Do Creativity and Depression Go Hand-In-Hand? Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain

(Photo Credit: Roger Newbrook via Flickr)

I was recently watching the Oscar-winning documentary Amy (2015) about the late British singer Amy Winehouse. Honestly, I didn’t know that much about her until watching this rather heartbreaking film. I’ll admit that all I knew about Amy Winehouse was her ridiculous paparazzi caricature of whirlwind relationships, booze, drugs, anorexia/bulimia, the over-sized beehive hairdo, and untimely death at 27. A rather unfair, I think, media image that far outshadowed her surprising jazz/soul/pop songwriting and singing abilities.

Just watching the film, I gained a newfound appreciation for her talents. Even Tony Bennett, after recording a duet in the studio with her remarked: “Amy Winehouse was an artist of immense proportions […] She was an extraordinary musician with a rare intuition as a vocalist”. I hope that her music and talent shine on further than her short and tragic life, one filled with a broken home childhood, and her struggles with addiction and romantic heartbreak.

Another bright star that flamed out too quickly when I think of Amy Winehouse was Kurt Cobain, who along with other Rock Stars like Janis Joplin, also died at the same age of 27 (the famed “27 Club”). I remember Nirvana breaking out as being a huge breath of fresh air from all the ridiculous, over-the-top, big hair, glam metal bands that were dominating MTV at the time.

Although there was a strong underground of alternative rock before them, it was Kurt Cobain and his band that blew the freaking roof off and injected some distorted, disaffected nastiness into airwaves. Here were just three guys in jeans and flannel shirts; no explosions, no Harley-Davidsons, no scantily-clad babes in the videos- just mosh-inducing riffs and catchy as hell melodies.

But like Amy Winehouse, it seemed the public attention, money and overnight fame were just too much for Cobain, leading to heroin addiction and the finality of taking his own life. Offstage in interviews, he always seemed like a soft-spoken, humble guy who didn’t really sit comfortably with celebrity too well. Also a product of a broken home, he channeled his sadness into his art and music, never really seeking commercial acceptance. Probably, he never even cared if he found it all.

(Photo courtesy of perishparish)

The thought that always sticks in my mind is how so many of the most talented artists among us always seem to reinforce the stereotypical image of depression, addiction and burnout. The better they are- the more problems they seem to have in their personal life. Even fame and financial success seem can’t seem to keep the demons at bay- indeed they often make those demons worse for the few artists who do find great financial success. I guess the instant fame and media circus that surrounded Amy and Kurt’s life just magnified the problems that were already there. Some people perhaps feel things more deeply than others, and for some its just too much.

For myself, playing music has always been my creative outlet for when I’m stressed or feeling blue. It’s therapy, and melts away the troubles of the day. I don’t think I could survive without being able to create something artistic, and it’s certainly gotten me through difficult periods of my life. I’m glad I could always turn to singing, drums and guitar, rather than drowning out the stupid, negative voices in my head with drugs, alcohol or self-abuse. But my heart goes out to those who can’t or couldn’t find that happiness inside themselves. Depression and mental illness are serious problems and those who suffer from them deserve our utmost sympathy.

How about you: does singing or dancing your heart out make you feel better when you’re down? Can happiness and great art exist side-by-side, or do happy people just make boring art?

6 thoughts on “Do Creativity and Depression Go Hand-In-Hand? Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain

  1. Do Creativity and Depression Go Hand-In-Hand?

    answer = NO
    because (#1) we are now & not some illusion of 19th century wilt.
    answer (#2) is yes for drug addition being a depressive & not too helpful for creativity – but it is different than romance and definitely not bohemian.

    one can dance into trance & be lifted from the floor & possably into another realm – these things can help with the ‘work’ of arts need to lift off (& thereby the attraction of drugs & its illusions)

    i have decided to believe that happiness is possable along with being GREAT.

    • Post Author Greg Goldblatt

      Not sure if I understand all your points, but for sure, of course there are happy, positive artists who make great work. One doesn’t need to only be unhappy to be creative. For me, creativity certainly makes me feel better. But, there have been certainly many artists throughout history who perpetuate the old cliche of the “tortured artist”, sadly some very talented ones. And I agree, drug use is not going to help the problem if you are not happy with your self to begin with, and is not necessary at all to create art. Some do find it beneficial though. Just food for thought…

  2. PS. why do we think that depression is a negative & not something to mine as well . LOTS of good/great art is from both the above AND from below.

  3. I too found the documentary about Amy Winehouse so very moving and surprising. Painful as well as she slid down the rabbit hole.
    Channeling the blues and joy into transcendent art, is a gift to all of us. clinical depression is a bell jar that snuffs out all feelings, anger, sadness including happiness, and hence is important to treat.

    having an additude of gratitude and knowing all feelings are like clouds in the sky,passing, can help along with the amazing channeling of feelings into the creative, what a gift!

    • Post Author Greg Goldblatt

      Yes, sad documentary for sure. Maybe if Amy Winehouse had had a more stable father figure in her life and less paparazzi madness surrounding her, she could have handled things better. But for sure, the ability to channel sadness/pain into art is a great gift!

  4. transforming feeling into art uplifts and inspires all. what a gift to use feeling to express joy, sadness, grief,anger,frustration, fury,delight, beauty,All of it and to share it is a treasure chest for the people who interact,see and hear it, are moved by it.

    clinical depression is an illness that surpresses all feelings like The Bell Jar that Sylvia Plath wrote about. it kills joy as well as anger,etc. That is why it is so deadly.
    creation takes place in that “in between Place” where the subconscious can play and be free.Drugs and alcohol take away that inner critic for a time, but leave a coffin full of of great people in their wake.

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