Go, Go, Go and Get Back to Black
by Nate Garrelts
Prior to the 2008 Grammy Awards, I assumed Amy Winehouse was the British version of our Britney Spears—a performer (rather than an artist) with a substance abuse problem rising to stardom through the cult of personality, public controversy, and indecent exposure. This misperception was largely formed through association, as I had seen Winehouse on the cover of tabloids in the supermarket checkout with other vacuous celebrities, and tabloid television reports of her struggle to obtain a United States visa were often followed by news of Spears’s psychological state. It was not until I saw Winehouse’s live via satellite Grammy performance from Britain that I was aware of my mistake.
Amy Winehouse’s appearance on the Grammys was almost obligatory, as she was nominated for a total of six Grammy awards for her album Back to Black (2006) and her single “Rehab.” Yet, because she was unable to obtain a United States visa in time to attend the ceremony (because of drug related charges in another country) Winehouse was forced to give her performance from a nightclub in Britain--and what a performance she gave! Immediately, I was struck by the profound nature of her distinctive image; she wore a early sixties inspired above the knee black dress, a beehive hairdo, and thick black eye-liner. Beside her on stage was a group of tuxedo clad black men dancing in unison and singing back-up as if they were Gladys Knight’s famed Pips. And it all would have seemed quite nostalgic, except Winehouse, an English Jew with tattoos covering both of her shoulders, occasionally stroked her inner thighs as she sang about refusing to go to rehab. The entire scene was not only edgy but a tinge ironic because Winehouse was released from rehab just days before the performance.
I purchased her album Back to Black the next day. Upon listening to it, I understood why she won a Grammy award for Best New Artist, and four of the other awards for which she was nominated. Though Amy Winehouse is clearly an attractive sexual being, she does not rely on her sexuality or media persona to compensate for shortcomings in her music--unlike her American counterparts. Back to Black is a great album, with the song “Rehab” standing out at as the best of Winhouse’s offerings. In this song, which opens the album, Winehouse sings:
They tried to make me go to rehab but I said no no no,
Yes I’ve been black but when I come back you’ll no no no,
I ain’t got the time, and if my daddy thinks I’m fine,
Just try to make me go to rehab, I won’t go go go.
As the song continues, she opines that she lacks the desire to drink and knows that the answers to her problems are not at the bottom of a shot glass. Moreover, her problem is not something that can be solved by going to rehab; she is drinking because she is “gonna lose” her baby and the alcohol is helping her until her “tears have dried.” To go to rehab would thus be treating the symptom and not the root problem, which is heartache. It is this revelation that makes the song fit thematically with the rest of album, which is clearly about relationships.
Though Winehouse’s choice of words in the other songs is attention grabbing, the other offerings on the album are mostly slower and less defiant tone. When combined with the prominent subject of relationship woes, fans of the first song may not immediately take to other songs on the album. Male listeners especially may struggle to identify with some lyrics or subject matter written from a female perspective. For example, in “You Know I’m No Good” Winehouse sings about how in cheating on her boyfriend she cheats herself, and later in “Tears Dry on Their Own” she sings:
I shouldn’t play myself again
I should be my own best friend
Not fuck myself in the head with stupid men,
which is presumably part of the process of drying her tears.
Isolated lyrical incidents aside, the entire album is musically virtuous; Winehouse’s pouty vocals are heightened throughout by the deep moan of a baritone saxophone, claps, and other orchestral instruments reminiscent of the R&B sound of the sixties. In fact, each song on the album sounds musically as if it could have been a long lost song from the Supremes, while at the same time not identically copying any one song. Where these songs differ, is that instead of singing “Baby, baby, where did our love go?” in the title song “Back to Black” Winehouse sings the explicit truth about a man who “Kept his dick wet//With his same old safe bet” and then left. When married to such a dark subject, the instrumentation is incredibly fresh, if not genius, and Winehouse’s album presents listeners with a strange amalgam of the innocence of a past time and the reality of a world in which women can be every bit as vulgar as men.
In a media milieu in which pop-princesses like Lindsey Lohan and Britney Spears struggle to rectify the inconsistencies in their music, public image, and personal lives, Amy Winehouse demands no such explanation because she is authentic; her appearance and music complement one another to purposefully transmit a unified message about postmodern femininity. In essence, she has encapsulated the evolution of womanhood over the last fifty years by simultaneously re-presenting audiences with wholesome June Cleaver and gritty Courtney. Her beehive hairdo and retro clothes are not just fashion statements; they are homage to the pioneering female artists of the past that she so cleverly imitates in her own music. And the lyrics she sings are most likely the lyrics that she as a singer-song writer has lived. So, while the media may treat Winehouse like another troubled performer, this is not the case; Winehouse is a troubled artist—and this makes all the difference.
Nate Garrelts is Assistant Professor of English at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan.