Why Amy Winehouse is not just a celebrity train wreck.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Feb. 12 2008 6:13 PM

Dark Star

Why Amy Winehouse is not just a celebrity train wreck.

Amy Winehouse. Click image to expand.
Amy Winehouse

When Amy Winehouse finally appeared on Sunday night's 50th Annual Grammy Awards show, performing for a live audience on a London soundstage tricked out to look like a swank midcentury nightclub, it was just before 11 p.m. Eastern Time—almost 4 in the morning Greenwich Mean Time. By that point, viewers had heard at least a half-dozen teasers for the performance. They had watched presenters Cindy Lauper and Nelly Furtado accept awards on the singer's behalf, adding that Winehouse would be onstage performing live "in just a few minutes." And, as the hours dragged on, they had endured a mounting series of musical indignities, including a necrophiliac "duet" between Alicia Keys and Frank Sinatra, and a Cirque du Soleil contortionist writhing at the end of a bungee chord to the strains of "A Day in the Life."

But Winehouse was worth the wait. A curtain slid open to reveal the singer shimmying in a black cocktail dress beneath her signature beehive hairdo, leading a nifty nine-piece band through a medley of the hits "You Know I'm No Good" and "Rehab." The irony of the song choices was lost on no one. Winehouse was furloughed from a London rehab center to make her Grammy appearance, and has spent the past many months up to no good in the glare of tabloid klieg lights—on a spree of drug and drink binges, arrests, and abortive detox stints that culminated with the November arrest of her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, and late last month with the release of a videotape allegedly showing the star smoking a crack pipe in her London home. Doubtless many viewers had tuned in to witness the latest chapter in the drama—another disastrous performance, or, if things went well, a tear-jerking moment of redemption.

Advertisement

What they saw was something more banal, and more uplifting: a professional. Winehouse sang with brassiness and style, dragging her phrases behind the beat, delivering playfully slurred melismas, and dropping deep into her lower register. She snarled and pouted for the TV camera, commanding the stage with a presence equal parts Betty Boop and Johnny Rotten. When "Rehab" won the award for Record of the Year—one of five Grammys Winehouse collected—she appeared slightly stunned, but recovered to deliver a sweet and, lo and behold, completely coherent acceptance speech, thanking "my mum and dad" and "my Blake," whom she also name-checked in her songs. She ended with a rallying cry—"Camden Town ain't gonna burn down!"—a shout-out to her North London stomping ground, which was ravaged by fire this past weekend. This burst of local pride was an especially good sign—a glimpse of the feisty London homegirl who emerged in 2003 with a rich mid-Atlantic musical mix, combining a connoisseur's passion for American soul and jazz with a strong sense of English particularism.

Winehouse's Grammy appearance offered hope that she may finally be putting her worst self-destructive habits behind her. But it was also a reminder that, to a great degree, self-destruction is her muse. Winehouse isn't just a celebrity train wreck; she's a romantic poet of the train wreck. Her 2006 CD Back to Black (which was upset for the Album of the Year Grammy by Herbie Hancock's Joni Mitchell tribute Letters), features several songs about substance abuse, from the refusenik anthem "Rehab" ("They tried to make me go to rehab/ I said, no, no, no") to "Addicted"—a pothead's rant—to "Back to Black," in which Winehouse croons, "You love blow and I love puff/ And life is like a pipe."The album's larger theme, though, is another addiction. Nearly all the songs on Back to Black revolve around doomed love, with Winehouse returning time and again to hopeless relationships, and then to hitting the hard stuff. In "Rehab," she sings: "The man said, 'Why do you think you're here?'/ I said, 'I got no idea'/ I'm gonna, I'm gonna lose my baby/ So I always keep a bottle near."

Hard-bitten lyrics like those link Winehouse to the blues, and her music holds other echoes, from '50s vocal jazz to the '60s girl-group pop that Mark Ronson subtly updated in his superb production. Winehouse is less a straightforward revivalist than a clever postmodernist, mashing up old sounds with the racy bluntness of hip-hop. But she is certainly sentimental about the past—look no further than the beehive—and it is striking how Winehouse's retro-fetishism grades into her romanticization of suffering and squalor. The most obvious influence on her drawling, raspy vocal style is Billie Holiday, pop's supreme emotional masochist, who, by the way, drank and doped herself to death. In "Rehab," Winehouse spurns the detox clinic, saying she'd rather stay home listening to her Ray Charles and Donnie Hathaway records. Is it any coincidence that Charles was a notorious junkie and Hathaway a depressive and a suicide?

Byronic heroism has been part of rock 'n' roll's mythology from the beginning, and the pathetic deaths-by-excess of dozens of great musicians have done nothing to diminish its glamour. (Quite the contrary.) Obviously, Amy Winehouse is a genuinely troubled soul; the songs on Back to Black chronicle her tumultuous relationship with Fielder-Civil, and "Rehab" is reportedly something close to reportage, a more or less autobiographical account of her record company's efforts to get her into alcohol-addiction treatment back in 2005. But one wonders if Winehouse would have turned into quite such a mess had it not proved so fruitful for her music.

It's worth remembering that when Amy Winehouse first appeared, she was a rather different character. The Winehouse we met on her debut album, Frank (2003), was a streetwise 21st-century neosouler with an air of insouciance that was echoed in the record production: a sleek blend of cocktail jazz and hip-hop beats. The songs were catchy and her singing had charm, but the results were emotionally distant and unsatisfying—a far cry from the depths of feeling and meaning Winehouse would plumb when she started listening to the Shangri-Las and remade herself as a manic-depressive goth-barfly with an unhealthy appetite for pot and lager and ne'er-do-well men. If indeed Sunday night's Grammy triumph is the start of true comeback, this talented singer-songwriter may find herself facing something of an existential career crisis, in need of new subject matter, some healthier ideas about musical authenticity, and maybe even a less flamboyant hair style. There are other, better things to romanticize than hard times and hard booze, other metaphors for life than a pipe.

Jody Rosen is a Slate contributor.