Amy Winehouse’s songs tell us all we need to know
When a young artist dies in circumstances that are tragic and seemingly preventable, it’s tempting to frame their life as a cautionary tale.
The singer Amy Winehouse died from alcohol poisoning 10 years ago this week. Her professional trajectory was not unfamiliar: burning talent; vertiginous success; a tumultuous personal life; addiction; media intrusion; and death at the age of 27. The notion of fame had never sat well with the singer; on being asked in 2003 how she would deal with it, she said, “I don’t think I could handle it… I’d probably go mad.” And so, in a way, it came to pass. Heavy drinking, drug use, disordered eating, arrests, fist fights, a failed marriage and a scattering of chaotic performances characterised her final years. All added to her fascination among a rubber-necking press and public.
Since her death, her story has been told and retold variously in documentary, book and exhibition form. This month brings yet more documentaries – in Reclaiming Amy, from the BBC, she is remembered by her family, while in MTV’s Amy Winehouse & Me: Dionne’s Story, the singer’s 25-year-old goddaughter reflects on her life.
There will be more Amy content to come, no doubt. As one gets further from a cherished artist’s life, the impulse to cling on harder, and to fathom what went wrong, is strong. But rather than trawl the archives of Winehouse footage, to gape at those eyelinered eyes, the shrinking body and her famously bloodied shoes, snapped by paparazzi after an alleged fight with her husband, Blake, all you have to do to really know her is listen. The songs tell us all we need to know.
A decade on, the prevalent narrative surrounding Winehouse is one of self-destruction and the tragedy of her ending – but she was too important an artist to let that be the whole story. It’s hard to think of a musician from the past 20 or so years that comes close to matching her. Is the word “genius” too strong? I don’t think so.
From the vantage point of 2021, one might imagine Winehouse as having been a musical outlier, her untouchability as an artist putting her on an elevated and rarefied plane. But it’s worth remembering that, in the late-2000s, she was absolutely everywhere, her impassioned voice blasting out of pubs, shops and passing cars. As admired by critics as fair-weather listeners, she was a Radio 2 staple, her heart-shattering songs blithely plonked in among the station’s daytime MOR fare.
She hailed not from the unvarnished, untrained world of grassroots music, but from Sylvia Young’s theatre school, which proudly counts Emma Bunton and Rita Ora among its alumni. After being chucked out of there, Winehouse went to Croydon’s Brit School which yielded, among others, Adele and Leona Lewis. In her teens she was signed up to 19 Management, owned by Simon Fuller, the man behind the Spice Girls and S Club 7.
But while Winehouse may have trodden a well-worn path towards mainstream success, in other ways she was entirely unique. For starters, she made no attempt to play the media game; in fact, she delighted in sabotaging it. When I interviewed her in 2004, after the release of her first album but before she went stratospheric with her second, she greeted me with her arms folded, and told me her time would be better spent at home waiting for the plumber to fix the washing machine. Slowly, though, she defrosted and decided to talk: about her grandma dating the tenor saxophonist and club owner Ronnie Scott; about the lyrical barbs she directed at her father, Mitch (in “What is it About Men” she cites his infidelity as the cause of her own; he subsequently said the song gave him “pause for thought”); and her fury with her record label which she felt had ruined her debut, Frank. She told me most contemporary pop music was rubbish, and was horrified at having been compared to Katie Melua who she deemed “shit”. As she said all this, sitting in a tapas restaurant down the road from her Camden flat, her publicist squirmed. Rarely have I met an artist so resolutely and thrillingly off-message.
Winehouse only released two albums in her lifetime – the perfectly decent Frank and, three years later, the transcendent Back to Black. Rightly festooned with awards, Back to Black was the work that sealed her reputation and her legacy. Fifteen years on, its impact is undimmed; repeated playing has not rendered it tired and unlistenable. Just 35 minutes long, it remains a gaping wound of an album with a deceptively upbeat sound. With the help of producer Mark Ronson, and backing band The Dap-Kings, the songs harnessed brass and Motown-style piano to create a loving update of 1960s soul. You could hear the album’s analogue stylings in a bar and feel instantly cheered by it; only on closer inspection would you find words of abject hopelessness and devastation.
Writing about sex, infidelity and the intensity of love, Winehouse combined coarse observation with sensitivity and emotional acuity. In just a few lines, she could provide an entire psychological analysis – “I’ll be some next man’s other woman soon, I cannot play myself again/ I should just be my own best friend, not f*** myself in the head with stupid men,” she wrote in “Tears Dry on Their Own”.
Her dependencies cropped up too, most famously in “Rehab” which, at the time, was read as a witty skewering of celebrities and their performative stays in The Priory, but took on a far bleaker resonance as the extent of her troubles became clear. When Back to Black came out, Winehouse had undergone a visual transformation too, with the addition of new tattoos, heavy-duty eyeliner flicks and, channelling The Ronettes’ Ronnie Spector, a cartoonish beehive that would appear in various states of dishevelment. If a hairstyle could be said to reflect a person’s inner life, Winehouse’s teetering barnet told a thousand tales.