Tears Dry On Their Own: RIP Amy Winehouse
In the ever accelerating cycle of fame, Amy Winehouse flashed from promising talent to celebrity morality play with a despairing speed. In just a few short years, she had become a tabloid-bait train wreck, catnip for tutt-tutting cultural commentators and those who pretend to be appalled by the very things to which they themselves are addicted (gossip and the suffering of others), even as they pass judgment on the havoc addiction wrecks in the lives of the people they disparage.
When word got out Saturday that Winehouse was dead at 27, it was hard not to leap to conclusions and assume this was the outcome of her tawdry recent history. Full details of her cause of death will emerge in the coming days (if not hours) and her final months and days will be picked over for evidence of cause and effect. There can be little doubt that her personal troubles undid the talent and opportunities that came her way. Whether that’s occasion to pity or sneer is a personal choice that perhaps says more about the observer than the subject herself.
Winehouse’s personal life had, in recent years, largely eclipsed her artistic achievements. When Back To Black came out in 2006, I was so energized by the idiosyncratic nature of Winehouse’s voice and the brooding swing of her songs, combined with the authentic R&B/soul stylings of producer Mark Ronson, that I pestered friends endlessly to buy the record. Now how long had it been since I’d bothered to go back and listen to that music? Ever since Winehouse’s name had become a punchline, I reckon.
In the context of Winehouse’s death, listening to the Back To Black track “He Can Only Hold Her” becomes a grim metaphor for the addiction she struggled with so publicly. “He can only hold her for so long/The lights are on, but no one’s home/She’s so vacant, her soul is taken.” Listening to the record again yesterday and today, it’s clear that the thrill of Winehouse’s vocal style was in how little control she sometimes seemed to have over it (another metaphor?). She was partial to the contemporary American Idol manner of embellishing with florid riffs and curlicues, but she lacked the plastic precision and hammy flash of, say, Celine Dion or Mariah Carey. Particularly onstage, she would sometimes veer daringly off the melodic line and careen into flatness or sharpness, only to redeem herself moments later with a beautiful, sustained vibrato and smokey decay. It was the quicksilver imperfection of her style, the wildness, the lack of control that made her singing so compelling. Winehouse did not possess polish, but at her best, she radiated authenticity.
The essence of Amy Winehouse’s talent is in this acoustic performance of The Zutons’ “Valerie.” You may find plenty more vocally accomplished performances, but few so un-selfconsiously in the moment and deeply felt.