Chasing Amy: Inside the Canonization of Amy Winehouse

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Posted August 9, 2015 by J Matthew Cobb in Features
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The late pop-soul singer, responsible for the soul music revival of the 21st century, finally gets sainted

It’s been five years since the unfortunate passing of Amy Winehouse, the UK soul singer who gave us all a groovy soulful excuse to not go to rehab via her most iconic hit (“Rehab”). Sadly, that option — if properly used — may have saved her from her own finality. As the fifth anniversary of her passing now looms over our heads, pundits and critics are scrambling to find new and effective ways to tell her story without digging so deep into the morbid culture of substance abuse that ate away at her iconic status. And it’s pretty hard not to. Her story, weighed down with hefty depression, addiction and scorn — was heavily documented in her song’s narratives. “One I wish I never played, oh what a mess we made And now the final frame,” she sings over the lovelorn of a failing relationship on “Love Is a Losing Game.” And in her voice lies more pain. You almost don’t realize it because Winehouse’s emotive delivery and the music backing it makes beauty out of the dismal chaos.

And that is why Winehouse along with her dark complexities and her brandy-coated vocal style deserves some seat next to the masters of the blues, such as Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn. Actually to best describe Winehouse’s music, she’s a cross of Holiday with Motown confection. Her apparent love for ’60’s soul made her a standout in pop music, pushing her to the very front of revisionist soul. At the time of the release of Winehouse’s 2003 debut album Frank, few acts were pulling off this type of old-school pop-soul. With producer Salaam Remi on board, most of the tracks bubbled with a throwback jazz quality while also aching with a fitting hip-hop template reminiscent of neo-soul and Lauryn Hill’s magnum opus. Winehouse followed up her album three years later with Back to Black, an album that is often referred as one of the finest albums of the 2010’s. With producer Mark Ronson now on deck along with a throwback production powered by Ray Charles soul and the soaring musical powers of the Dap-Tones’ brass section and a staff of over 60 musicians, Back to Black proved old school could be cool. The album, a multiple Grammy recipient, wound up becoming the seminal project that year, inspiring the soul revival now awakened by a plethora of UK acts like Adele and Duffy. Eventually this new British Invasion made landfall in the States. persuading R&B acts like Raphael Saadiq and Cee Lo Green to take similar plunges.

In chronological order based on release date, here are powerful examples of the soul revival, its mighty influence and sweeping takeover from 2008 and onward.

  • January 28: Adele — 19
  • March 3: Duffy — Rockferry
  • March 31: Estelle — Shine 
  • May 26: Al Green — Lay Me Down (with the Roots)
  • September 16: Raphael Saadiq — The Way I See It
  • September 30: Robin Thicke — Something Else
  • November 10: Seal – Soul

2009:

  • September 8: Mayer Hawthorne — A Strange Arrangement
  • November 10: Melanie Fiona — The Bridge

2010:

  • September 10: John Legend (with the Roots) — Wake Up
  • October 4: Bruno Mars — Doo-Wops & Hooligans
  • November 5: Cee Lo Green – The Lady Killer 
  • December 4: R Kelly – Love Letter

And then Adele’s 21 drops, changing the entire world of music forever. All of these projects owe a debt of gratitude to Winehouse’s accomplishments and her bravery to put classic soul back on the musical map. The pay off also proved to be more than enough for Ronson, who continued to multiply his credits and expounding on the vintage renaissance on his own albums and others. The Zutons’ cover of “Valerie,” heard on Ronson’s 2007 album Version, went platinum. 2010’s Record Collection opened the door for ’80’s New Wave while 2015’s Uptown Special highlighted Minneapolis funk and James Brown soul. His greatest musical achievement heard in the Gap Band/Prince sampler “Uptown Funk,” now the hottest single of 2015 so far, may sound light years from Winehouse’s original soul brigade, but it builds on its old-meets-new palette. When done right, it can be profitable and life-changing.

Although her career was much too brief, her story is still worthy of rock star sainthood. In the very short period in which she lived and recorded music, Winehouse broke previously-set records. At her peak thanks to Back to Black, she took home five Grammy Awards in 2008, tying with a previous record for most wins by a female artist on a single night. She became the first British female to win five Grammys, particularly in the top tier categories. She also died at the age of 27, automatically joining the now-infamous 27 Club which includes iconic celebrities as Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain. Although the complications of fame and drug abuse ravaged the edges of Winehouse’s crown in the public eye, particularly on the 2011 failed tour that exposed her inebriated, bony and drugged-up, none of those frailties could eat away from the majesty of her crowning works. And with only two albums to her name (excluding the posthumous Lioness: Hidden Treasures), Winehouse defied all odds, except the one that claimed her life. She was stripped down by her own death from alcohol poisoning.

Amy, a new documentary, focuses in on the relatively short saga of Winehouse. The fame, fortunes, scars and downfall. It’s pretty much all there. Even her out-of-control obsession with love: “I fell in love with someone who I would have died for, and that’s like a real drug,” she says in an interview clip heard in the documentary’s trailer. All of this, warts and all, are there. So much so that even Winehouse’s family is withdrawing their support and endorsement to the film.

Amy is also breaking records, much like the singer did when she was alive. The film, directed by Asif Kapadia, has become the biggest grossing British documentary of all time. Hamish Moseley, Head of Distribution at Altitude Film Distribution, said of the news that “Amy is an extraordinary film that we always felt had the potential to be an unusual success.”

 

[WATCH] TRAILER OF ‘AMY’ DOCUMENTARY (2015)

 

Ronson, who admits to having a tough time watching the doc, spoke reverently of it while praising the memory of his former co-worker. “The really respectful thing about the movie is you are reminded why she was famous in the first place – she was a genius, that’s the stuff even I can forget,” the producer said. “I forget that when I played her the piano chords to ‘Back To Black,’ she wrote the lyrics in an hour. I was blown away; people just don’t write lyrics like that any more. On ‘Rehab’ as well, she wrote those lyrics in two hours and they’re so honest. Whoever thought there’d be a pop record about preferring to listen to Donny Hathaway than going to rehab, in 2006? Hers were the most open, honest lyrics you’re ever going to hear on pop radio.”

As for her legacy, Ronson believes she will rise to the heights of rock gods. “It’s the same thing as Cobain, Lennon, Tupac and those rock’n’roll legends: [Winehouse’s legacy] will get bigger,” he told NME.

Had she lived, she may have gotten to that status quicker. You can hear it in the posthumous vault tracks of “Our Day Has Come” and “Will You Sill Love Tomorrow.” Sure they are 21st century covers, but they are clearly works of art in Winehouse’s hands.

 

[LISTEN] OUR DAY WILL COME – AMY WINEHOUSE

 

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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