26 March 2008

No R-E-S-P-E-C-T

The arc of my interest in Amy Winehouse was fairly straightforward, beginning with the elemental appeal of the songs on Back to Black, which a friend encouraged me to listen to; working its way through the news of her drug use and erratic behavior; using that news as a trigger to dismiss Ms. Winehouse’s broader musical relevance; and then an almost grudging acceptance that this album, those songs, and her voice are more than just the latest pop music phenomenon.

Or at least, I hope she’s not just a phenomenon. That same friend recently called Ms. Winehouse the “the Janis Joplin of our time” – and while the jury is still out on that statement, we should all hope for her sake that this was not intended to suggest an untimely, drug-induced death, a scenario still (sadly) imaginable.

Reading Sasha Frere-Jones’ recent piece (“Amy’s Circus”) in The New Yorker was another reminder to me of how pervasive is this grudging acceptance of Ms. Winehouse’s talent. Frere-Jones describes dropping Ms. Winehouse’s first album, Frank, into the trash after listening, to indicate (with what seems a dollop of unnecessary melodrama, if you ask me) distaste. I own Frank, too, and I would agree it lacks the intensity and energy that makes Back to Black so damn good – but I have hardly thrown away my CD.

The drug use and general craziness – the circus, to borrow Frere-Jones’ term – are perhaps not good indicators of musical longevity, especially if one judges Ms. Winehouse against the likes of Britney Spears or other pop music forces-of-nature who have managed to wind down their careers and music sales in a corrolary spiral of drugs, alcohol, and misbehavior. Except that comparing Ms. Winehouse to anyone else in that pop music crowd is unfair: where their songs (catchy beats notwithstanding) are mass-produced, lyrically light pablum ... Back to Black is a package of incisively smart, witty lyrics paired with an effective musical updating of older (but still very appealing) R&B and soul styles, and supported by a voice that is powerful, compelling, and capable of subtlety, too.

Ms. Winehouse’s future is her own to make – as is the degree to which she moves from phenomenon to permanent force in contemporary music.


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