Friday, August 12, 2011

800 Words: Please Stop Romanticizing Amy Winehouse

Let’s just imagine that it was Britney Spears who died three weeks ago instead of Amy Winehouse. Yes, the outpouring would still be there. But there would have been a qualifier in every tribute: Yes, she was talented. Yes, she was a fine performer. But she was a manufactured product; already far less a human than a performing android by the time she became a worldwide phenomenon. It was the music industry which both gave her success and killed her. We shouldn’t mourn the passing of a great talent, we should mourn a culture with so little curiosity that we need advertising to tell us what music to like. And we should mourn all the musicians whose originality was stifled in an effort to maximize the record industry’s bottom line profits.

For our generation, Amy Winehouse was nothing more (or less) than Britney Spears’s shadow self. They are the same pre-packaged triumphs of marketing over individuality. It just so happened that whereas Britney Spears was marketed as an angel, Amy Winehouse was marketed as a devil. Yes, Winehouse had a hand in writing many of her own songs: so did MJ, and Madonna, and I don’t doubt even Britney Spears at least contributed a line or two to hers. But because she was packaged as a rebel figure, she detracted from the appreciation of real rebels. And most every record she sold detracted from the appreciation of female artists of real individuality like Fiona Apple and Joanna Newsom and Regina Spektor. If you don’t think for yourself, advertising can convince you of anything - including the appearance of individuality.

Assuming that anybody would even care enough about one stick-in-the-mud’s opinion, I can almost hear the howls of outrage. ‘But we can appreciate all these artists!’ And of course you can. But most of you don’t. The sales figures speak for themselves. Even an artist like of enormous success and arguable genius like Imogen Heap will be lucky if an album of hers sells 100,000 copies. As of July 16th, Back to Black sold 2.3 million copies. Since then, Winehouse’s death catapulted Back to Black to record i-Tunes sales. No amount of discerning good taste can compete with the success which the dictatorship of advertising can provide.

Now after all this complaining, I suppose you all deserve to know why I found Amy Winehouse’s music so awful. The answer is simple: I love Soul Music. Like all true music lovers, I love Otis Redding, I love Aretha Franklin, I love Ray Charles, I love James Brown, I love Sam Cooke, I love Jackie Wilson, I love Marvin Gaye, I love Smokey Robinson, I love Al Green, I love Gladys Knight, I love Fats Domino, I love Curtis Mayfield, I even love the Jackson 5 (ok....maybe not the Jackson 5). Together, these musicians (and so many others) created a canon of perhaps the most moving, cathartic music to ever come out of the United States. They will forever be our monument to the optimism, the despair, the heartache and the hope of the Civil Rights era. They created a music as noble as anything by Beethoven and as pleasure-giving as anything by Mozart.

Now I’m all for progress and evolution. If people want to appropriate the sounds of Soul Music, there’s no limit to what they should be able to do with it, and many artists from Lauryn Hill to
Erykah Badu to Missy Elliot do and should do exactly that (so long as their names are spelled with a “y”). The results might be variable, but they are all artists pursuing a personal vision in good faith.

But in the case of Amy Winehouse, these are the sounds of soul used to explain nothing more expressive than what it’s like to be a bad girl with too much money and too easy access to alcohol. We’ve heard dozens of artists sing about these things before Winehouse, and they did it better and without the help of a mass advertising campaign. What is there for plebes like us to relate to in her music except for perhaps a cheap fantasy of being able to be more vapid than our lives allow us to be? And that’s exactly why many people love this music.

The bad intentions of this music does not come from Amy Winehouse, who was probably sincere in every note she sung. It comes directly from her listeners. For all the sanctimony about Amy Winehouse living such a tragic life, people wanted her to die. Just as they did Britney Spears before her. South Park, as always, showed us exactly how it worked. We raise musicians and actors into stars and we shower them with money and adulation. And when the pressure and lack of privacy turns out to be too much, we relish every detail of their humiliating downswing. It’s a part of human nature that may be a vestige of the urge for human sacrifice, in which a girl is showered with gifts before being offered up to the Gods. Usually the girl would be a young virgin, though occasionally the girl would be forced through circumstances to ensure that she was anything but. This is the urge which Freud called the Madonna/Whore complex. In its way, the Star System is a way for human beings to enact the same human urge to cover blood lust with good intentions. Perhaps it’s inescapable, but we shouldn’t call it anything but what it is. In the late 90's Britney Spears was our Madonna. In the late 00's, Amy Winehouse was our...(I'm scared to finish this sentence.)

I’m perfectly willing to admit that admirable skill went into many of the songs - I’m particularly impressed with Tears Dry On Their Own, in spite of the shameless stealing harmonies and sound from Marvin Gaye’s Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. But skill alone doesn’t make a great musical experience. It takes the ability to make people feel something that relates to their own lives and experiences. Real artistic experiences don’t happen because you escape from yourself, they happen because you’re put into yourself. That’s what catharsis is. You see a great tragedy and say “There but the grace of God go I.” You see a comedy (in the older sense) and say “This gives me hope.” Just as it is in theater, this is how music can humanize us. But music like Amy Winehouse’s seems to only provoke the dehumanizing urges in people.


  1. Pat told me I should burn the tapes, and I said, no, no, no...

  2. So in other words you have to be black to sing soul music? In such case, you better not be a fan of Matisyahu, because what the hell does some orthodox Jew know about reggae? I just think you're actually the one overly concerned about image here, if you focus on just what she produced Winehouse in my opinion is amazing, but hey that's just my opinion.

  3. No Michael, you don't have to be black to sing Soul Music. You don't even have to be American (listen to the British white girl Adele, whose songs have a lot more themes, and deeper themes, than Amy Winehouse). All that you should ask is that your audience members just have to listen to your music to be reminded of the soul they have, rather than being trying to convince themselves of their lack of soul.

    I'm not a huge fan of Matisyahu, and I knew his music when he was just a little fad among Americans living in Israel. Then again, I'm not such a fan of Erykah Badu either. Music is race-blind, and I'd have thought you'd know better than to play such a cheap card.

  4. I guess I just don't get where Winehouse convinces the audience they lack a soul, and I'm not calling you racist I just think it's a cheap attack on Winehouse. All the examples of people who you like who sing Soul fit the sterotype better for what a soul singer is, because of where they were from, when the music came out, and yes because of their racial background. It just seems like you were calling out Winehouse because she didn't have that background. Not sure if there was anything she could do about that as a skinny white women from England.

    Also you sight other artists performing in 'good fate.' What does that mean? Are you saying as long as you have a drug addiction, ie Hendrix, Cobain etc etc, you aren't performing in 'good fate?' That doesn't make a lot of sense, all of these folks were good performers, I don't need a singer to or my favorite artists to be in the Vienna Boys Choir.

    Guess I just didn't get from your article what you hated so much about Winehouse other than that she didn't come from the usual 'soul singer' background and also had an addiction problem. But I'm a fan, so maybe I'm being an asshole right now, take it for how you will. Interesting article anyways, although again calling her an 'android performer,' what does this even mean? Where is your evidence, hate her or love her, if you watched her performances they were anything but 'robotic.'

  5. You're not being an asshole Mike, just belligerent. But I suppose I asked for it when I went after someone as hard as I did at Amy Winehouse here. So no harm done.

    You seem to be misunderstanding what I'm saying. Though I'm sure that even if you weren't you'd still object to it. My problem is that in both cases of Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse, you don't know where the talent begins and the production stops. Both of them are heavily manufactured products that are, in their different ways, airbrushed by their handlers. Amy Winehouse might have had it in her to do lots of songs about being deeply in love and watching loved ones die and seeing injustice and being with family. But if she did, we'll never know now. And even if she did, I think most of her fans would have stopped listening to her. Her fans demanded shallower fare than that, and so did her record label. Perhaps you're different from most of her fans. But it was ultimately that demand for a superficial badass image that created the music you heard.

    As for what I think you mean as 'good faith.' I didn't mean drugs at all. I meant business. What I was trying to say was that the great soul singers of the past were artists who were - for the most part - not overly handled. Sure, they had producers and publicists. But their best work was done when they took risks and expressed something deeper. Amy Winehouse got all the success in the world, but the price for this was that we will never know how 'deep' her music could go.

    Soul music is a very loose term. Many of the artists I listed above were not technically singing 'soul music.' But what all of them had in common was that they touched on deeper issues and a deeper sort of expression. Please feel free to disagree, but I think Amy Winehouse's music cheapened their achievement. It took the sentiments of the civil rights era, even the music that was about nothing deeper than "gettin' it on" and managed to find ways to make it still more trivial. And there was an audience for that kind of triviality that ate it up. Because most people don't want to have to think about or feel anything deeply.

    As for the race issue, the fact remains that in today's music world, most white musicians are much more influenced by rock than by soul, and I think that is a true shame. I eagerly look forward to the day when some white American, British, Chinese, Russian or Senegalese person takes the sound of Otis Redding or Ray Charles and breathes new life into it. I don't think that day is far off, and I'll be the first person to shout their glory from the rooftops when it happens.