Amy Winehouse is in the news once again. However, while most of the headlines she made in her lifetime were exploitative, this time Winehouse is earning posthumous kudos in connection with the eponymous documentary about her tumultuous life. The warts-and-all film pieces together archival footage of Winehouse, along with interviews with those closest to her, to create an essential music documentary about one of the best voices of all time. Because the film rightly positions her back in the public eye, it’s time to look back at the amazing icon that was Amy Winehouse.
Winehouse grew up in north London, listening to jazz records that her grandmother played her; it was this early influence that would shape Winehouse’s musical ambitions. Signed, bizarrely, to Simon Fuller’s label (he of Spice Girls and Pop Idol fame), Winehouse released her debut album, Frank, when she was 20 years old.
The album was critically acclaimed in her native England, helping her win an Ivor Novello award. However, the jazzy/bluesy collection of songs was not a huge commercial hit, with none of the singles making the top 40. In the US, the album debuted at a modest #61. All this suggested that Winehouse would have a nice career as a niche artist, but she would never be a household name.
Fast-forward a few years later and all of that changed, as Winehouse released her follow-up, Back to Black.
The album expertly molded Winehouse’s heart-on-sleeve lyrics with split-production duties between Salaam Remi (who added some hip-hop-infusion) and Mark Ronson (who added his ‘60s-inspired Midas touch). Combined with her new look — a beehive hairdo and Cleopatra eye makeup, all reminiscent of girl-group icon, Ronnie Spector — Winehouse was suddenly ready for the spotlight.
Of course, it was also around this time that many of her problems started: Winehouse infamously got back together with her toxic ex, Blake Fielder-Civil (the dark muse of many of Back to Black’s songs), and the two of them went on epic drug binges that painted them as an iTunes-era Sid and Nancy.
Winehouse’s experimentation with drugs, along with her rampant alcoholism, made her a tabloid sensation, and soon she was endlessly hounded by the paparazzi. Cameras everywhere, she quickly unraveled in the public eye before finally fleeing to St. Lucia for a well-earned break.
From then on, despite a few short (and ill-received) tours and a few one-off singles here and there, Winehouse remained largely out of the public eye until her untimely alcohol poisoning death on July 23rd, 2011. Her passing somehow felt inevitable, but it was still a crushing blow to music fans all over the world. We lost a legend that day.
Winehouse’s star burned brightly while she was with us, despite a relatively small body of work (she only released two studio albums in her lifetime; a live collection and rarities compilation followed after her death). However, she managed to pack a lifetime of accolades into her career, winning two Brit Awards, six Grammys (including a record-tying five in one night), and a World Music Award.
Furthermore, Back to Black became the best-selling album of the millennium in Britain until Adele’s 21 overtook it in 2012. And while she never had a #1 single, either in the US or in the UK, songs like “Rehab” became instantly recognizable classics that have managed to be both of their time (celebrity rehab being a hot topic in the mid-’00s) and endlessly timeless (the song would have been a hit in any decade of popular music).
Furthermore, Winehouse could sing; even those most turned off by her drug-fueled antics had to give her that much. Her background in jazz gave her a rich, wide range, and when she was on point, she was the best singer of her generation. It was this voice that paved the way for a raft of other artists, from Adele to Sam Smith to Lady Gaga (all of whom have praised Winehouse) to come through. She was truly one of a kind.
However, it was not Winehouse’s accolades or voice that made her an icon; it was because she was raw and real.
Music is so often cobbled together with outside songwriters and polished pop-production that we forget how different a song sounds when the singer is the one who has written — and lived through — the lyrics. For example, “Back to Black” with its agonizingly pained, heartbroken lyrics has a certain gravitas that most pop songs can’t carry. Winehouse lived through the moment of heartache she’s singing about, and her emotional delivery cannot be faked.
Comparatively, a song like “Lucky,” by Britney Spears, despite being a great pop song, can’t hold a candle to Winehouse in terms of authenticity.
We know Spears didn’t write “Lucky,” and while she might be able to relate to the lyrics, there’s an unbridgeable divide between the amount of emotional conviction she can bring to a song compared to what Winehouse could. There was a sense of reality to Winehouse, both in her music and persona, that felt 100% authentic.
Despite her immense talent, it was Winehouse’s extra-curricular activities that really cemented her legendary status. Once “Rehab” made her a star and she started drinking and drugging heavily, Winehouse became a tabloid fixture. She fell into a vicious cycle with the paparazzi that resulted in Amy Winehouse, the persona becoming more famous than Amy Winehouse, the musician.
Musicians always make claims that “it’s all about the music.” But we know this is a lie: We want to see our musicians be “rock stars,” to get away with things mere mortals can only dream of. It’s as true today as it always has been; we love bands with an edge (the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Guns ‘N Roses) because of the controversy they drummed up outside of their music. Whether getting caught with drugs, destroying hotel rooms, or inciting riots at their own concerts, these bands are gods because of that element of danger.
Comparatively, the legacy of “safer” bands from similar eras (the Supremes, the Steve Miller Band, Duran Duran) pales in significance to the “bad boys,” even if the “safe” bands had way more success in their heyday. It’s not enough for our musicians to just be pretty and make music; we long to worship them as well. To do that, we need them to be bad-ass motherfuckers. In 20 years, the Hilary Duffs and Selena Gomezs of our time will appear on VH1 “Where Are They Now?” specials, but Winehouse will be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Further cementing her status, Winehouse joined the “27 club,” an infamous group of artists who all died at the age of 27 (alumni include Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain). The honor, although dubious and completely fictionalized, nevertheless puts her in the same company as some all-time legends of music.
So if you haven’t seen the film, go out and do so. It won’t win over any new Amy Winehouse fans, but it tells an amazing and honest story of a troubled soul that we lost too soon. Her body wasn’t immortal, but Amy Winehouse is.
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