Sunday, July 24, 2011

Back to Black: Amy Winehouse, 1983-2011

The Blogger has been haunted lately. The sound of Amy Winehouse’s tortured soul has been hanging around, wailing to be heard. The singer passed away on July 23, 2011, at the young age of 27. She leaves behind a musical legacy consisting of just two albums, both of them amongst the most highly accomplished works. In particular, her seminal sophomore album Back to Black remains, despite her personal troubles and disturbing public behaviour, one of the greatest music albums ever recorded.

Back to Black was a shot of musical nirvana upon its release in the fall/winter of 2006/07. The album combined blues, jazz, Motown and R&B into an inventive hybrid that crossed several genres and showcased a unique musical talent. The result was lightning in a bottle.

Critics and audiences enthusiastically agreed, as Back to Black topped the British album charts for several weeks and ultimately became one of the three biggest-selling albums of the decade. In the United States, the album peaked at Number Two and sold millions, also producing a number of hits including a Top Ten placing for “Rehab”. Amongst the numerous honours Winehouse earned for her work were prizes from the Brit Awards, the Ivor Novello Awards, MTV Europe Awards and a record-tying five Grammy Awards.

Lead-off single “Rehab” was not only Winehouse’s most autobiographical song, but it was also a defiant cri de couer that laid bare her most destructive tendencies. Her refusal to go to rehab, her eventual brief visits (bookended by visits to the pub) and the romantic troubles that likely fed and resulted from her alcoholism and drug abuse, in a vicious and cannibalistic cycle, were all captured in just three minutes. Her self-destructive habits were very bravely explored here but arranged so in such a sonically genius fashion that it not only made a thematically dark song wildly popular, but also a karaoke staple (which was usually sung, appropriately enough, after a few rounds of drinks).

The other songs on Back to Black grew out of Winehouse’s depression and personal struggles. “Love is a Losing Game” and “Tears Dry on Their Own” speak to romantic disappointment. “He Can Only Hold Her” tells of a destructive codependent romance. But perhaps the darkest, most honest and shattering moment of the album is the disc’s title track. It is a disquieting breakup song that hints at the self-harm Winehouse inflicted upon herself in her young and tragic life:

“We only said goodbye with words / I’ve died a hundred times / You go back to her, and I go back to black.”

It’s not enough for her to wallow in despair, it is customary, habitual and instinctive for her to long for, and submit herself to, oblivion.

As with the deaths of troubled but accomplished artists, it is not unusual for Winehouse’s work to be dissected in the rear view window of perspective. Given one’s knowledge of her sensational personal life, one cannot help but read the psychological, emotional and physical abuse into “You Know I’m No Good”. The difference however is that Winehouse was no one’s victim. Any harm brought to her, she implies, she brought unto and did to herself:

“I cheated myself, like I knew I would / I told you I was trouble / You know that I’m no good”

Perhaps what distinguishes Winehouse’s troubles from the meltdowns of Britney Spears was that they have always been more disturbing, immediate and horrifying. Spears might have shaved her head on an impulse and was seen crying in a restaurant, but Winehouse’s troubles stemmed from drug-induced fights with her equally hard-living husband, the blood emanating from self-inflicted cuts, the disheveled appearance and poor personal hygiene. It’s one thing to intentionally call attention to one’s self with outrageous but harmless acts, but it is entirely another to attract unwanted attention due to the after-effects of their own self-harm. When she cancelled her sold-out fall 2007 tour, the Blogger was outraged but also not in the least bit surprised.

Any doubters of Winehouse’s musical genius has been cemented by her unfortunate entry into what has now been termed the “27 club”, consisting of talented but troubled musicians who could not save them from their own selves. The most notorious and celebrated of this group are Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and now Winehouse. It was not a shock that she died so young, given her increasingly erratic public behaviour and series of unfocused, absolutely terrible concert performances that alienated her from fans and only put her on death watch. However, the fact that we have lost a musical genius due to her own self-destruction can only make us shake our heads and lament at the loss of a real artist. Does one wonder if Mozart’s fans felt the same way when he died at 36?

When contemporary art is confronted by the loss of young genius, brought down not by circumstance but by self-destructive behaviour, one cannot help but feel that the culture has been unjustly deprived. Amy Winehouse may have died a hundred times in song, but with her musical legacy giving rise to the likes of Adele, Duffy, Florence & the Welch and Winehouse’s own niece, Dionne Broom, we cannot help but feel blessed by her genius, however briefly.

I would not like to think that she died in vain. I would not like to think that she perished at her own hand. I would not like to think that her self-destructive habits did this to her. But sadly, they did. And that’s how a lot of critics would remember her.

I, for one, will continue to listen to her music, and not let her body of work be defaced by her controversial public image and unconscionable, ultimately fatal self-destructive tendencies. Her musical genius is what will withstand the public fallout. Amy Winehouse, for me, shall never fade to black.