I’ve been listening to Amy Winehouse’s blue-eyed soul music (though hers are brown) recently, watching interviews and reading articles about her. I thought I’d post the best of those links. Of course, there’s quite a bit of twitter about her drug problems, but I wasn’t interested in that as much as the music.
She’s an extraordinary singer and songwriter. She’s such a Londoner but she’s also so deeply influenced by USAmerican jazz and soul. She’s extremely expressive in her singing. Expressive without emphasizing volume or power/strength of voice; the power and strength of her singing is mainly in expression, not so much in vocal athleticism. Though there can be a fine line between being expressive and simply being ornately mannered. Sometimes jazz can just have ‘too many notes’.
The profundity of the UK/USA musical bond is nowhere so evident as in Winehouse.
In prominent ways, her work is retro, but she is not simply a nostalgia act. She characterizes her music (I think she means her first album named Frank) as a combination of jazz and hip hop. Back in Black, her second album, is strongly 60′s soul and R&B and also has several ska tunes on it. Also, the producers she works with are artists in their own right. They’re not doing nostalgia. And Winehouse’s lyrics are far saucier than the jazz from the fifties and sixties; as Holly Combe points out in one of the linked articles, “she actually comes across as a tough-minded, libidinous woman wanting a tough-minded, libidinous man”.
The music is less interesting lyrically than it is in its sound and vocals, but the lyrics are astonishingly good for such a young writer. Or some of them are. When she’s playing in the gutter, she’s fine, she’s golden. But, as in Love is a Losing Game, when she tries for a bit of lyrical dignity and tragic grace, biff, she’s on her nose, she just doesn’t have it.
Her attitude, or perhaps her producers’ attitude toward recorded sound is more hip hop than jazz. I don’t know of any jazz that has been into the poetics of recorded sound. Instead, jazz emphasizes live performance, emphasizes live communication between the musicians. Rather than studio recording which can be layered and edited ad infinitum. Many of the best versions of her songs are studio versions. She works creatively with various fully creative producers. Though she can be great live, too, as you can see in Teach Me Tonight.
I’ve never really understood why one would want to privilege live performance so much over recorded sound. They’re different things. With books or films, we wouldn’t insist that the thing, at any stage, not be edited. We say ‘go to town on that thing, edit it to be the best it can be’. But with music, there’s still what seems like a misunderstanding of ‘liveness’ in art. ‘Liveliness’, in art, is the important thing, not ‘liveness’. What is ‘lively’ is what sounds the best, what inspires us most. Not simply what’s live versus what’s pre-recorded.
She’s most famous for her songs Rehab and Back to Black, but here are some of my favorites.
He Can Only Hold Her (Pnut Demo) : The whole ‘old feel’ of this recording is quite remarkable, and so is the song itself.
Valerie was written by The Zutons. This particular version is slower than the version produced with Mark Ronson.
Love is a Losing Game is delivered with relative vocal simplicity in this version, and the instrumentation and arrangement are perfect.
Teach Me Tonight was originally sung by Dinah Washington. Compare with Dinah Washington’s version. Dinah Washington is a legendary jazz singer, of course, but I prefer the sensuality of Amy Winehouse’s version.
I Heard Love is Blind has very humorous lyrics, as do many of her other songs. Often the humour is sexual, as in In My Bed, where the speaker tells her boyfriend “The only time I hold your hand/ Is to get the angle right”. That’s quite a line.
Me and Mr. Jones: “What kind of fuckery are we / Nowadays you don’t mean dick to me (dick to me) / I might let you make it up to me (make it up) / Who’s playing Saturday?” This is hilarious, and the music and singing are terrific.
Rehab is her most famous song. She wrote this after being urged to go to rehab. The song won record of the year and song of the year at the 2008 Grammy awards.
There are quite a few good video interviews with Amy Winehouse on youtube, but these four, which are in sequence, are the best ones I found:
- Interview compilation part 1
- Interview compilation part 2
- Interview compilation part 3
- Interview compilation part 4
- Disillusioned Diva With Glimmers of Soul, Jon Parelels, New York Times
- Amy Winehouse’s Rehab—a conversation with producer Mark Ronson, by Chris Harris, MTV
- Frank – Amy Winehouse (from a blog on UK feminism) by Holly Combe
- Wikipedia entry on Winehouse
- Amy Winehouse – her own woman, by Emily Hill, from The Guardian
As Holly Combe points out in her article, Winehouse productions are quite image conscious. And there are various references to products in various of her songs. And if you Google Amy Winehouse, you find that there’s considerable industry devoted to keeping her name in the celebrity buzz channels. And, of course, she is undoubtedly inundated with offers for business endorsements and her own brand. Amy jeans or bras or booze, etc.
She’s had a boob job already, she’s hooked on crack and any number of drugs…this is not the ‘tortured artist’ but the artist as emblematic consumer marketed ceaselessly to young adults for her ‘edgy’ consumer appetites.
Drugs seem to help the creative process, in the early stages of consumption, but eventually cause all sorts of awful problems. We hear Winehouse is having lung problems. Great for a singer, of course. Can she survive her early success?