Who couldn’t be drawn to the soulful singer, with her honesty, devil-may-care attitude and the sad craziness of her addictions?
It takes focus right now to actually hear Amy Winehouse’s voice amid all the chatter, to appreciate the breath and hum that created “Back to Black,” her devastating second, and final, album. After all, the lurid, sad craziness of her addiction, to which she apparently succumbed over the weekend at her home in London, was her story line — as was failure — and her honesty and openness in tackling the subjects, coupled with her charisma and vocal swagger, was her allure.
Had she sung about her family trying to make her go to a barbecue instead of rehab or had she titled her breakout album “Back to Pink,” well, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. Her story was her trouble.
But her death Saturday at age 27 resonates because of that ragged, beautiful voice and that singular record, “Back to Black.” It resonates because in 2006, the notion that a singer could somehow resurrect and re-imagine soul music in a way that rang true for a new generation seemed not only improbable but also ill advised, let alone that these songs be delivered by a lady Brit with a crooked beehive and Cleopatra eyeliner. But then you hear “Love Is a Losing Game,” the wrenching, perfect antiballad from “Back to Black,” or you get lost inside the swirl of sound and rhythm in “Rehab,” or gaze into the abyss that is the title track, the singer who “died a hundred times” when she lost her lover to another, the voice that can’t stop uttering, “black, black, black,” and you begin to understand.
Winehouse’s style drew on classic ‘60s soul and rhythm and blues idioms as originally released by Atlantic, Stax and Motown, and she and “Back to Black” producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi updated the sound with an urgent modern backbeat. A return to classic forms had been bubbling in the British and American underground but was ignored by the mainstream, and Winehouse, with her mound of black hair and tattooed arms, manifested it with a devil-may-care attitude.
In an era of manufactured image as perfected by Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, Winehouse resonated particularly because she lived so transparently, from the lyrics she chose to write to the way she casually but confidently phrased them, not to mention the way she conducted herself with her fans and the press. Hers was a blue-collar voice, one that channeled the critic inside all of us that presumes failure, that tells us we’re less than we are, that knows bad stuff is going to happen and we’re foolish to try to stop it.