The Importance of Being Amy: Amy Jade Winehouse, 1983-2011.
Amy Winehouse, for all the typically Machiavellian marketing behind her early development and signing, was an atypical star to launch, even before the drink, drugs, bisexuality, tattoos and self-harm and sprawling domestic disharmony on the streets of Camden set in. 2003 was a year of slickly manufactured, crowdpleasing pop anthems spawned by reality tv or established industry hit machines: Britney, Christina, Avril, Beyoncé, Sugababes, Rachel Stevens, Girls Aloud. In this climate, Winehouse’s debut Frank, an engagingly personal and subtly powerful blend of jazz, soul, dub and heavy drinking, stood out as an album of grit among gloss, accomplished and ambitious, recalling the eclectic and impeccably imperious style of Dinah Washington and Nina Simone.
Equally, despite her status as a product of the Sylvia Young and Brit stage schools, Winehouse was hardly manufactured, having been a genuinely talented singer, guitarist and songwriter from a young age. The lyrics she produced and her delivery of them were cool, critical and cynical – ‘Fuck Me Pumps’ is a punchily sung and scathing dismissal of the dominant gold-digging paradigm. Her definitive, self-mythologising single ‘Rehab’, despite its refrain’s predictable propensity to generate tasteless jokes and mawkish headlines in the wake of her death, is a staggering song of self-awareness, wiped clean of messy emoting or self-pity and resolutely swerving any courting of sorrow or sympathy. Its protagonist does not bewail her fate in the clasp of addiction but makes her refusal to be pathologised an active and empowering choice – ‘no, no, no’ means no. Like much of Winehouse’s material, the song addresses and analyses addiction, dependency, depression and the complexities of female independence with a wry, arch, clear-eyed and mocking wit that could have leavened the weight of many a confessional memoir.
To evaluate Winehouse’s career as a story of potential unfulfilled, as many obituaries are doing, is to ignore the quality of second album Back to Black, with its clutch of BRITs, Grammys and Ivor Novellos, as well as the sheer depth of its influence. Winehouse’s international success began a scramble by record companies to scrounge up similar eclectic and experimental female artists. It is perhaps unfortunate that all this process actually got us was an indistinguishable female-centred quirk-quake comprised of Little Pixie Roux and the Machine for Lashes, as well as current favourites Adele and Duffy – both well-behaved, clean and immaculately blue-eyed biters of a vintage musical style which Winehouse had almost singlehandedly reinvigorated. For all their undoubted technical ability, such singers purvey blandly perfect reproductions of retro soul, whereas Winehouse was able to inhabit past musical modes like she wore her Ronettes-inspired beehive, investing them with something contemporary and compelling through that awesome, syrupy, rolling contralto. Her aesthetic – glamorously grubby, leonine and Cleopatra-eyed – was similarly inimitable and atypical. Even Lady Gaga credited Winehouse with smoothing the path to mainstream success for other ‘strange girls’.
The tributes to Amy Winehouse clotting the front pages this past weekend reflect the other aspect of her fame: the purpose she served as media cipher. The narrative into which she was coralled – discovered, lauded, rewarded, exploited, drug-ravaged and wrung dry by the cynics and sycophants around her – is a traditional trajectory for women in the public eye, from Marilyn to Britney. Mixed in with the clichés of the demon-driven artist, Winehouse’s dedication to the life of a good-time girl provided an obvious temptation for the press to shoehorn the shapeless and slippery business of living into a rigid mould of Meaning, to make her a signifier of the plagues afflicting modern womanhood – not all of modern womanhood, of course, just those of us susceptible to the lure of urban independence and its giddy, glittering thrills.
There is an obvious irony in the fact that the media’s very concentration on her as a reliably scandalous page-filler embedded her in public consciousness as not an artist but a cautionary tale of misjudged relationships and worse-judged substance indulgence, eliciting a weird and volatile mixture of compassion and contempt. There was, too, a ghoulish and lascivious edge to public concern over Winehouse – as there was, back in the day, over Courtney Love and, latterly, Britney Spears – which is seldom present in attitudes to their male counterparts. The same organs which engorged themselves with pictures of Winehouse in her various stages of decline, distress and debauchery are continuing to objectify and sensationalise her as, inevitably, a ‘brilliant but troubled’ combination of tragic loss and dreadful warning. She deserves a better class of memorialist.
Rhian Jones also blogs at Velvet Coalmine.