Road to the Winehouse

We don’t do too many personal endorsements here at American Lament. I have a rather personal belief that there is a certain level of subjectivity that affronts all forms of media entertainment, and making such judgments often will elicit equal parts praise and condemnation, and my self-esteem just can’t handle that 50/50 split. But there’s one thing that I’m rather certain about, and that’s the fact that if listening to Amy Winehouse doesn’t cause you to wet your pants with any of the three eligible methods, you are clinically a jackass.

It’s not that Amy Winehouse is a household name in the states. And it’s a bit surprising that I’ve fallen madly and deeply in love with her, since her demographics and genre normally don’t fit into my tastes. As a general rule, anything written, recorded, or produced after approximately 1975 has to meet the increasingly demanding threshold of a J-curve of rockability. And unless a female artist 1) makes me cry, 2) is unafraid of massive displays of cleavage, or, preferably, 3) both, it’s highly doubtful I’m all that interested. And once instruments that require you blow into them to make the appropriate noise required in the song are introduced, there’d better be a color guard unit or a Mexican chain restaurant commercial handy, else I’m gonna be pissed.

And yet Amy Winehouse stands tall and firm atop the crushed skulls of those she has defeated for my heart. Winehouse would hardly fit into my CD collection, which a gay observer once described as “really gay.” I got my first exhilarating taste of Winehouse whilst riding in the car with one of my friends, when the intimately replayable “Rehab” came on. I was transfixed by the throaty vocals, the almost deceptively childish lyrics, and the aggressively forceful meter (or, perhaps, metre).

It was a rather odd thing for me to perk my ears up at. I mean, the songs I usually enjoy listening to involve the inability to receive satisfaction in a sufficient manner or how you cannot change those birds that have had that glorious opportunity to be free. And here it is, emitting through the airwaves, a rather blatant harkening to the days of Phil-Spector-produced manufactured oldies, before he started killing B-movie actresses and using microwaved crude oil as hair gel.

It wasn’t long until I learned a little bit more about her biography. As is the wont for pretty much every rock star ever in the entire course of all of history, she has had repeated issues with drugs and alcohol, often showing up at awards shows and bat mitzvahs for rich professionals either lit up or thumbing rides on passing kites. While she claims that she’s lost weight by hitting the gym more frequently as an alternative to smoking pot (if only!), many assume that repeated offhand comments by catty columnists about her weight tapped into some sort of long-suppressed anorexic and/or bulimic impulse. And she has occasionally reacted violently in embarrassingly public forums, such as heckling Bono and suckerpunching grateful fans. In one fell swoop, then, she has tapped into the angst of elderly African-American blues artists, young blonde starlets, and Madonna ex-husbands all at once.

The most important thing to remember is that Winehouse is attempting to infuse a little bit of originality into the modern music scene. Granted, she’s just kind of ripping off every single girl band from the years 1962-1965, but what form of music isn’t an unashamed plagiarism of style of a form of music that became popular when whites performed it about ten years after blacks perfected it? And the music today, it’s probably yet another boy band or sluttily dressed preteens belting out studio-corrected vaguely defined prevarications about “being together forever” or “living life to the fullest” and spelling words in their song titles like they’re sending a telegram that costs by the syllable. The jazz-inspired songs of Winehouse are a fusion of many of these things, but with the attitude of not wanting to sound like everybody else. While this hasn’t necessarily translated into commercial success, of course—and, let’s face it, it never does—it’s caught the critics’ eyes and has made her a remarkably prescient music entity in the Commonwealth.

Still, one can only hope that this errant strain of creativity will continue to produce ever-increasing results. Listening to one of Amy Winehouse’s full albums, alas, makes one wonder if her drum machine is rented by the bridge, and the smooth, tender vocals make you eventually believe that significantly more depressants might actually make her sound much brighter. One suspects that if things don’t become a bit more diverse by the third album, she’ll be relegated to coffee shop muzak and a coaching slot on American Idol 14. Still, rumor has it she’s one of the select few to be chosen to compose a James Bond title track, so she’ll always have that. At least in the context of a second-rate moderately successful artist with more exposure on British late-night tabloid shows than on the actual live radio or album sales, if you’re a Jewish British faux-little-l-lesbian jazz artist, you can make it big in this world.

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