Amy Winehouse was, in my humble opinion, one of the only popular artists of the decade who was really any good. Actually, she was really good. Really, really good. For me, the only British female solo artists who are better are PJ Harvey and Kate Bush, so she’s not exactly in bad company. She was a great singer, a great lyricist and someone with a unique(ish) musical vision that straddled four decades, with the salty, cutting, intelligent wordplay of a London poet and the voice and soul of a Motown songstress. She was a blazing beacon in bleak musical times that shone a light to the past and brought it into the present, or at least to the popular present. The fact that she hadn’t done anything of note in five years and has remained so in the public consciousness only goes to show the impact of that work.
I, like a lot of people, kept an eye on her in the media in the hope that she would get herself together. My heart actually leapt a little when I heard that she was getting clean on a sunny island somewhere, had a nice, new boyfriend and was on the comeback trail. I thought a new, equally talented but newly clean Winehouse would be a distinctly less abrasive and more collected presence in the future, but ultimately my hopes, and the hopes of many, were dashed. The “black” she sang about on the title track of her finest hour finally enveloped her completely and she sunk down into a bottomless abyss from which nothing, not even her voice, could escape. I won’t cry for her, that would be ridiculous seeing as I didn’t know the woman, but I will miss her continued work (or at least the promise of it).
Back To Black came out when I was 15, prior to that I thought that there was nothing outside of rock and indie that was of any value, but hearing ‘Rehab’ for the first time alerted me to wider worlds of sound. This is the best thing I can say about Amy Winehouse: she got me into Motown. Without her, I never would have seriously listened to and loved The Temptations, The Miracles, The Supremes, The Four Tops or any other of the greats from whom she took so much of her inspiration. Similarly, she, and that is to say her influence, turned me onto the old girl groups of the early 60s from whom she borrowed her style and her vocal stylings. Seriously, her voice reminds me, now that I know, of a modern Ronnie Spector. Comparisons with Janis Joplin are, in my opinion, unfounded outside of their hard drinking life styles and the fact that they were the same age when they died. She had more in common with the jazzy, smoky vocal stylings Billie Holiday and the aforementioned Spector, coupled with the lacerating lyrical honesty of, well, very few.
She was unique in modern popular music, or at least she was before she spurred countless imitators into their own retro-soul styled offerings, and that unique presence is definitely worth mourning. She made the often trite and uniformed world of modern popular music interesting for the brief moments when she was a major player in it, and now, for her being gone, it is all the more dull, listless and formulaic (aside from very few artists, most of whom owe a great deal to Winehouse). Yes, she was a shambling junky for most of her adult life, but dammit, that doesn’t detract from what is a rich but overly small musical legacy worthy of inclusion among the greats she goes to join in the “27 Club” (well, equal to Janis Joplin at least, I’m not going to claim she’s in the same league as Hendrix).
Her death, putting everything I’ve said aside, is a tragedy on both a personal and a musical level, because, and people seem to forget this, underneath the hair, the eyeliner, the tattoos, the tiny dresses, the drugs, the booze and the tabloid-constructed myth, she was a person, who clearly, if her lyrics are to be believed, felt her feelings very acutely and, if her multiple failed attempts at getting clean are to be believed, wanted to turn herself around. Whatever killed her, be it the drugs or something else, (at the time of writing it is unknown) it came shortly after the disaster of her comeback tour and the breakdown of her relationship with a man she loved enough to propose to. She may have claimed, as she often did, that she didn’t give a fuck, but I believe that she did, and that makes what she did to herself all the more bitterly disappointing.
To come to some sort of conclusion, she’s probably too complex of a person for anyone who didn’t know her ever to grasp on a personal level, although I’ve tried my best, so we should look at her body of work, which, like herself, is small but mighty. Her seminal second album was something of a Nevermind moment for our generation: it flung open the doors of modern soul for popular music. Prior to that there was the odd artist who had been doing it with little or no commercial success, but Back To Black, like Nevermind, took its genre and particular style into the big leagues. You need only look at the successes that have followed, i.e. Duffy, Adele and, although probably not quite as famous, Gabriella Cilmi. Her debut, Frank, is alright too, but when we look back on her in twenty years time, Back To Black is what will be remembered. The chorus of praise raining down on her from celebrities the world over is not just simple sycophancy for the dead, it is genuine and deserved appreciation of an artist who helped define a decade and died far, far too young. More than that, though, I loved her music and I rue her own stupid self-destruction, and the music that it has taken away from the world.
R.I.P Amy Winehouse