Amy Winehouse, Michelangelo, and Destructive Genius

Last night, I saw Amy — the critically-acclaimed documentary about English singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse, whose rise to stardom ended four years ago when she died of alcohol poisoning at age 27. It’s a fascinating and heart-wrenching film about music, celebrity, and addiction. When it ended, I thought, I’m not ready for it to be over — and I still don’t know whether I was referring to the movie or Amy.

The documentary raised many questions about the pressures of modern celebrity, enablers of addiction, the fleetingness of life, and — most profoundly for me — the nature of genius.

As I watched Amy’s brilliant lyrics and voice seem to rise directly out of her mental, emotional. and physical brokenness, I wondered: Do you have to be broken to be a genius? 

I firmly believe in Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of needing 10,000 hours to master a skill. Amy Winehouse — and every other so-called genius — spent AT LEAST 10,000 hours on their craft. “Genius” or no “genius” you must work at it to be great. I’m not talking about the work.

And I’m not talking about “talent” either. This isn’t about a spark of creativity or giftedness in a field.

I’m talking about all-out, incomparable, incandescent genius. The kind that cannot be denied.

Do you have to be crazy to have THAT?

It’s a cliche, isn’t it? The damaged artist crumbling under the weight of her own neuroses? But history is littered with such troubled brilliance: Mozart, Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Dr. John Nash, Kurt Cobain, Heath Ledger… The list goes on and on.

But on the flip side, were Aristotle, Galileo, or Shakespeare broken? (Maybe we don’t know enough about them to answer that question. Maybe they were. Maybe they weren’t). What about arguably the most famous genius in history: Einstein — was he “damaged”?

The link between mental issues and genius has been discussed for ages – here’s a great article about what neuroscience says about the link between madness and creativity.

But forget science for a moment…

As I watched Amy rise to the heights of music while spiraling further and further down into her own angst, I kept seeing one of the protagonists from my novel:

Michelangelo Buonarroti.

I am NOT saying that Amy Winehouse is a genius on par with Michelangelo. Amy Winehouse was a jazz singer/pop star with one international hit (okay, one hit album; two hit albums if you live in England). Michelangelo is one of the most famous and influential artists of all time…

But I am saying that I saw the potential spark of genius in Amy Winehouse’s short life — she had the potential to be UNDENIABLE.

And her eyes reminded me of him.

Amy wanted to close out the world — shut out the huge crowds and paparazzi and media attention — and focus on making music. Michelangelo felt the same about marble. He locked himself in his studio, did not eat, and forgot to change his clothes for weeks at a time (so long that when he finally removed his shoes, the skin of his feet came off with his boots). He resented the popes who forced him to paint and design buildings. He wanted to disappear into the marble — like Amy wanted to disappear into her music.

Also, Amy’s despair seemed to rise from her desperation to win the love of her long-absent father. Similarly, Michelangelo spent his life trying to win the love of his father, who thought being a lowly stonecutter was an embarrassment, beneath the Buonarroti name.

Amy was troubled, angsty, and depressed. Michelangelo was difficult, coarse, and paranoid. Amy beat up her body with bulimia and drugs. Michelangelo beat up his body with work — he suffered from back and eyesight problems, and often worked so hard — and ate so little — he made himself deathly ill.

But beyond the brokenness, there is one other way they are similar: Amy and Michelangelo were both extraordinarily passionate, sensitive, and unafraid of showing how they felt. They both put their own struggles and angst into their art for the whole world to see…

Michelangelo’s figures may look like a classical ideal — but don’t you FEEL David’s fear and tension? Don’t you relate to the Madonna’s quiet grief? Don’t you ache for the fingers of God and Adam to finally touch? In his own way, Michelangelo was as open and raw as Amy Winehouse.

And isn’t THAT — that admission of fear and sadness and vulnerability — what makes us all weep in front of the Pieta and sing along to Rehab?

Maybe it’s not that creative geniuses are more BROKEN than the rest of us. We are ALL broken, aren’t we? We all have our demons. Maybe creative geniuses are just more OPEN about their brokenness. While the rest of us are desperately trying to cover up our damage, artists like Amy and Michelangelo are desperately trying to uncover and expose those cracks – so the rest of us can find solace in their art.

Maybe they only appear as crazy as the rest of us feel.

Perhaps that’s the key to genius. Work hard. Have some talent. And be relentless in exposing your own flaws and fears to the world.

Just to be clear, there are also lots of differences between the two artists – including a very important one: Amy Winehouse was an addict. Michelangelo was not (unless you count being addicted to his work).

I suppose you could say that we don’t know how Michelangelo would have reacted living in a world of crack-cocaine and heroine. But Michelangelo was a devout Catholic – he abstained from almost every worldly pleasure known to him, so I doubt if he would have gone down the rabbit hole of addiction. If he had been drawn to it, he probably would have just worked harder to quiet the call.

And in the end, maybe that is the only lesson about genius here. Brilliance — especially the incandescent kind — cannot protect us from the dangers of addiction — and likely makes us more vulnerable to it.

Both Amy and Michelangelo could be called geniuses in their own ways — but only one lived long enough prove it. Michelangelo lived to be almost 90 — leaving the world with the Pieta, David, Sistine Ceiling, Last Judgment, St. Peter’s dome, and countless other masterpieces — while Amy left us at 27, leaving too many songs unsung and the depth of her genius unknown.

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