house, it certainly had. Fans who felt betrayed that the “crown prince of Gen X” was living large would have preferred he still lived under that bridge in his hometown of Aberdeen, Washington. Whether he actually lived there is a matter of debate, but it’s part of the mythology the singer told reporters and immortalized in songs like “Something in the Way.”
The house looked smaller than I remembered, having seen pictures of it on the front pages of newspapers and accompanied by Kurt Loder voiceovers on MTV following Cobain’s death in April 1994. Beside the house is Viretta Park, which was turned into an informal Cobain memorial park. When I visited, the space was mostly grass, a few trees, and a wooden park bench covered in Cobain-related graffiti, my favourite scrawl being “Hole Was Better.” There were a few people milling around: a couple taking pictures of the house, two German tourists reading the bench graffiti, and some young guys from Japan who parked their rented Volvo in front of the park, rolled down the windows, and played Nirvana’s cover of “The Man Who Sold the World” on repeat. We made small talk about what a great songwriter Cobain was, which I found ironic since they were blasting a song Cobain didn’t actually write.
I have thought about that afternoon in Seattle many times over the years. I remembered spending hours camped out in front of the television in the days after Cobain’s death, afraid to leave the room to use the washroom or get a glass of water, for fear of missing a detail. I waited for magazines to arrive on newsstands and collected them all, from People to NME to Rolling Stone. Friends joined me in front of the television. We read each other stories about Cobain from the newspaper and rolled our eyes whenever newscaster Dan Rather attempted to explain “the Seattle sound” to us.
Amy Winehouse was also on my mind a lot during my Seattle visit. The British singer died on July 23, 2011, of alcohol poisoning, at the age of twenty-seven. Social media and the internet announced the news twenty minutes after her body was found. It would be another forty before news channels broke the story. Winehouse soon became a trending topic, and I remember googling her name to get confirmation. It’s an all-too-familiar pattern now. A celebrity trends, and we fear the worst. Dying in the age of clickbait meant that the headlines highlighted the cause of Winehouse’s death. “Too much alcohol,” said the New York Post, while others frequently referenced her “downward spiral” and the singer’s “tragic death.”
It’s hard to avoid drawing comparisons between Winehouse and Cobain. “The interplay between Ms. Winehouse’s life and art made her one of the most fascinating figures in pop music since Kurt Cobain, whose demise in 1994—also at age 27—was preceded by drug abuse and a frustration with fame as something that could never be escaped,” wrote Ben Sisario in the New York Times. They both shared the childhood trauma of divorce, subject matter that found its way into their songs and which they frequently downplayed when reporters psychoanalyzed their lyrics. “Grunge is what happens when children of divorce get their hands on guitars,” Newsweek said of Cobain’s music. The singer frequently addressed his frustration with talking about his childhood in interviews and his lyrics. “That legendary divorce is such a bore,” he sang in “Serve the Servants.”
Both Winehouse and Cobain had a complicated relationship with fame, resenting their success once the whole machine got too big. The singers didn’t want all the fancy things their hit songs and sold-out shows afforded: they just wanted to play music. “My music is not on that scale. Sometimes I wish it was, but I don’t think I am going to be at all famous. I don’t think I could handle it. I’d probably go mad,” Winehouse says, in the 2015 documentary Amy, of her pre–Back to Black status, describing fame as a “scary thing.”
They both also altered the course of music and pop culture, although Cobain is much more acknowledged for his contributions. They used drugs and embraced what others viewed as dysfunctional relationships that were often blamed for their downfalls. Cobain and Winehouse died too soon and from tragic situations, joining the 27 Club of famous musicians and artists whose lives ended at the same age—a club whose membership includes Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Janis Joplin, although the male members are remembered far more often. “Why is she not remembered, talked about as much as any guy who died by himself in a motel? She was left behind as quickly as they could,” singer-songwriter Rickie Lee Jones said of Joplin in the 2022 docuseries Women Who Rock.
While I appreciate the similarities between Winehouse and Cobain, they end when I think about how the two are remembered and how we talk about what killed them. Addiction comes up frequently in the context of Cobain, both when he was alive and after his death, but he was treated as a passive participant in his drug use. Excuses were made for why he took drugs. He used heroin because of the pressures of fame, because of stomach problems, because he hated his bandmates and the music industry. In contrast, Winehouse was vilified, blamed, and mocked for her addiction, and this treatment continues twelve years after her death. We turned Winehouse into a spectacle and then were shocked when she died.
“The tortured genius, the hellion libertine, the martyr dying for the noble cause of nihilism—this is what we usually mean when we say ‘rock star,’ and we’re always on the hunt for fresh blood,” wrote Steve Kandell in a Spin magazine piece days after Winehouse’s death. How we treat that fresh blood varies, with the tortured genius being a very gendered concept. In life and in death, Cobain was the voice of a generation, a slacker idol whose contributions remain celebrated. Winehouse, throughout her life and beyond, was a mess: a paparazzi target whose struggles were portrayed as bigger than her trademark beehive and always overshadowed her talent.
Winehouse’s sophomore album Back to Black was released in October 2006. It followed Frank, her critically acclaimed 2003 debut which sold 1 million copies in the UK, was nominated for two Brit Awards, and was shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize. Back to Black was not only the best-selling UK album of 2007, with sales of over 1.85 million copies, but also one of the best-selling albums in UK history, sandwiched between Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Adele’s 25. The album’s lead single, “Rehab,” went to number seven on the UK singles chart and number nine on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US. It was named the best song of 2007 by Time magazine and was number seven on Rolling Stone’s 100 Best Songs of 2007.
At the 2007 Brit Awards in February, Winehouse took home the British Female Solo Artist award and was nominated for Album of the Year. While she may have won big at the Brits, later that year, the media focused on cancelled tour dates amidst rumours that Winehouse was drunk and couldn’t play shows. Bookies started to take bets on whether she would show up for concerts and be able to perform. A few months later, a clip from a video of the singer smoking crack was broadcast by the tabloid the Sun.
A year after the Brit Awards, the fiftieth Grammy Awards were held in Los Angeles. Winehouse was still waiting for a visa, so she performed from a stage in London. She became the first British woman to win five Grammys, including Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, Best Pop Vocal Album, and Best New Artist. While I have often compared Winehouse to Cobain, there’s no contest when it comes to the number of Grammy wins. Nirvana has one Grammy for Best Alternative Music Performance for MTV Unplugged in New York. Cobain’s suicide also took home “Bummer of the Year” at the 1995 NME Awards. Bummer, indeed.
“A perfect storm of sex kitten, raw talent and poor impulse control” is how Newsweek described Winehouse in a March 2007 piece, later saying she is “as well-known for her sharp tongue and alcohol-fueled antics as she is for her emotive soul music.” When she died, the Washington Post commented that “the more Amy Winehouse drinks, the better she sings,” which was not an opinion everyone shared. While Winehouse won big at the fiftieth Grammy Awards, there was one award she didn’t receive: Album of the Year. Back to Black was nominated but lost to River: The Joni Letters by Herbie Hancock, an album that was not only a covers album but sold significantly fewer copies than Back to Black. “Evidently, the most conservative voters—and there are a lot of them—got too distracted by her image problems to see that she created a classic,” said Entertainment Weekly music critic Chris Willman of Winehouse’s Album of the Year loss.
Her “image problems” were definitely the topic of post-Grammys conversation. Singer Natalie Cole, who, along with Tony Bennett, presented the Record of the Year Grammy to Winehouse, questioned whether she should have won given her drug and alcohol problems. “We have to stop rewarding bad behaviour. I’m sorry. I think the girl is talented, gifted, but it’s not right for her to be able to have her cake and eat it too. She needs to get herself together,” said Cole. “I don’t think anybody wanted to be giving awards to somebody for a song about not wanting to go to rehab,” said Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis, adding, “that’s only funny if you don’t have to go.”
Winehouse entered a rehab facility prior to the Grammys, but that shouldn’t have mattered, and her wins would not have been such a hot topic if she were a man. CNN was outraged and asked whether Winehouse should have been banned from the Grammys. Showbiz Tonight wondered if Winehouse was just “another star being rewarded for bad behaviour.” I thought about this outrage when the 2022 Grammy nominations were announced. The list included a homophobic comedian (Kevin Hart), a transphobic comedian (David Chappelle), an abusive comedian (Louis C. K.), and an abusive musician (Marilyn Manson). At the time, Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. said, “We won’t restrict the people who can submit their material for consideration. We won’t look back at people’s history, we won’t look at their criminal record, we won’t look at anything other than the legality within our rules of, is this recording for this work eligible based on date and other criteria.” Louis C. K. went on to win Best Comedy Album at the 2022 Grammys. Chappelle took the honours in 2023.
Even the United Nations weighed in on Winehouse’s addiction issues. In a newspaper piece, UN Office of Drugs and Crime executive director Antonio Maria Costa talked about how Winehouse and her drug use set a bad example for others struggling with addiction and also undermined the work of celebrities attempting to raise awareness of the problems in Africa, a continent tied to the UK’s cocaine supply. Winehouse’s representative, rightfully, told the UN to stay in its lane. The Grammys controversy may not have been good for Winehouse, but it helped sell records. Post-awards Back to Black went from number twenty-four to number two on the Billboard 200 chart. Consuming Winehouse’s pain was fine but awarding her for it, well, not so much.
“This past year, Amy Winehouse, 24, has gone from being one of pop music’s most ascendant and celebrated talents to a tragicomic train wreck of epic proportions.” That’s how the singer is described in a 2008 Rolling Stone cover story by Claire Hoffman. The cover featured a picture of Winehouse and the headline “Up All Night with Amy.” Rolling Stone really distinguished itself with its headlines for Winehouse. Here are a few:
The Diva and Her Demons
Up All Night with Amy Winehouse
Amy Winehouse’s Death: A Troubled Star Gone Too Soon
The Tumultuous Life of Amy Winehouse
We get it, Rolling Stone. But it’s unfair to single out the publication. Its coverage was similar to the majority of the stories about Winehouse. They referenced tabloid tales and were accompanied by photos of a dishevelled and drunk Winehouse roaming the streets in blood-stained ballet slippers. Reporters talked about drugs, romantic affairs, and run-ins with the police. Jokes were made about her self-harm, bulimia, and addiction.
It wasn’t just the press that joked about Winehouse. Internet trolls and late-night comedians also mocked her. On a 2006 episode of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, a British game show, the host joked of Winehouse: “This isn’t even a pop quiz show, it’s an intervention.” A joke by comedian Zoe Lyons about Winehouse’s self-harm was publicly voted funniest at the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe. Three months after Winehouse’s death, actor Neil Patrick Harris displayed a meat platter called “The Corpse of Amy Winehouse” at his Halloween party buffet. Apparently, Harris thought recreating a gory-looking Winehouse out of chicken sausage and pulled pork, complete with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, was hilarious. A corpse of meat is gross enough, but specifically making it Winehouse, and labelling it as such, is next-level misogyny.
While every detail of Winehouse’s addiction was obsessively chronicled and consumed, Cobain’s addiction was less documented. Some of this difference can be attributed to the fact that Cobain rose to fame in the pre–social media, pre-TMZ days when it was easier to believe the narrative he was pushing, but not all of it can. Cobain often dismissed his addiction, and he frequently changed stories and timelines to suit his interests. Journalists believed Cobain’s fiction and covered for him, often because they feared they would lose access to Nirvana and its singer but also out of respect and admiration for the male singer. “He’s been suffering from a long-standing and painful stomach condition—perhaps probably an ulcer—aggravated by stress and, apparently, his screaming singing style,” read a 1992 Rolling Stone cover story on Nirvana. “I walked up to him. He was glad to see me and said that he liked my Rolling Stone story,” wrote Michael Azerrad in a 2021 New Yorker piece on his friendship with Cobain. “In retrospect, I can see why: the article served his purposes. I quoted an anti-drug speech he gave—which he seemed to think let him off the hook for using drugs.”
This was a common story angle in the ’90s. Cobain wasn’t using drugs: he was just sick with something. When his heroin use was exposed, it was justified because it was said to make his crippling stomach pain better. But the drug rumours increased as Nirvana’s fame rose. Music magazine Hits published an item about Cobain “slam dancing with Mr. Brownstone,” which was code for heroin. Later, a profile in Bam mentioned that Cobain was “nodding off” and noted that his “pinned pupils, sunken cheeks and scabbed, sallow skin suggest something more serious than mere fatigue.”
At times, Cobain denied drug use, saying he didn’t even touch alcohol because of his stomach. “My body wouldn’t allow me to take drugs if I wanted to, because I’m so weak all the time.” Journalists were more than happy to promote his version of events, even when the signs continued, including the nodding off in Spin magazine cover shoots and interviews. He called drugs “a waste of time” and spun tales about how he didn’t use them or had previously used them for a short time but then quit.
“Last year, Cobain also made a clean break of his long-rumored heroin addiction, claiming he’d used the drug—at least in part—to opiate severe, chronic stomach pain. Or as he puts it in this interview, ‘to medicate myself.’ He’s now off the junk, and thanks to new medication and a better diet, his digestive tract, he says, is on the road to recovery,” read a 1994 Rolling Stone interview.
After his death, media continued to gloss over Cobain’s addiction issues and depression. In her April 1994 Spin cover story, writer Gina Arnold talked about Cobain’s mythologization. “The fact, for example, that Cobain was clinically depressed—a fact that is self-evident from his actions, and a condition that ran in his family (two of his uncles also committed suicide)—has been overlooked in favor of stories about his symbolic importance.” The LA Times remembered him as “a reluctant hero who spoke to his generation.” Drugs don’t come up until the eighth paragraph of the piece. When Winehouse died, the paper wrote, “Amy Winehouse Dies at 27; Iconoclastic British Singer-Songwriter.” The photo caption described the singer as “troubled,” and drugs came up in the fourth paragraph, with comparisons to other male members of the 27 Club popping up in the second. The New York Times referred to Cobain as “the hesitant poet of ‘Grunge Rock,’” Winehouse? “British Soul Singer with a Troubled Life.”
When Nirvana’s ground-breaking album Nevermind was released by Geffen on September 24, 1991, the label’s president, Ed Rosenblatt, called it “one of those ‘get out of the way and duck’ records.” The album’s impact has been documented widely, from how it killed hair metal music to how it put the Pacific Northwest on the map and how it voiced the dissatisfaction of an entire generation. To date, it has sold 30 million copies, making it one of the best-selling albums of all time, and in 2021, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” surpassed 1 billion streams on Spotify.
I wish we talked more about Winehouse’s impact on music and female musicians, specifically how her success made it easier for unconventional women to achieve success: women who had their own voice and style and didn’t fit the traditional pop music mould. Following Back to Black, record companies signed Adele, Duffy, Lily Allen, and Florence and the Machine—unconventional female artists who all found success. “Amy Winehouse was the Nirvana moment for all these women,” said Spin’s music editor, Charles Aaron. “They can all be traced back to her in terms of attitude, musical styles or fashion.” Instead, the LA Times obit helped set the tone about how she’s remembered today, noting her “gaunt and ill-kempt” appearances, her “run-ins with the police, missed or aborted shows and struggles with addictions,” and her stay in a London clinic specialized in “treating psychiatric, drug and alcohol problems.”
Pieces on Cobain’s death often searched for answers, trying to make sense of why the singer took his own life, even though there was no shortage of clues in interviews and song lyrics. Even twenty-nine years after Cobain’s death, the fascination with his last days continues. Timelines, books, and movies—both fictional and not so fictional—attempt to explain the singer’s motivations. The movies range from the respectful—like Gus Van Sant’s 2005 Last Days, which the director claims is definitely not about Cobain (wink, wink)—to the tabloidesque Soaked in Bleach, told from the perspective of Tom Grant, a private investigator hired by Love to search for Cobain after he jumped the wall at Exodus treatment centre a few days before his death.
With Winehouse, there was little tracing of her final days. Instead, we seemed to be counting down to her inevitable fate. The conspiracy theories around Cobain’s death prove people don’t want to believe their idol killed himself: they don’t want to admit it or take him down from their flannel-covered altar to see him for what he was—which was a flawed and messed-up human who also happened to write really good songs.
Acknowledging his flaws doesn’t discredit his talent. For Winehouse, the flaws long ago outweighed the talent.
One of the best films about Cobain is 2007’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, directed by Brett Morgen, who was given access to the singer’s archives and previously unseen material. The film was also made with the blessings and support of Courtney Love and Frances Bean Cobain. “It was time to examine this person and humanize him and decanonize these values that he allegedly stood for—the lack of ambition and these ridiculous myths that had been built up around him,” Love told the New York Times.
“He’s larger than life and our culture is obsessed with dead musicians,” said Frances Bean Cobain in Rolling Stone. Like her mother, she wanted Morgen’s documentary to chip away at the romanticism associated with her father. The film dispels the myth that Cobain was a slacker who didn’t want fame, showing notebooks with lists of labels demos were sent to, to-do lists, and numbers for bookers and venues. The movie shows his sense of humour and love for his wife and daughter and also shatters the long-held belief that Love got him hooked on drugs. Oh, and, spoiler alert, he wasn’t actually from Seattle.
“Even though both deaths were motivated by depression underscored by narcotics and celebrity,” wrote Molly Beauchemin in a 2015 Pitchfork essay about Cobain and Winehouse, “Montage depicts a context in which the public was willing Cobain to succeed, whereas Winehouse, when confronted with similar drug-addled obstacles, was met with ridicule and slander.”
In January 2023, it was announced that a new movie about Winehouse’s life, Back to Black, was in the works. (The movie is scheduled to be released in 2024, which also marks the thirtieth anniversary of Cobain’s death.) When photos from the set were released, social media immediately said no, no, no. Tweets called for people to boycott the film or bluntly said, “This is fucking revolting.” Actress Marisa Abela plays Winehouse, and scenes show her dishevelled and distraught, with tears and smudged eye makeup. In other words, they show a talented woman, reduced to a caricature, whose struggles will once again be available for us to consume.
Excerpted from Girls, Interrupted: How Pop Culture Is Failing Women by Lisa Whittington-Hill from Véhicule Press. Copyright © Lisa Whittington-Hill 2023. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.