Hers was a perfectly ordinary speaking voice. But when she started to sing, damn if she didn’t have — and on record, doesn’t still have — one of the most arresting voices heard in the last two decades of pop music. Plenty of her 2000s peers have distinctive singing voices (I’ve never mistaken Ke$ha for anyone else), but no other pop singer could sing like Winehouse, not even Adele, her fellow British purveyor of blue-eyed soul. Winehouse’s forgettable debut album Frank is far from a showcase of her vocal firepower, but it does underscore the amazing raw material she had to work with. The production on her first big hit, “Fuck Me Pumps”, is so plastic, timid, and lifeless that it rips like gift wrap when Winehouse’s lithe voice, still growing into its potential, cuts through it. She sounds at once raw and poised, a fresh voice that sounds instantly vintage. A few years later, on the regal and heartbreaking title track from Back To Black, her voice has matured into this great big booming thing. On the somber bridge, she drops to the bottom of her impressive alto range to repeat the word “black” over and over with an emotive force so tremendous, it feels like the band has stopped playing not on cue but because they were momentarily too shaken to continue. Winehouse’s singing possesses, among other attributes, that kind of power, the power to breathe life into lyrical clichés and imbue rote sentiments with so much vivacity and gravitas that it sometimes comes off like she’s inventing rather than rehashing some of pop’s hoariest tropes.
A good deal of Winehouse’s gift has to do with her timing and cultural consumption. She sang 1960s girl-group and 1970s soul like the true 2000s pop omnivore she was. She keeps her balance against the rocking stresses of beats and basslines that belies her familiarity with dub reggae. On stage she swaggered confrontationally but ironically, a way of engaging with her band and her audience that probably derives from British rock’n’roll from the Stones on down to the Libertines. Above all other non-R&B genres, she owes an especially large debt to hip-hop and rap. She imbues every note with a chatty, street-smart toughness and gleeful profanity learned from the late-‘90s golden age of popular hip-hop. This is crucial to the effect of Winehouse’s music in two ways. First, it makes her seem not “edgy,” but merely contemporary, so that the older pop forms that make up the body of her work don’t instantly seem dated. Second, it updates the well-worn poses she strikes — often those of women abandoned or wounded, hopelessly in love, sunk in despair, blazing with righteous anger — for contemporary ears. “You love blow and I love puff” is as good a reason as any to end a pop-song relationship, I suppose, but I find it unlikely that ay singer would have uttered it before at least 1995 if not later. In 2006, Winehouse could use foul language to express rage or lust, for example, the way we do in everyday life, where her forebears had to rely on oblique inference and nonverbal expression. The rising popularity of rap made pop music at large more verbose and its language more quotidian. Winehouse’s music demonstrates awareness of this shift. She simultaneously proves that the forms of soul music can withstand the passage of time and that they require some updating in order to do so. Winehouse’s sonic aesthetic, like her fashion choices (that beehive!), initially appeared decades old but turned out, instead, to be utterly postmodern. When Ghostface Killah appeared on a remix of her single “You Know I’m No Good”, it sounded not anachronistic but logical. Winehouse found a way to write and sing soul in a way that sounds current and innovative while maintaining a deep respect for the traditions she drew from (with the vital assistance of smart producers and talented backing musicians).
Winehouse saw a fair share of criticism for appropriating black musical traditions, some of it less callous than the Salon piece. However, looking back from a post-Miley Cyrus vantage point, it seems we didn’t know how good we had it. Winehouse wasn’t just singing soul; she knew what the fuck she was doing. Her diction, syntax, and cadence are the result of careful, devoted listening — again, to rap, dub, and ‘90s pop as much as to Phil Spector comps, the Shangri-Las, and four decades of soul and R&B — rather than a few in-studio rehearsals. She wrote all her material, so when she complains during “Me & Mr. Jones”, “What kind of fuckery is this? You made me miss the Slick Rick gig!”, you can be sure that’s not some hired songwriter trying to lend Winehouse some black street cred. Disdain positively pours out of the side of Winehouse mouth when she snarls that line; this guy made her miss a Slick Rick gig, and she’s pissed about it because, evidently, she loves Slick Rick. I believe it, just as I trust that she really did think of Sammy Davis, Jr. as her “best black Jew.” This is one of the many things that made Winehouse stand out from the pack even when imitators began to appear. Someone like the long-forgotten Duffy, for example, sounds on her sole hit “Mercy” like she’s been trained in how to sing soul. The crackling vinyl vintage of her intonation is a little put-on, a little mannered. When Winehouse sang soul, it sounded like her own voice, erupting from dark and turbulent depths. If it wasn’t original, it was still fresh, it was still funky, it was still distinctive. And it was uncompromising — just like her persona.
Although a dud on American shores, Frank made Winehouse famous in the U.K., famous enough to afford big-name producers (Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi) and the Dap-Kings on backup. Holy hell, do those decisions ever pay off. Few pop records since Back To Black have sounded so confident, so playful, so raw, and so sophisticated all at once. Ronson and Remi slick the studio takes up with modern technology just enough, so that they still capture that live-band feel while making it camera-ready for 2000s pop radio and MTV. Live instruments integrate with airlifted elements of the mix. On “Rehab”, the strings appear to have been recorded in a different space entirely than the backing band, but they weave tactfully in and out of the mix, enriching the sound and mood without drawing attention to the cut-and-paste composition. Earlier in the song, there’s a chilling moment when Winehouse shifts into the voice of a counselor who tries to take sexual advantage of her. Notice how the first four words of that line — “Kiss me, yeah baby” — are mic’d up over the horns to draw attention to the dark intonation and the carefully deployed mixture of sexual aggression and debonair flippancy Winehouse uses to denote this other voice. The music is bold, gutsy, and dramatic. It plays into and extends the persona Winehouse projects while also ceding the center spotlight entirely to her.
So, like Winehouse herself, the music on Back To Black can also be very funny, as found in the little brass curlicues that punctuate the dubby rhythms of “You Know I’m No Good”. Indeed, it’s wit that seems, to me, to really open up the record as a whole. As the jaw-dropping sass of “Rehab” immediately makes clear, it’s a highly self-conscious collection of songs. If it’s not quite tongue-in-cheek, it definitely lays the irony on thick. It’s this irony, which reflects the way Winehouse interacted with the media and the public, that makes her songwriting so contemporary and so exciting. There are many funny musical moments on Back To Black — my favorite is the way the backup singers harmonize the words “dick to me” on “Me & Mr. Jones” — but for each one of these, there are a dozen in Winehouse’s lyrics and delivery. She was never just sad, or lonely, or hysterical, she was always aware of how contrived her postures of resignation and abjection could read, of how cliché it was for an inebriated woman to chew out her man for coming home late. “Back To Black” is almost too deliberately dramatic to function, straining under the hyperbolic burden of all the funereal piano chords, the florid orchestration, and that nearly a cappella bridge — but that’s part of why it’s so sad. Winehouse makes sure to underline every moment when she could turn herself into a joke, and then steps back from the brink of self-parody to land on something else instead. In the process she renders her performance all the more convincing. The stories she’s best at telling are heartbreaking: tales of failed relationships, cruel lovers, self-destructive tendencies, chemical dependency, mourning, hopeless nostalgia, terrible depression. Winehouse never sugarcoats her subject matter, but she also never wallows. She’s not self-pitying, but she is honest. She’s always trying to communicate the intensity of the emotion at hand while looking for any way out of it. Back To Black is a dark album, but by the time “He Can Only Hold Her” fades out with triumphant horns and backing vocals, Winehouse has learned how to live with her pain without denying it. Winehouse was a grown-up when she wrote these songs, and they’re about being grown-up.
So yeah, that means she sings about getting high, and fucking, and fucking while high. But it also means she sings about what motivates her to do those things, and how they aren’t always as satisfying as she’d hoped. She sings about surviving despite great adversity, and knowing herself well, loving herself in spite of her flaws. What’s more, she does this in the context of songs that are fun as hell to listen to. She knows deep hurt, but it doesn’t stop her from cracking a joke, or from dropping a shrill “woohoo!” at the outset of “He Can Only Hold Her”. She she knows that humor and joy don’t have to cancel out pathos. Amy Winehouse might have been regarded as a terrible role model — as a drunkard, a crazy bitch, a trashy whore, a crack-smoking disaster. Yet the way she picks up the pieces of her life and strides majestically into the sunset during “Tears Dry On Their Own” taught teenage me as much as any other musician about how to endure real emotional strife with requisite dignity, grace, and self-respect. Winehouse was wise, and I still learn from her songs every time I listen to them. That song’s clincher — “I fucked myself in the head with a stupid man” — is as emblematic of Winehouse’s lyrical brilliance as any. It’s so many things at once: self-recriminating and self-affirming, crass and truthful, bruised and humorous.
Winehouse’s slyest sleight-of-hand is, of course, “Rehab”. This song is a world-conquering blockbuster so thoroughly saturated with self-deprecation, meta commentary, facetious wit, coy allusion, and blatant irony that it might well have also been bluntly autobiographical, but we’ll never be able to sort those parts out from the cunningly elusive whole. Winehouse knew exactly how and why she magnetized public attention, and instead of dodging that attention, she spins around and looks her audience dead in the eye. On the track, she dares us to have any kind of reaction at all, to take the song literally or to declare it all a joke. It’s an undecidable song, I think, one that so frequently and emphatically undercuts its intimacies with ironies and its ironies with intimacies that straightening out all the kinks in the story becomes impossible. In any case, it’s a great song no matter how it’s taken. It’s equally smart and engaging whether it’s read as a confession, as a piss-off prank, or an entirely fictitious narrative, and Winehouse is equally convincing as ironist or short story writer as she is autobiographer. Should we take “Rehab” seriously? Did Winehouse take it, or us, seriously? We’ll never know. She sang with tempestuous force but she never disclosed that key piece of information in a way we could understand.
All of this confusion boxes the listener into a corner, so that eventually the initial questions become irrelevant because they’re unanswerable. They exist outside of “Rehab”. Listening to the song becomes a process of crossing into it, of letting the fuss about sincerity become secondary to the experience of the song itself. Interpretative difficulties remain, but because they can’t be settled, they also fade when placed next to the material they’re meant to explain. I’d propose that by making it impossible to comfortably situate “Rehab” in relation to Winehouse herself, Winehouse attempts (and at least partially succeeds) to force us to take the song on its own, internal terms. And it works on those terms, again and again. It was a stroke of genius, one whose influence is visible, for instance, in Taylor Swift’s recent, winking smash “Blank Space”, which aims for the same moving target as “Rehab” and only partially hits. With “Rehab”, Winehouse convinced the world to hear one of her songs for what it was and not what we read it as.
She also made it as clear as could be that she knew exactly what we might think of her, and that she had ways to turn this judgment to her own artistic advantage. She could pen a track that ticked every box on the “confessional pop song” checklist and still didn’t confess a thing, one that copped to every rumor spread about her while keeping her hand close to her chest. All the nasty stories, the viral video shares, the photos in Spin of her carving her fiancé’s name into her abdomen with a shard of broken glass…the self-congratulating narrative our culture tells about Winehouse is a poisonous one. We pretend to possess some sort authoritative knowledge of the woman herself, but this is knowledge that, I think it’s pretty clear, the culture itself generated. “I didn’t know her know her,” admits Broad City’s Lincoln, “but I still miss her.” Again, he speaks for us all. We know what Winehouse’s blood toxicity was at the moment her heart stopped beating, but we have only to listen to “Rehab” — the song that made her a star and which demonstrates all of her gifts as a writer and performer — to be humbled, and reminded that we didn’t know Amy Winehouse. Not half as well, anyway, as she knew herself.