x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Amy Winehouse: her death became predictable

There was a time when it was by no means inevitable that Winehouse would become an emaciated, tattoo-laden, drug-addled stereotype of a rock'n'roll star.

It may seem strange now, but there was a time when Amy Winehouse was regarded as a jazz singer. Influenced in no small measure by the listening habits of her jazz-loving, taxi-driving father, her 2003 debut album Frank was an impressive - but by no means flawless - record, notable for its caustic lyrical content rather than its tunes. She had always been confrontational and uncompromising, but back then it was by no means inevitable that Winehouse would become an emaciated, tattoo-laden, drug-addled stereotype of a rock’n’roll star. Frank’s sleeve even had Winehouse warmly smiling.

But eight years later, her death last night had indeed become wholly predictable. Some will blame the attentions of a voracious tabloid press, but Winehouse was more than aware that much of her status was based on her notoriety. Second album Back To Black revealed as much: first single Rehab’s knowing chorus was, of course: “They tried to make me go to Rehab, I said no, no, no”.

And while the song was great, by the time Winehouse was playing huge stadium gigs in 2007 supporting Arctic Monkeys, it was clear people weren’t enticed away from the merchandise stands by the brilliance of the music. The possibility that Winehouse might do something outlandish to befit her new status as the wild-child of British pop was the real reason for the large crowd. In the end, she disappointed the rubberneckers by appearing to get through the gig unscathed, although it paid not to look to closely: her backing singers and dancers essentially carried her through it.

By then she was married to Blake Fielder-Civil, and barely a day went by without some tabloid paper reporting another of the couple’s drug addled escapades. Matters got so bad, in the end, she was forced to ignore the sentiment of Rehab and check herself in to The Priory to get help. This constant cycle of rehabilitation and addiction - and the stories of drunken performances and bizarre public appearances - meant that her music was lost amid the noise of her chaotic life. She became just another unhinged celebrity, and is already being filed alongside the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin as yet another tormented musician who passed away at just 27 years old.

But go back to Frank now, and it’s incredible how husky and richly soulful her teenage self sounded. There were nods to Nina Simone, Erykah Badu, Billie Holiday. And yet, even though Winehouse was managed by Simon “Pop Idol” Fuller and assisted in the song department by writers more used to working with pliable pop groups like Sugababes, her own lyrical content was fascinating. Stronger Than Me saw Winehouse seem to berate an older lover for being too nice. She took a liberal approach to infidelity on I Heard Love Is Blind - still weirdly shocking subject matter for a female artist. Final track What Is It About Men had the portentous line “my self-destructive side has grown a mile wide.”

Frank was more of a critical than a commercial success, and listening again reveals Winehouse’s willingness to lay bare her deepest emotions. This was a gamble at a time when pop was as shallow as ever. Playing the tortured artist wasn’t a game for her, but certainly the critics encouraged Winehouse that she was on to something by employing such lacerating lyrics.

And with her multi-Grammy Award-winning second (and last) album, Back To Black, Winehouse went a step further: she married her hyper-personal take on songwriting with infectiously tuneful pop. The shift in 2006 from smoky jazz to Mark Ronson-helmed soulful retro pop was inspired, a gleeful amalgam of Motown and 1960s girl groups, all given a modern twist. Winehouse was on top form as a vocalist, and the record felt both original and immediately timeless. She was No.1 in 18 countries - and her death will no doubt propel Back To Black to the top of the charts all over again.

Five years on, those two remarkable albums are all we’ll ever have from Winehouse. For some, that will be a relief: the singer was probably not in the healthiest of places to make a satisfying record able to stand alongside her previous work. She will, however, leave a confusing legacy. Certainly, Winehouse paved the way for a new wave of British female pop stars with a classic bent. Duffy, for example, quickly emerged, post Back To Black, with a similarly retro take on soulful pop. But where Winehouse felt untamed, Duffy is too studied, too establishment. Too keen to advertise Diet Coke.

Meanwhile, Adele might have already taken the Brit-soul crown in America this year, but it’s tempting to suggest she may not even have been signed without Winehouse’s previous success. Both have brassy Cockney accents hidden behind their rich vocals. Both sung unsparingly about their teenage relationships. Happily, however, Adele seems completely uninterested in the rock star circus.

Let’s hope it remains that way, because the frittering away of obvious talent is a depressingly frequent occurrence in pop music. Go back a generation, and there’s nothing heroic about Kurt Cobain’s death, just a sense of waste that whole albums of brilliant music will never be made. Winehouse might have liked the artistic element of Billie Holiday or Janis Joplin’s tragic stories of addiction, but romanticising their lives was the stuff of rock cliche. Even her own mother said, in an interview with The Guardian in 2008, that she was “watching her kill herself slowly. It's like watching a car crash – this person throwing these gifts away. I've already come to terms with her dead.” Three years later, and despite many attempts to save Amy Winehouse from herself, the car crash has finally happened. There is not much to celebrate where Winehouse is concerned, but we do still have the music. Let’s hope that’s what she is remembered for it in the years to come, rather than the poor, lost soul she became.

artslife@thenational.ae