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.