Perception often supersedes reality. It has been almost two weeks since the passing of Amy Winehouse and history is prepared to view her through the lens of a paparazzi’s intrusive flash photography. We will never be able to fully understand the struggles of the twenty-seven year old singer/songwriter, but to say that they defined who she was is a fallacy of monumental proportions. The reality of it all is that, despite her issues, Winehouse was one of the most talented artists of our generation. As we attempt to discuss the legacy of Amy Winehouse, it is imperative that we, first and foremost, focus on the music, because in that regard, she simply has no equal.
Defining her style may be an exercise in futility. Winehouse was able to comfortably move along various genres to create this amalgamation of sound, not yet fully understood. She was a throwback to a different era whilst maintaining something dynamically fresh. Winehouse created a style so unique that it often stood outside of itself, sans characterization. While she may have seen her career blow up off of the charming, yet problematic hit record, “Rehab,” Winehouse had proven her genius much earlier with debut album, Frank in 2003. It was on this release that Winehouse presented a proclivity for the daringly dramatic and a provocative wit, only enhanced by her intriguing vocal capabilities. Despite the controversial public image of Winehouse, Frank, presented, perhaps, the greatest window into her soul.
More than anything, Frank was the delineation of Amy Winehouse, the person. It’s our primary source for understanding who she truly was. It is demanded that we accept her voice as authoritative, even as we cling to our indoctrinated understanding of societal standards. She is the feminine archetype that was never meant to exist. The Amy of Frank is strong and assertive. Above all, it is in control.
Even in a state of vulnerability, there is something rebellious in the voice of Winehouse. It’s almost unfathomable to believe that someone can confidently sing “You sent me flying, when you kicked me to the curb.” And yet, that’s exactly what she does. This, I believe, is the Winehouse, history will most likely forget, or perhaps disregard—a woman unchained.
Perhaps, we can credit some of her commanding persona to what is readily identifiable as an “old soul.” With an unwavering conviction, Winehouse plays the part of jazz balladeer with ease, effortlessly gliding atop the timeless Isham Jones composition “(There Is) No Greater Love.” Despite the longstanding tradition of the song, this may be Winehouse’s greatest moment of musical reclamation. It immediately becomes her song. Using that enigmatically husky contralto range, her voice betrays the helplessness inherent in the song, itself. She is composed, even in her darkest hour.
But, nothing speaks to her strength quite like the unabashedly terse, “In My Bed.” Equipped with a blaring horn section and lines like “The only time I hold your hand is to get the angle right,” Winehouse engages the one-sidedness of a physical relationship. In this narrative, there are two roles—the apathetic, expanding the emotional gap and the forlorn, pressing for something more. Amy Winehouse is Nola Darling, only in want of the carnal pleasures of the flesh, void of commitment. But, this is not her part to play. We expect and almost need her to be the woman tragically losing in love because this right here is a position generally asserted, or more, perhaps, inherently bestowed upon men. However, no one told that to Amy. Using a Salaam Remi-produced reimagining of Nasir’s “Made You Look,” it was here that Amy let us know that she was hip-hop – bold, brazen, and incredibly free.
Possessing a penchant for vocal virtuosity and emotionally-charged songwriting, Amy Winehouse was autobiographical through sound. With an indelible shamelessness, Winehouse presented an assertiveness far beyond the credit she is given. It was this ferocity that should put her problems into a greater perspective. The greatest misconception about anyone battling an addiction is that they made a choice. To say someone “decided” to be an addict is an inherent contradiction. No one decides to lose control, even someone as strong as her. It just doesn’t work that way. The popular image of Amy Winehouse has a convincing argument, but the reality is much more complex than what we can see. As we look back on the career of one of music’s finest, I would suggest that we, first and foremost, listen to what she had to say and how she said it.
Written by: Paul Pennington