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Amy Winehouse’s Intelligent Soul

Why did I spend the weekend making a face every time I read that Amy Winehouse’s death was “inevitable” or “only a matter of time”? We’ve spent years watching Winehouse dying in front of us, her body visibly falling apart. There’s not a ton to be gained by pretending that unchecked drug and alcohol addiction doesn’t point squarely toward an early death. I think it was the tone attached to those comments — the note of weary fatalism — that got to me. Fatalism was Winehouse’s stock and trade: the music she grew up on, the music she made, and the eventual shambles of her life. But it was simply too pat to keep putting the word “inevitable” in front of her death. It’s one thing to swallow that story in songs, and something else entirely in life.

Winehouse’s breakthrough album, Back to Black, was steeped in dusty soul and jazz sounds, but it was positively soaked in fatalism, of the full-on helpless, moth-to-a-flame variety. The hit single, “Rehab,” wasn’t just a wry, resigned joke about being an addict. Its explanation for all those “No, no no”s — “I’m gonna lose my baby, so I always keep a bottle near” — positions alcoholism as a prophylactic measure against inevitable pain. Even the song titles are full of it: “You Know I’m No Good,” “Love Is a Losing Game.” This is the language of done deals and foregone conclusions; there’s no chance of becoming good, or winning at love. Things simply are what they are. As worldviews go, this one is obviously addiction-friendly: It says there’s no point fighting sadness so you may as well leap heedlessly into self-obliteration, that anyone who tries to stop you is naive and wasting time.

This logic was evidently so strong that Winehouse became a fully public addict, involving all comers — fans, media, industry, tabloid readers — in the same sad spectacles and evasions most artists at least try to keep tucked away. The first and most affecting example I saw was a 2006 appearance on the BBC panel show Nevermind the Buzzcocks, during which the jokes about her alcoholism and crack-smoking veered grotesquely back and forth between glibness and earnestness, and Winehouse, already drunk, reacted to each of them in ways usually considered a little too “real” for broadcast. The show’s host, Simon Amstell, had once worked with her on another BBC program. “We used to be close,” he said. Winehouse leaned over and touched his face. “We were close. But she’s dead.” And then she laughed.

So what in the world was “entertaining” about this — and why was Back to Black beautiful? It’s not, as some cynics might have it, because we take sick pleasure in gawking at artists’ pain, or craning our necks at their destruction. (There are plenty of celebrities whose poor decision-making activates our sense of disdain and superiority, but Winehouse was not one of them; she radiated too much real sadness and heaviness, like someone who long ago ceased to even bother crying.) Nor was it because of the mythic junk romantics will try and sell you — all this talk about the tragic artist’s soul or the illustrious “club” of wrecked musicians who didn’t manage to live past 27. (The people who like to imagine musicians “jamming in heaven” are usually just interested in seeing them as posable action figures, instead of humans.)

The work was beautiful, I think, because Winehouse was extremely smart about how risk works when you’re making art. She understood that the steely, arm’s-length confidence of modern pop singers — the ones who command, demand, and let you know how little shit they take — can only get you so far. You can’t really exhibit grace or toughness without having something hanging over you; it’s like weightlifting without the weights. So the most “retro” thing about Back to Black turned out not to be its period styling or vintage detail, but that streak of woeful resignation borrowed from old jazz records. Even more anachronistic, Winehouse realized that you can’t write love songs about yourself. Her version of love seemed to be the reckless, hopeless, masochistic kind, the one that looks exactly like drug addiction. There are songs of hers where it sounds as if happiness, or its nearest approximation, has come to depend mostly on the presence of a given man and a stiff drink.

The great thing she understood, though, is that there are ways of telegraphing grace, poise, and wit through all of that — that you can fatalistically accept all varieties of badness and still communicate a level of life and clarity that amazes people. Life, in these songs, sounds like a bit of a mess, but the character singing them does not. Since Winehouse’s success, the U.K. has been full of young women singing backward-looking soul, but it’s her clear-eyed vision through weariness and anguish, not the actual sound, that Winehouse is handing down to them. This year, Adele’s second album outsold Winehouse’s by tacking that same mien onto a safer, more ordinary topic — a standard-issue breakup — helped along by some people’s unconscious, and incredibly condescending, assumption that it must be very sad and tragic for her not to be skinny.

So how relevant is it, exactly, that the things Winehouse understood about making a compelling album look like the exact same things she didn’t understand about living a life that’s sustainable beyond age 27? It’s a question that circles around two different ways of looking at music. At one end of the spectrum are those who see art as being about artifice — taking thoughts and emotions and manipulating them into meaningful patterns, imaginative schemes that needn’t have any literal connection to the way the artist actually lives. At its extreme, it’s an approach that can result in art that feels bloodless and noncommittal. At the opposite end are those who are desperate to see life and art as the same thing: music as memoir. For listeners, this leads to absurd, misguided obsessions with authenticity, while artists are forced to stake their lives on terrible ideas. Suddenly, if you want to sing an anguished jazz or soul song, you’ll now be judged on how convincingly you can lay claim to a more profoundly repressed anguish than women who were abused by men, raised in extreme poverty, faced with virulent racism, or suffered from untreated mental illnesses. Winehouse, the consummate student of old jazz and soul records, often seemed like someone so steeped in that particular way of looking at the world that she wound up re-creating some of its agonies.

Soul singing in particular has always short-circuited that distinction between music-as-artifice and music-as-memoir. The world has always focused on its depth of feeling and ignored how technical it can be, how stylized, how full of formal conventions, and learned skills. Soul music deploys great heaps of artifice; it doesn’t see technique and emotions as mutually exclusive. What’s worth remembering about Winehouse is not that she had some tortured inner light, or a tragic mien that made her a member of some insipid “27 Forever” club. It’s that she really could be wickedly good at using her brain and her expertise to create music that really worked. There were sad and dangerous things wrapped up in it — fatalism as a cop-out, the romance of failure and sorrow, masochism posing as bravery. But what you tend to take away is good humor, odd clarity, and flashes of actual bravery. At Winehouse’s best, she seemed more than good enough to convey those things without needing a life of tragedy to match.

Photo: Mark Holloway/Redferns