The Riff
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The Riff

A Soul Music Snob’s Appreciation Of Amy Winehouse

Almost 10 years after her passing, Amy Winehouse’s music shows her to be an honored guest of the culture.

Like her cross-cultural ancestors ( Dusty Springfield, Laura Nyro, Teena Marie) Amy Winehouse was an R&B wonk, a diligent stylist whose cognitive appreciation for the genre endeared her to many a misanthropic soul fan. Unlike them, however, she danced on some dark cultural fault lines. Whereas Springfield, Nyro, and Marie made their trade intimating that solace from the blues could be had by immersing and intermixing musical ideas, Winehouse took her blues and drenched them on every fiber of her art. More than any R&B record of recent memory, Back to Black was consumed with loss, darkness, depression, and sorrow, so much so that, for all her virtuosity, one got tired of it by a fraction. When I first heard it in 2007, I thought, “ This is very good, but she’s got a case of the twenties, and she’s a financially backed star. She’ll quit dope, find a new man, and make a record better than this one by half. Life isn’t this terrible for her. She’s a tremendous talent, but It can't be this terrible.”

I have rarely been more wrong in my life. For in listening to Black again, I hear a subtext of “ I’m sick, I don’t want to be here anymore, and I mean business” hanging over nearly every word. Now, the backdrop of stardom sounds less like her suffering in style and more like the background for her tragically public mental breakdown. More than anything, however, Black showed that she understood deep blues and that sometimes the drive to transcended it( the cornerstone of black music)isn’t honest. Winehouse couldn’t be as resilient as Springfield or as authentically joyful as Nyro because she wasn’t Springfield or Nyro. She was herself: messy, complicated, dark, and not beholden to neat narratives cultural critics try to box in artists with.

Listening to Black again, I kept thinking of the dark cultural dynamics around the most beloved white members of the black music family. In Jazz, Bix Berdbicke and Bill Evans took a lot of shit for going against the pop tides of Paul Whiteman and Stan “ I make Wagner look like W.H Auden” Kenton. Yet even beloved artists like Hall and Oates, Bobby Caldwell, and Jon B never paid white women's price for having black people like them. People love Dusty in Memphis NOO, but it ended Springfield’s career as a bankable pop star. Gonna Take A Miracle, the album Nyro did with Labelle and in my top 40 list of greatest R&B albums of all time, was the last major album Nyro ever did; and the majority of reviews she got from white critics shamed her out of her skull. Marie found sanctuary as an artist solely focused on Black Radio and was considered invisible by mainstream playlists. Black is freighted with her understanding of the potential-career suicide dynamics of what she was doing, and while it didn’t end her career, the abuse she took from a media obsessed with calling her a madwoman was a vital part of her losing her life. For all her addictions, Winehouse had discovered one of the worst secrets of white supremacy: that the quickest way a white person can be labeled crazy is to do something that black people actually love.

In the end, however, Winehouse’s best songs show a will to transform her sorrow into something that mattered on a record. In this, she is tied to not just Springfield and Nyro, but Gaye, Holliday, Hyman, Charles, and the “Mr. Hathaway” she so coyly name-checked in the song “rehab.” For all her deep and public demons, she was a genuine artist of tremendous quality, and her sensitivity toward and understanding of soul music is still sorely, sorely missed.

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