By Sergio del Amo
The passing away of Amy Winehouse, in spite of the initial shock, surprised no-one. Her erratic lifestyle had everyone convinced that, sooner or later, they would be reading her obituary. Since 2005 she hadn't changed her ways one bit. Not even the release of a new album (which was rumoured to come out this year, although in spring the usual reports about delays started to go around, as Amy hadn't started recording seriously yet) would have made her simmer down. Tormented and incorrigible, she kept going her own way - playing Russian roulette - knowing that at some point, destiny would take her to an untimely arrival at the morgue.
The immediate reactions to her death indicate something undeniable: she has become a myth. Like with Michael Jackson, millions of people will always remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard of her demise - which paves Amy Winehouse's way to the pantheon of pop celebrities. The reasons? Her personality, her iconic and recognisable image, her status as an excessive tabloid celebrity, always ready with a new scandal. She was the personification of the broken doll - who couldn't deal with fame and sobriety - while she was wandering around in an unhealthy existential limbo. But the question is: does Amy, as an artist, deserve to be considered a great? Or, better yet, can she form part of history with only 22 songs, two albums and five years of unproductiveness?
The voice that marked a generation
There's no doubt that her enormous generational importance set a standard. When she came out with her debut album “Frank” (Universal, 2003), many felt there were other voices like hers. But time has shown that that was not the case. Rarely does the star system embrace a woman with such pure and powerful vocal chords, capable of spitting out misery with such devastating sincerity.
Thanks to her, carnal soul was rejuvenated after several decades of lethargy in the mainstream. She paved the way for a new generation of singers to storm the charts. Duffy, Joss Stone, Eli Paperboy Reed and Adele – by varying degrees - owe their present space to the one marked by Winehouse in the past few years.
In a similar way, the British singer set the trend on the runways. Karl Lagerfeld took her as his muse for his autumn 2008 collection for Chanel and she even made an exclusive series for Fred Perry. Her impossible bun (inherited from The Ronettes), the eyeliner and the dresses (that on more than one occasion revealed more than they should), made her a defying pin-up - an icon imitated on the streets and in the shop windows of the democratically low-cost stores. Many will have pierced their upper lip with her as their example. Her shadow, her influence, is still all over us.
Right in the middle of the golden age of product-artists (though she benefitted from the helping hands of Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson, in the studio her voice never needed tricks or traps like the auto-tune), her debut album showed a blossoming talent. But it wasn't until three years later, with “Back To Black” (Universal, 2006) that her popularity unexpectedly exploded.
“Frank” referred to Sinatra in its title and was her coming-out, taking both urban artists like Miss Dynamite and jazz legends like Billie Holliday as an example. Winehouse was 19 at the time and was leading an apparently normal life. The rage of a broken life wasn't yet running through her veins and she was telling funny stories about women looking to bed footballers ( “Fuck Me Pumps”) or about the absurdity of the then so in fashion metrosexuality ( “Stronger Than Me”). They tagged her the British Lauryn Hill and she was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize. But nobody could imagine what would come afterwards.
In 2005, her life changed radically. She met her future husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, who she was married to for two years, between 2007 and 2009. After a few months he left her for his ex-girlfriend. That's the main theme of “Back To Black” (Universal, 2006) - her metamorphosis from jazz singer to rebellious soul diva - angry and bitter over her loss, her abandonment by her lover. Whether lamenting her broken heart ( “Love Is A Losing Game”), talking about her jealousy ( “You Know I’m No Good”) or remembering how Blake threw her away like a cigarette butt ( “Back To Black”), Winehouse chose the most used theme of the genre to become the Aretha Franklin of modern times. She was helped by Mark Ronson, who has never produced better work than with her. “Rehab” gave her the final push to the top of the charts before receiving (via a video connection, as the US customs wouldn't allow her to come in) five Grammys. This didn't make her change her ways, either; the speculations regarding her expiration date began.
At this point, Universal will be forced to make the most of the first version of her third album, which she recorded on the Caribbean island of Santa Lucía trying to escape from her demons. Nothing is known about the tracks, except that they are strongly influenced by reggae. With the refusal of the label to release her now posthumous album (claiming it’s not commercially viable), what we'll be getting now is unreleased songs and B-sides.
A heart devoured by scandal
Amy Winehouse lived on the edge, using drugs in a desperate attempt to find a world without depression and insecurity. She did what she wanted when she wanted and she was aware of the small print of her destiny. The decline started back in 2005, when defeat and poisoned blood started to run through her veins; and her hair started to battle the laws of physics. Blake Fielder-Civil was the scapegoat, the bad guy who opened the doors to a vicious circle from which she only could not escape, until - sadly - last Saturday.
More than a myth, Amy Winehouse was a project for a myth. Her death isn't painful because of what she was, but because of what she could have been. She had a lot more to share through her music. Her thin legacy pales in comparison to that of other destructive personalities like Billie Holiday or Janis Joplin, who, despite their tragic endings, recorded hundreds of tracks. Joplin for example recorded her last song on the day before she passed. Those femme fatales made their music their exhaust valve - an antidote to their fears, a way to deal with them and to share them with the world. Consequently building careers that were in accordance with their mythification.
Amy, on the other hand, threw away five years of her life and talent. Going in and out of rehab never had any effect. Nobody, not even her record label, could stop the excesses. The constant cancelling of her concerts (the last one after the disastrous performance in Belgrade, last June) showed a total lack of professionalism. But when she did manage to stand up, her presence alone made people come and see en masse. It didn't matter that her live shows weren't on par with her talent.
The people wanted to see if the woman who walked the streets barefoot and in underwear in 2007 really existed. If she would have the nerve to smoke crack in the spotlight, after the London police identified her on a video that was going around on the internet. If she would punch a fan after being asked for an autograph, like she did in 2009. If she would appear bruised after one of the many rows with whoever was her boyfriend at the time, or if she would show the mice she showed on the webcam, stoned out of her head and in the company of her old buddy Pete Doherty. Morbid curiosity about the existence of someone like her beyond the tabloids has always played a big part.
With her disappearance, Amy Winehouse enters the circle of legendary artists who lived the bad life. Musicians who talked about their eternal carpe diem in their songs - and were equally fascinating because of their controversial personalities. She is now part of the so-called “27 Club” - with members including Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison - who all chose to take everything to its very limits, until their bodies (or themselves, like the Nirvana frontman) said “enough”.
Every genius is a mix of work and character; Amy had a lot of that latter. She had a small but very intense discography - full of magic and capable of marking a generational trend. She deserves to be called a myth, her existence has not been in vain. Her songs will be with us forever, as will her example, so that lessons can be learned. Amy’s legend, in spite of her controversial way to take on life, deserves to live on.
Without having had time to digest the demise of Amy Winehouse, as predictable as it is crushing, we take a look at her small body of work and her erratic way of life. She's seen as a universal pop myth, but does she deserve the status?