Troubled Soul: Amy Winehouse, 1983-2011
I saw Amy Winehouse play live only once, at the Highline Ballroom, on the lower west side of Manhattan, in 2008. Her second album, “Back to Black” was peaking in America, though to the headliner, this seemed irrelevant. It is not obvious how to describe her performance. Backed by a band largely from the Dap-Tone Records stable, she seemed impatient. She was no train wreck—nothing of the sort—but she stood still, and oddly so, occasionally sipping water and swaying little. Why wasn’t she happier? Her album was catching fire in America and her career was in the ascendant. Why was she not more excited?
Winehouse went through the album, dutifully, and for the purposes of this show, there was little from her first album. A shambling cabaret debut, “Frank” was a high-school yearbook photo, something better left to conversation than to the canon. “Back to Black” was no joke, though; with producer Mark Ronson, Winehouse had summoned the feel and sound of sixties soul, along with millions of biddable listeners. The album spread among the young but also to an older demographic that trusted that sound.
Winehouse made American soul a viable category, even though many American singers had already been working on that. Welcome to the World Series of Awkwardness: Winehouse had a genuinely interesting take on black American soul, yet she was a white British woman. So what to do? Thank her for the exceptional moment and be glad she sold a bunch of Aretha records?
Was it about Winehouse or the music? We never got to find out. if you are a masochist, you can troll YouTube for clips. She descended, into a variety of arrangements but never entirely recovered her free will. She can be seen recently, stumbling and barely getting through one of her hits, like an announcement for what was to come. And now she's gone.
Her heir is Adele, the phenomenally voiced, appealing alternative (if it’s blue-eyed soul we're talking about). There is no joy in this succession. Nobody can match Winehouse’s unique transitions or her utterly weird phrasings. She sounded like an original sixties soul star, developed when the landscape had no rules. But now untrammeled traditionalism is in the lead and her beautiful footnote has been cut short. American soul—through visionaries like Erykah Badu and Janelle Monae and Jill Scott—had moved on. But Winehouse was a fine shepherd of the past. What hurts most is how “Back to Black” hadn’t completed the idea. There were more songs, maybe many. Now? The jukebox is off and we're being ushered back home, with no address.
(Photograph by Harry Benson.)
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